“Could be a brooch, a pterodactyl…”
The line above is from Airplane, a 1980 comedy that is regularly included in all-time top ten movie comedy lists.*
“Johnny” is the character who utters this and many more scene-stealing lines; he owned each scene in which he appeared, and was played by the late Stephen Stucker.
Each time he was on screen, and there were far too few appearances, you were drawn to watch him just to see what he would say. He nailed every line, and the audience loved him. My friends and I would regularly quote the movie in our younger years, as it signaled a paradigm shift in movie comedies –- riotous farces that contained foul language, sexual innuendo, and brief nudity. Among this genre, and ground breaking at the time were Caddyshack, The Blues Brothers, Stripes, and Porky’s.
These movies helped American movies evolve from the mid-’70s “cinema” into the early ’80s “blockbuster.” While these films broke boundaries and changed the rules, and even seem quaint by today’s standards, they’re still funny. But, back to Mr. Stucker.
While it is difficult at best to steal scenes in Biglaw, and be the person that folks remember (for the right reasons of course), it is even more difficult in-house. When you first transition, you are usually entering a company with policies and procedures, uncharted politics and a set hierarchy of power. You find your place soon enough and begin to learn from those that came before.
It is hard to stand out….
Gunners are not usually welcome in the insular world of a large law department because, what are you gunning for? The only way to go is up, and the person in that position above you is not going to take kindly to you gunning for an occupied seat. Therefore, like Johnny, you have to distinguish yourself by your work for your clients, customers, and ultimately the company.
You have to be cautious about stepping on toes. While the law firm may have welcomed new ideas that could add to the bottom line, this is not always the case in corporations. I listen carefully when meeting other counsel to get their perspectives on in-house life, and more often than not, there are shared similarities. Politics continually get in the way of corporate advancement, leadership may be populated with a more conservative cadre of folks who have been in their positions too long, and it is difficult to bring about positive change in a culture that may be stagnant for a host of reasons.
Don’t think for a second that I am describing my own experience — I’m dumb but not stupid. But, these stories are germane to how you think about your own position. If they sound similar, you may be in a position that you won’t want for very long. Conversely, if they sound “out there” then you might have found a good home. In any event, the one constant to in-house life is that you can try to make yourself stand out.
I know of a counsel who successfully negotiated with a very difficult financial institution and closed a relatively small deal. The institution later wanted to complete a bigger deal and insisted that the same attorney be brought in to negotiate. This was a coup for her, as it showed that she had distinguished herself among a host of fine attorneys. I know of another attorney who left a firm and walked in-house to a huge multi-district products liability litigation. He stood out due to his hard work and poise under incredible pressure. I will not be at all surprised when he is named GC of that corporation.
A final anecdote, and this is about me. When I attended acting conservatory, I was given a role in a play about Dylan Thomas. I had maybe three lines, and played a bartender. I did my homework just as if I had the lead, and did my job to the best of my abilities. From those three lines, I received a call to meet with a prestigious agent at the time. She had repped Oscar winners, and I was very lucky.
But, it wasn’t all luck. I did the job expected of me, and took it to heart that my role, no matter how small, was important. Obviously, acting was a lifetime ago for me, and it didn’t pan out (or I’d not be writing this column). But the lessons stayed with me, and obviously were ingrained in Mr. Stucker.
*Shout out to “Learned Paw” for the inspiration.
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@example.com.