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

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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I was 26 years out of law school before I moved in-house.

In those 26 years, I had never heard of “one-on-ones” (outside of the context of basketball). When I moved to a corporate job, folks were astonished by my ignorance. (A small part of that astonishment had to do with my unfamiliarity with one-on-ones.)

I’ve now been working for four years in what I take to be a typical (indeed, world-class) corporate environment, and I’m ready to declare the truth, thus offending every human resources professional who has ever lived: One-on-ones — individual weekly meetings between managers and each of the people who report to them — are generally unnecessary.

I know, I know: One-on-ones guarantee that the manager knows what’s happening in his or her department. And the meetings let managers give immediate feedback on how members of the team are performing. And there’s nothing like personal conversations to build relationships and esprit de corps.

Humbug!

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Think you can write? Do these four things.

First, pull out the last brief that you wrote.

Not that one — that’s the final version, edited by guys who could write. We’re looking for your work, untouched by others. Find the unedited draft that you first circulated. (If you don’t have a draft brief handy, that’s okay. Find the last long email that you sent to someone who matters — to the partner, the client, the general counsel, or the CEO.)

Second, click through this link, which will tell you how to enable Microsoft Word’s “readability” feature on your computer. Enable that feature.

Third, let the readability feature score your work.

Finally, take a handkerchief and wipe the spit out of your eye. (I bet you didn’t realize that a computer could spit in your eye.)

You didn’t notice the spit? Here it comes: Compare your readability score to the average readability score for the works of bestselling authors. . . .

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Ambrose Bierce once said: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.

Ambrose Bierce, Esq., would have said: “‘Business-friendly legal advice’ means telling the client that it can do illegal stuff.”

Bierce, Esq., would have been funny, but wrong.

It’s important for lawyers to give useful advice. But many lawyers, both in-house and out, don’t seem to understand this. I’ve recently seen (or heard about from others) senior folks in businesses or in-house law departments ask not to receive advice from certain lawyers: “Don’t go to her! She’ll just tell me that everything is illegal!”

Or: “Don’t go to that firm! They’ll give us some theoretical answer that we can’t possibly use, and we’ll end up having to figure out a solution for ourselves anyway.”

Those reactions (and those words) make sense to business people and in-house lawyers; clients need real advice, not self-defensive crap. But some lawyers — typically at firms, but occasionally in-house, too — don’t understand this. To help those folks, here are illustrations of what “business-friendly” (or the opposite; shall we call it “business-hostile”?) advice sounds like . . . .

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I’ve come under criticism recently, either expressly or implicitly.

I tell new lawyers to write in short sentences.

Very short.

My preferred writing style is “Modern American Snowplow.”

Others insist that I’m too strident. Mark Osbeck, who teaches legal writing at The University of Michigan Law School, has published a law review article (it’s the fourth one down) criticizing The Curmudgeon’s Guide To Practicing Law because my book over-emphasizes the need for short sentences.

I have two reactions. First, thank you! Let’s debate these issues in public! And, so long as you spell my name right, you’re doing us both a favor!

Second, I’m right, and you’re wrong! Why? Because I’ve never in my life reviewed the work of a new lawyer and thought: “This draft would be pretty good if only it used a bunch of longer sentences. The cure to what ails this brief is to add some complexity to it.” If you were honest with yourself, Professor Osbeck, you’d admit that you’ve never seen that, either. On the other hand, both you and I frequently see sentences that desperately need to buy a period. So what should we teach — the rule or the exception?

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In 1983, when I graduated from law school, essentially no one wanted in-house legal jobs, and people who worked in-house weren’t held in very high regard.

To the contrary: With few exceptions, in-house lawyers were viewed as failures. These were the folks who couldn’t succeed at real jobs. People went in-house because law firms wouldn’t have them; jobs with short hours, low pay, no challenging assignments, and no stress were the only available alternative.

That was not simply my narrow-minded perspective. It was the widely shared belief of generations of lawyers who came of age in the law before about 1990. I recently had a drink with the general counsel of a Fortune 250 company, and he (or she, but I’ll use the masculine) told me that he could never be a success in his father’s eyes: “My father was a partner at a major law firm. He was pleased with me when I clerked for a federal appellate judge, took a fancy government job, and later became a partner at a big firm. But then I went in-house, and he lost all respect for me. He wanted me to ‘succeed’ in the law — to try high-profile cases and argue important appeals. When I went in-house, he quickly decided that I was a failure, and there was never any chance that he’d change his mind.”

Although that’s a sad story, I’m pleased to report that, at least in the context of in-house legal jobs, Bob Dylan had it right: “The times they are a-changin’ . . .

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First, two plugs; then, crystal-ball-gazing about a certain breed of law firm. Plug one: Please take a look at “How To Write Articles That Don’t Generate Business.” I amused myself writing it; perhaps you’ll be amused reading it.

Plug two: I’ll be back in the States for a few weeks in June, and I’m taking advantage of that opportunity to give my “book talk” about The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law at three “Vault 50” firms. So long as I’ve dusted off the notes to give those three talks, I might as well speak at your firm, too, Please let me know if you’re interested.

Finally, some crystal-ball-gazing: I’ve been picking for years on the fictitious law firm of Bigg & Mediocre. For good reason: To my eye, a fair number of firms have decided that adding more offices and lawyers is the cure to all that ails them and that relentlessly focusing on quality is a failed strategy of the past.

Recent empirical evidence now suggests that I may actually have a point. The Am Law profitability ratings for last year show that the super-rich firms are getting richer, and the run-of-the-mill big firms are doing okay. But one group is getting crushed, seeing substantial decreases in both revenue per lawyer and profits per partner: what Am Law calls “the giant alternatives” or the “vereins.”

My mental category of “big and mediocre” doesn’t match Am Law’s “giant verein” group. To my eye, a few of the global giants have managed to pursue both size and quality. But several have not. (I can’t say publicly which firms I would place in which category, because my employer is the world’s leading insurance broker for law firms, and I can’t go around offending the clients and potential clients. Let me just say that your firm is great. Not just great — stupendous! But the other guy’s firm? Not so much.)

So “big and mediocre” got its clock cleaned last year. I’m predicting that big and mediocre will get its clock increasingly cleaned over time, and within a couple of decades, will suffer the fate of the sundial.

Why?

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I’m spreading my criticism widely here: Lawyers both in-house and out are often guilty of the sin I’m describing today.

Look: When people ask for legal advice, they need legal advice. They don’t need to hear from empty conduits through which information passes unfiltered by a human brain.

What’s today’s lesson? When asked for legal advice, give useful advice. Don’t regurgitate silly nonsense that doesn’t help anyone.

Let me give two specific (but fictionalized) examples, both analogous to real-life situations, and which give a sense of the broader issue.

Example number one: A regulator raises a concern about some statement that your company has made repeatedly or some product that you’ve sold widely. A business person — or another lawyer, or any living human being, for that matter — asks you, reasonably enough, “What’s our likely exposure in this matter?”

At this point, many lawyers turn off their brains and give the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad legal advice . . . .

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At a law firm, law matters. Law is the center of the institution’s universe, and it’s all everyone is thinking about.

It’s the other functions that don’t matter: “Another email from IT? Telling me about interfaces and gigabytes? Why don’t those clowns leave me alone?”

“Another email from finance hectoring me about time sheets? Don’t those morons know I’m busy?”

At corporations, law (and compliance) is an “other function.” The businesses are concentrating on their businesses, and law and compliance — along with human resources, information technology, and finance — are, at best, a means to an end. If you mirror the other “shared services” and send incomprehensible communications to the businesses, the businesses will soon realize that you’re just one of the pests, meant to be ignored.

Inevitably, if a business person accidentally steps over some legal line, you’ll hear that the business guy had no clue that the line existed: “Yeah, yeah. Now that you’re telling me about it, I understand that we have that rule. But how was I to know? The rule is buried on the fourth page of some impenetrable policy hidden somewhere in our computer system. I spend my time selling; I can’t waste time trying to make sense of your legalese.”

If you don’t sympathize with that guy, then you’ve been a lawyer for too long. His criticism is not just an excuse for having violated the rules; his criticism may well be the truth. How can you change that reality?

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