In-House Counsel

Grabbing the Canoe: Or, Reflections on Crisis Management

Attorneys must be prepared to not panic upon realizing that the curveball is not going to drop into the strike zone.

I learned two life lessons from my participation in the “The Fifth of July” (affiliate link), a play by Lanford Wilson. One was during my first-ever male kissing scene. I learned what actresses go through with piggish actors who decide to “go for it” when the lights come up; we’ll leave it at that. And two, I learned that when required to wear short shorts as part of your costume, you should always — always — wear underwear if you’re ever going to be sitting down during your scenes.

I relay those two lessons tongue half in cheek. They relate to in-house work in the sense that while preparation is key, when the spit hits the fan, you need to first “grab the canoe”….

See, one hot summer day, my then-fiancée and I went for a canoe trip on some unremembered Northeast river. The water was not deep, but the water was flowing swiftly. Somehow, we tipped the canoe, and she began to panic. As the canoe began to float away from us, I told her to “grab the canoe.” This was important because without our boat, we’d be up a creek holding only paddles. That phrase has become a code for us when things go quickly awry.

First, you must “grab the canoe” and get back to floating; only then can you assess what else might be wrong (missing possessions, food, wet socks, etc.). Things are going to go screwy during your tenure as an attorney — they just will. You cannot possibly plan for everything, but you can remember the mantra of “grab the canoe.” The canoe is a metaphor for the stasis that usually surrounds your job. You are first and foremost representing an entity. Chief Justice Roberts argues the fiction that the entity is somehow a person, but I digress. The entity is what keeps you and the other employees afloat. During a crisis, all of the happenings within the entity are to be worried about after first taking care to right your primary client, the business. Some things that occur in an emergency, or a quickly moving negotiation, can be left behind, such as obsolete contractual language. Other issues are absolutely necessary in a publicly traded company — reporting requirements, for instance. And in the time it takes to read this column, some of these issues can overturn your company’s sense of balance, and leave you drifting.

I have written before about the necessity of contingency plans, but what if there is simply no time to pull out the book and turn to page 63? You are in a state of emergency, your stomach is in a knot, and the CEO is asking you some very difficult questions. Grab the canoe. Take a breath and do your best. Put the issue of staying afloat at the forefront of your analyses. You may come up wrong, but you’ll likely surprise yourself. When I was brand new to law, I used to become easily awed by elder attorneys who could argue several different points of a legal issue, seemingly all at once. I wondered how they did it, and despaired that I would never be that smart. It is not always “smarts” that gets you through, but the ability to think quickly, act decisively, and rely on experience. There is no better teacher than failure. Those same attorneys who seemingly have the answers to every turn of an issue will be quick to inform you that their “expertise” is largely borne of experience — especially when the canoe overturns.

That is what makes our profession special. Of course we are not saving lives, or curing dread disease. We practice law. The key is in the word “practice.” As you practice, answers become ingrained, and your expertise begins to grow. After years of “practice,” you enable yourself to right tipped canoes, and assist stressed CEOs quickly, efficiently, and appropriately. But in the recesses of your mind, you must always be aware of the possibilities for crisis. Remember that in the moment you will rely on what you know and keep the primary focus on staying afloat. You can allow yourself to let the what-ifs creep in once you are past the crisis and are happily ensconced at the third seat at the bar, with a martini safely in hand.

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

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