Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Partner Issues

On In-House Self-Loathing: I Used To Be Smart!

I used to be smart.

I read cases. I ginned up clever distinctions. I examined witnesses and knew what the evidence said. I argued appeals. I wrote real, substantive articles.

I had interesting things to say about multidistrict litigation, class actions, and product liability defense.

I spoke at CLE classes — both to maintain my (and my firm’s) profile and because I had worthwhile things to say.

I coulda been a contender.

But that was then.

I’ve been in-house for nearly five years now, and I’ve become a fool. . . .

I no longer read cases voraciously.

As a lawyer in private practice, I might have read 20 or 30 cases in the two days before I argued an appeal. I don’t think I average reading 30 cases per year now that I’m in-house.

I no longer gin up clever distinctions. I’m no longer wallowing in the facts and the law, so I’m no longer the person most able to distinguish precedents.

I no longer examine witnesses, and I typically don’t know — really know — the factual record in our cases. That’s not my job.

I don’t argue appeals.

I no longer write substantive articles. With rare exceptions, I write only this column at Above the Law. Would you call that substantive?

‘nuf said.

At this point, I just barely remember the law.

What happened?

My focus shifted.

I used to worry about the law. If I knew more than anyone else about a particular field of law, then I could sell my services. When I sold my services, that caused me to work in, and stay abreast of, my area of expertise. That led to my speaking (for which I had to prepare, thus learning the law), and writing (likewise), and blogging (likewise again) about my field. It was all a virtuous circle: The more I knew, the more I was retained; the more I was retained, the more I knew; and on and on and on.

I no longer worry about the law (very much). I now worry about my client. I know who’s who in the business units. I know generally how finance works. I know who must be kept in the loop about what. I know what HR requires of managers.

I participate in meetings. And meetings. And meetings.

Meetings to stay abreast of what’s happening in my department. To help colleagues plan their career development. To talk to business leaders. To keep finance in the loop. To keep auditors in the loop. To keep senior management in the loop. To monitor progress. To anticipate problems. To solve problems.

It can be very interesting, but what does it teach me that’s worth sharing with the world?

Nothing.

Well, not exactly “nothing,” but whatever it is ain’t exactly “the law” anymore.

It’s more like “the company,” and its processes, and its strengths and weaknesses.

There’s not much fodder there for speeches, articles, and CLE presentations. (And I’m no longer trying to generate business, so there’s no longer a pressing need for me to maintain my (and my firm’s) public profile.)

When people invite me to speak, they often suggest I could be a great part of a panel discussing “managing litigation holds” or “reducing the cost of e-discovery” or “organizing corporate law departments.”

I could be part of the panel, but who would bother to listen? And would I have anything interesting to say?

These are surely important subjects, but I don’t remember learning much about them in law school.

Because I no longer have anything worth saying publicly, and there’s no longer much need for me to say it, I stay silent (on substantive issues). I decline invitations to write. I decline invitations to speak. And I’m no longer running laps in a virtuous circle of legal knowledge.

Isn’t that self-loathing?

(Here’s proof of my self-loathing: A guy at a law firm recently introduced himself to me and said that he had formerly been the head of litigation at an insurance brokerage, so I should consider retaining him. My reaction was not, “A guy who held my very job! He must be a talented fellow!” My reaction was instead, “I wonder if he’s ever actually taken a deposition or tried a case. He surely didn’t learn much about the mechanics of defending lawsuits when he held a job like mine.”)

Please don’t get me wrong here: In-house life is pretty darned good, for reasons that are self-evident to many and have been explained at length elsewhere.

And experiences in-house naturally vary. Transactional lawyers handle transactions, in-house or out. Privacy lawyers solve privacy issues, in-house or out. But litigators may have very different jobs in-house and out, and what litigators do in those jobs may depend on where a particular litigator sits in the law firm or corporate hierarchy.

Be forewarned (as you now are): If you accept a role as an in-house lawyer, you may soon be shaking your head in disbelief, remembering that, in the distant past, you used to be smart.


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 inhouse@abovethelaw.com.

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