In-House Counsel, Practice Pointers

House Rules: Not My Job…

When my first son was born we happened to live next door to one of the cameramen for Law and Order. The original Law and Order, not “Law and Order: Poughkeepsie” or whatever.

Anyway, if you live or practice in New York City you have undoubtedly run into an active L&O set, as they film exterior shots on location as much as possible for more realism. One of the sets happened to be down the road from our house and David invited me, my wife, and son to visit. I will always remember the great Jerry Orbach and Jesse Martin being completely unassuming nice guys as they cooed over my little boy. It was a real treat.

The point to this anecdote is that I overheard someone say that a small table immediately behind me needed to be moved a few inches before the next shot. As I reached down to slide the table, David sharply whispered to me not to touch it, as “it was a union job” and one of “them” had to move the piece. I had to laugh, as it was foreign to me that someone had a designated job of table-moving. But, as I moved through Biglaw, I became aware that the same mindset applied to associates as well as partners – unless there was money to be made from a new matter, then a Labor partner could transform into a Patent partner in the blink of an eye….

“Not my job” disease is an inefficient time waster, that if not used appropriately, and especially sparingly, can lead to customers or clients being sent around the universe of a law firm or a company in a mind-numbing quest for assistance. A colleague of mine is constantly gossiping about her company’s OGC and how “not my job” has run so rampant as to become part of the culture. She has told me of any number of people who have become so entrenched in “not my job” pushing off of work that she often just takes on projects simply in order to ensure that the issue at hand is addressed.

Before you snark, I am not at all suggesting that you should attempt to take on a particular issue if you truly do not understand or lack an appropriate handle on the topic of law. What I am strongly advocating for, is that if a client reaches you who may not be in “your” territory, you should make every attempt to settle that person’s issue for them instead of saying “not my job.” Taking on tasks that might not be “yours” not only improves efficiency, but it can also bolster the reputation of the legal department. Is it not far better that clients are served efficiently and accurately than being sent on a wild goose attorney chase? And yes, I can hear the derisive laughter of those of you in small in-house departments who do not have the luxury of pushing off work.

Pushing off work is an art; if utilized sparingly, it can avoid a situation where you are completely underwater with work. In my experience, being underwater leads to scratching for the surface, which leads to shoddy work product. You must make every attempt to keep your head above water, so the work product remains good, and you don’t drown. But, abuse the system and push off as much work as you can while sitting in your cabin telecommuting from the woods, and your reputation will suffer, your department will suffer, and you will inevitably be on a short list of people considered for the next round of IRIFs.

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

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