Rain on the Elysian plain?
I am. (Hey, no one forces you to read this stuff.)
But to what end do I mix apples and wheelbarrows?
I live on the Elysian plain of in-house life: Freed of the demands of generating business; able to foist tedium off on the sad sacks who work at law firms; thinking strategically about the most significant issues facing the company; permitted (indeed, required) to work closely with a business. “‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”
But there are occasional drawbacks to working in-house, and I try to share those with the world when I notice them. Three recently came to my attention. . . .
First, I was talking to a guy (or gal, but I’ll use the masculine) who had gone in-house and then returned to a law firm within a year or two. I asked him why.
“I was a partner at a law firm. I gave my client advice, and the client took me seriously. When I was asked hard issues that required research, I asked associates to help me out. It actually wasn’t a bad situation.
“When I went in-house at that client, my relationship with the general counsel changed entirely. I was no longer the trusted outside adviser dispensing pearls of wisdom. Instead, I found myself whispering words of wisdom into the ear of the general counsel who then repeated my words of wisdom to the folks in the C-suites. I was no longer viewed as a trusted adviser to the senior executives.
“And it was actually worse than that. When the general counsel needed menial tasks done, he looked to the one competent person in-house and close at hand. That was me. Instead of being asked to analyze only the most challenging issues facing the company, I became the junior associate doing research, editing stuff, sweeping the floors. As an outside adviser, the corporation respected me. As an in-house adviser, I somehow became a free resource to be relied upon to do silly stuff. I couldn’t take it.”
I hadn’t thought about this before (perhaps because I’d had the good fortune not to encounter it), but I can certainly see how it could happen. When you move in-house, the temperament of the person to whom you report becomes critically important and, if that person doesn’t treat you with the dignity that you’ve come to expect (or, at a minimum, you think you deserve), going in-house could be a change for the worse.
Second, I was talking to another person who’d gone in-house to become the general counsel of a public company. Four or five years later, she (or he, but I’ll use the feminine) left to return to a firm. Why, I asked?
“As general counsel, you have to put in a lot of silly hours. If the CEO wants you in at 6:30 in the morning, you’re in at 6:30. If he wants you in Kiev on Tuesday, you’re in Kiev. If he strolls down the hall and pokes his head in your office, you have to be there.
“Frankly, I’d rather work at a firm. If you bring in enough business to feed yourself, and you hit your hours, the firm will leave you alone. You don’t have to put in face time; you get your life back.”
That struck me as an odd criticism of in-house life (and perhaps not even comprehensible to law firm associates, who feel chained to the yoke of billable hours and insane partners). When I was in private practice, unreasonable opposing counsel — and judges, and clients, and events — ruined my personal plans far more frequently than has happened since I’ve gone in-house.
But I heard the criticism; I thought I’d share it.
Finally, a personal anecdote.
I was recently asked to write a chapter of a book about the evolution of the legal profession. If I still worked at a firm, I surely would have accepted that invitation: The other chapter authors are distinguished folks; it would have reflected well on me to be in their company. The book is being published by a respected publisher. Adding another “book chapter” to my on-line bio would increase the chance of impressing new clients. And writing the thing would have been relatively painless: To write a 20- or 30-page chapter of a book, I’d have to gin up about five to seven ideas worth discussing. I’d ask an able associate if he’d like to co-author a book chapter, and the associate would jump at the opportunity. I’d tell the associate my few ideas, and the associate would do a little research, beef my thoughts up around the edges, and present me with a draft manuscript a month or two later. I’d edit the thing, and we’d be done. Easy.
In-house, I declined the opportunity to write the chapter.
I still wouldn’t mind acquiring the prestige of being in the company of famous co-authors or being published by a respected imprint. But, as an in-house lawyer, I no longer have an on-line bio, and there’s far less reason to continue polishing my resumé. Beyond that, however, is the absence in-house of “associate support.” These days, when I crank out my ditties for Above the Law, or write for other publications, or update an old book, or appear on a panel or give a talk, I’m on my own. There’s no benefit to other folks in our law department from joining on as a co-author of an article, and I’d simply be wasting corporate resources if I tried to insist that someone else help me with a publication. If I’m writing stuff these days, it’s me alone at a keyboard on some Saturday morning. Writing may be fun, but I’d rather visit Paris.
I regret not being able to write a book chapter about the future of law — although obviously I don’t regret it enough to actually accept it.
I guess I’m having too much fun enjoying my “life free from toil, not scraping with the strength of [my] arms the earth, nor the water of the sea, for the sake of a poor sustenance.”
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.