Mark Herrmann

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.

Posts by Mark Herrmann

For months, we talked to counsel about our prospects in the case. He was sanguine:

“There’s nothing to worry about here. The plaintiff put a huge number in its prayer for relief, but you can’t possibly lose that much. Plaintiff’s liability case is thin, and the damages are inflated. You’ll probably win. If you lose, you’d lose no more than $1 million on an average day. On the worst day known to man, you can’t even theoretically lose more than $5 million. I wouldn’t offer more than a couple hundred grand to settle.”

A few months before trial, we ask counsel to put some skin in the game: “It’ll be expensive to try this case, and you feel good about our prospects. We’d like you to propose an alternative fee agreement that aligns your interests with ours. We’d like to pay you less than your ordinary hourly rates in the months leading up to trial, but we’ll give you a success fee if we win. Please think about it, and let us know if you have any ideas.”

A couple of weeks pass, as counsel discusses the case with his firm’s “senior management.” When the alternative fee proposal arrives, the goalposts have miraculously moved! In the course of just two uneventful weeks, our prospects for success have changed entirely!

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When you work at a law firm, you must actually solve problems.

If you’re paid to win a case, you must identify the route to victory and develop the facts that take you there. (“They don’t pay us $15 a minute to lose.”) If you’re arguing an appeal, you must anticipate every possible question and figure out a persuasive answer to it.

There’s no place to hide and no one to whom you can push hard issues.

Not so in a corporation: If an issue is insoluble, just send it to the law department! That puts the matter to rest, and you didn’t have to figure out the answer!

Remarkably, I’ve seen this solution proposed not just by folks who work in-house, but by outside counsel, too . . . .

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First, thanks to Baker & McKenzie, DLA Piper, Latham & Watkins, and Ulmer & Berne, all of whom endured my “book talk” about The Curmudgeon’s Guide To Practicing Law when I was recently back in the States.

Second — and proof that my mind is navigating on its own — I recently paused to think about driverless cars.

I suppose that, if you lived (as I do) in a major city that may be road-testing driverless cars before January, you’d be curious about these vehicles, too. (You’d want to consider, for example, whether you should stay on the sidewalk, even if that means walking endlessly in a one-block circle for the rest of your life.)

And if you labored (as I do) in the insurance (or insurance brokerage) space, you’d be scratching your head about what might happen to your industry if billions of dollars of auto insurance premium vanished (or was spent by people other than drivers) overnight. Lawyers for insurers should be thinking about driverless cars.

So, too, should lawyers outside the insurance space. Do you do DWI defense work? Your practice area may not exist in ten years. Do you participate in automotive accident or product liability cases? The world may be about to shift under your feet.

And I’m just getting warmed up here. . . .

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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. . . .

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I must have reached a certain age.

Within the last month, three different people have contacted me to say that they’re approaching retirement, so it’s time to start serving on boards of directors. These folks came to me (of all people!) to network.

By keeping my ear so close to the ground, I’ve discovered the new, new thing. And you’re in luck — I’ll share it with you!

Everyone’s getting old and thinking about retirement.

Or maybe I’ve buried the lede. Maybe hordes of baby boomers are now thinking about finding a part-time job that pays good money and keeps you entertained after you’ve stopped working full-time.

That’s not a bad strategy, really. If you’re industrious, you could serve on four or five boards, carefully analyze the board materials before each meeting, monitor the companies’ fortunes, contribute insights and ask tough questions during the meetings, and follow up after meetings in pursuit of the corporate good.

On the other hand, if you’re less industrious, you could show up for a few board and committee meetings every year, enjoy cocktails and dinner with the boys, sit like a cardboard cutout during the meetings, and pocket a few hundred grand annually for your efforts, . . .

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I’ve never met you, but I assume that you’re incompetent.

I realize that sounds a bit harsh, but it’s time someone told you the truth.

Some people assume that strangers are competent. One of my colleagues in our Law Department said to me recently: “Outside counsel says we won’t have much liability in that case.”

I naturally asked, “Is he right?”

She was shocked: “He’s a partner at a well-respected firm. We hired him. I assume he’s competent.”

That got us to talking. My colleague gives strangers the benefit of the doubt; she assumes that people are competent until they prove otherwise. I’m exactly the opposite: When I meet you, my working assumption is that you’re inept. Over time, there’s a chance you’ll convince me that I’m wrong. (But probably not.)

Why do I assume that all new people I meet are incompetent?

No, that’s too easy. Here’s the better question: Why am I right to assume that everyone’s incompetent, and why is that a helpful way to go through life?

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I never heard these words before I went in-house: “If you send something to a person above me in the hierarchy, then send a copy to me, too.”

Now I hear (or speak) those words all the time. And those instructions seem pretty easy to grasp.

Remarkably, a fair number of people don’t seem to understand what those words mean.

I offer this column for the benefit of in-house newbies, and in-house oldbies who don’t understand, and lawyers at firms who might want to consider whether these instructions make sense at law firms, too.

If you’re sending something to someone above me in the hierarchy, then send a copy to me, too.

Why?

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No, not that kind of chambers.

I’m in-house, so Chambers & Partners — one of the outfits that rates lawyers and law firms — sent me a free copy of their 2014 guide.

If you’re profiled in that book, you get to write your own (very short) bio. You get something like 50 words to convince the world to hire you. So what did one person, from the distinguished firm of Bigg & Mediocre, write? I’ll slightly alter the bio, to disguise the guilty, but you’ll get my point:

Charles Darnay has argued more appeals in the Second Circuit than any other lawyer at Bigg & Mediocre.”

This guy isn’t competing for business with other law firms; he’s trying to steal business from his own partners! His pitch is not: “I’m better than other lawyers in the world.” Instead, it’s: “I may not be better than most lawyers in the world, but at least I’m better than any of the other clowns you’ll find here at B&M.”

Very nice. But that’s not the best of it; Chambers conceals many secrets . . .

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The week of the Fourth of July is a lonely one for Americans here in London. The Brits just don’t appreciate the Revolutionary War the way we do. And you see other occasional signs of hostility, too. When I arrived in London nearly two years ago and wrote a column about my initial reactions, a British legal website promptly linked to my work and illustrated the piece with a picture of Old Glory in flames.

I’m back for more, to celebrate the Fourth in style.

When asked, how do I describe my current living arrangements?

“I have an apartment in Chicago and a flat in London.”

Isn’t that odd? I automatically translate from American English — “apartment” — to British English — “flat” — as my brain imagines the transatlantic journey.

I also now naturally think in Celsius — 0 is freezing; 20 is room temperature; 35 is miserably hot — without doing a mental detour through Fahrenheit. But I still think in dollars. When I see that a half dozen eggs cost two pounds, I’m outraged that I’m being charged nearly three fifty for the item in my shopping cart. I don’t (yet) naturally think in sterling.

So I’ve generally adjusted to my new life, but things can still occasionally get spooky . . .

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Most lawyers do not cheat.

But a few do, and they think they’re being clever.

A cheating contract lawyer reads a novel all day, codes a couple hundred documents as “non-responsive” at ten to five, and then heads home.

Cheating junior associates record a few hours that they didn’t actually work. They assuage their guilt: “I’m more efficient than other people are, so I did this more quickly than the average guy. It’s not cheating if I write down how long it should really take to do this job.” And then the cheating associates mysteriously hit their billable-hour targets for the year.

Cheating junior partners are different. Short on work but desperate to bill time, these junior partners hoard work that they should naturally pass down to associates: “I have some free time, and I’m a very talented guy. I’ll write the brief more quickly than an associate would, anyway. I’ll just do it myself, and then I won’t have to worry about being held out of the equity ranks because I haven’t worked hard enough this year.”

But how do senior partners cheat?

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