This column will be published the day our year-end numbers are made public. Word on the street (and the Street) is that we should beat expectations. If true, that would be a very good thing. This isn’t inside information; it’s been opined and published in several national media outlets, and in any event, I am not on the side of the house that has access to that information. I get the comuniques at the same time as everyone else. Luckily, I’ve been here in times of growth. That said, I have colleagues across town experiencing a very different situation.
The downfall of Eastman Kodak can be attributed to many things, and the failure to exploit its own invention of digital photography is chief among them. However, this isn’t a piece pointing the finger of vision opacity just at Kodak. The statement above this column is attributed to Steve Jobs after he viewed a mock-up graphic user interface (“GUI”) invented in Rochester, New York. The company that invented the prototype failed to capitalize on the invention, and the story goes that Jobs stole/borrowed/utilized the idea. We all know where that led. That same company also invented the computer mouse, and again didn’t capitalize on the invention. Stories like these are legend in the field of technological advancement.
What is it that causes companies, which are often on the cutting edge of technology, to miss opportunities that, in hindsight, seem so obvious?
There isn’t room in this column to debate the intricacies of R&D philosophy and why or how some companies succeed or fail because of decisions to push forward one technology over another. But the topic raises a question for in-house attorneys, who (if not patent lawyers) are generally far removed from the research and development side of the house: how does one trust a company to exploit what it may not know it has? And if you’re considering joining a firm that has historically met success in one area and seemingly blown it in others, what would push you to take the leap of faith that the company will continue down the path of success? This should be part of the analysis that goes in to joining a company –- if you’re fortunate enough to be looking for work without the drumbeat of desperation.
For me, the choice was swayed by the longevity not only of the company, but also of the people. Attorneys actually retire from here. They stay long enough that this becomes their home. And this company is not only the leading player in its market niche, but it invented the niche. To be sure, there were missteps along the way that could have taken the company to even higher levels of success, but there is comfort in knowing that I work for a company that has been around long enough to become a household name. Also, recent acquisitions have transformed the company into one with 140,000 employees worldwide. Leadership’s vision seems to be in line with maintaining a growth curve in difficult waters, and that gives some level of comfort to those of us in the trenches.
As I’ve said in this space before, the longevity of attorneys here also has a downside: the lack of upward mobility. But the experience I’ve gained is invaluable. I am a much better lawyer than I was before going in-house, because I’ve been able to take my time and find my way. I have done so without the immediate pressures that those brave souls who join a small department, or even create a department, must feel. Do I feel pressure when the market swoops and rumors of layoffs in the industry abound? Absolutely. But I take solace from more experienced colleagues who have been in similar situations in the past, and I have learned to accept that there may come a day when layoffs become a necessity in my department.
Deciding to join a company is as much a leap of faith as it is a measure of your ability to decipher trends, research history, and perform due diligence. Before taking a position, the amount of due diligence performed on a potential employer can translate into the amount of comfort one has day-to-day going forward. Of course, this can be almost impossible if you’re considering a privately held company, on which little may be gleaned beyond information the company itself wishes to publish.
I have faith (and any number of financial filings and publications as well as internal documents) that allows me to discern what direction the company is headed, or is attempting to head, and either stay on for the ride or jump off. The first law firm for which I worked had a 150-plus year legacy in Biglaw, and now –- it’s just gone. It disintegrated like so much dust where its cash reserves should have been. Kodak too, has such a legacy, and it appears that its run as a technology leader may be complete. In the late ’70s when it invented digital photography, the company didn’t know what it had. Or Kodak did indeed know, and wanted to keep it hidden from the market to avoid impinging on its then core-product, film. The answer isn’t known at this time. But for tens of thousands of former Kodak workers, their faith in a company led many to invest lives, time and money in the proverbial primrose path.
Perhaps corporations should not be “people.” We want to believe in people, yet, people inevitably let us down. A corporation, as a creation of the legal world, perhaps ought better remain a fiction. In any event, if you’re considering a jump to in-house work, do your homework as best you can. If you are able to glean enough information, you may not know all that the company has, but you should be able to tip the scales from total leap of faith to informed leap of faith.
After two federal clerkships and several years as a litigator in law firms, David Mowry is happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company. He specializes in commercial leasing transactions, only sometimes misses litigation, and never regrets leaving firm life. You can reach him by email at [email protected].