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

We had the good fortune to have Patrick Fitzgerald — the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois who recently joined Skadden — speak to my company’s global compliance conference last month.

Let me prove that I’ve learned a little about this blogging business over the years: Before the jump, I’ll give you my personal thought or two about introducing prominent speakers. I’ll hold the good stuff — what Fitzgerald, the famous guy, said — until after the jump. (Watch this, Lat! They’ll be drawn through the jump like vultures to carrion!)

How do you introduce a prominent speaker? You can do it the usual way: He went to school, got a job, and did some fancy stuff, zzzzzzzz.

Or you can find something offbeat about the person. I chose to introduce Fitzgerald by saying that I was afraid that our speaker had peaked too young. He had been named one of the sexiest men alive by People magazine in 2005; how do you ever surpass that? And, also in 2005, he had received an award from Washingtonian magazine for “best performance without a script.” For most people, it’s all downhill from there.

Fortunately, our speaker managed to surpass his early achievements. And then I trotted through what must be the usual litany in a Fitzgerald introduction: Led the prosecutions of former Illinois Governors George Ryan (sentenced to five years) and Rod Blagojevich (14 years) and a bunch of others.

That was my contribution to the hour. But, you might ask, what did the famous guy have to say?

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The “talent management” folks are so different from lawyers.

Lawyers (at big firms, anyway) ask junior lawyers to do things and, ten years later, look to see who survived.

Talent management people couldn’t be different. They assess individuals and groups to try to find ways to improve performance. “O brave new world that has such people in’t!”

But when the talent management folks turn their sights on me, I realize that I have a split personality.

I (and everyone on my compliance team) recently took the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument. This puppy repeatedly asks which of two ways you would choose to resolve a conflict. After you make 30 of those choices, a computer spits out the “conflict-handling mode” that you prefer. The five conflict-handling modes are “competing,” “collaborating,” “compromising,” “avoiding,” and “accommodating.”

This test revealed my underlying split personality before I even learned the results. As to virtually every one of the 30 choices I was asked to make, my answer depends on the circumstances. When representing a party in litigation, I’m often a “compromiser”: He demands 100; I offer 10. He drops to 90; I go to 20. He wants six months to trial; I offer 24. On most subjects, litigants have equal power, and no one wants to be blamed for bothering the judge, so we compromise. According to Thomas-Kilman, I’m a “compromiser.”

But that’s just one of my many personalities. Suppose I’m not representing a party in litigation, but rather “negotiating” with one of my own clients. Goodbye “compromiser,” and hello….

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Quick! Grab that piece of paper in front of you!

Draw three circles, along the lines of a Venn diagram.

One circle represents the past; one represents the present; and one represents the future. Your three circles should show the relationship between past, present, and future.

People from different cultures tend to draw those circles very differently, and I’ll explain your cultural bias after the jump.

Why am I writing about this? Because my corporate law department recently held its global law conference, at which all of our lawyers from around the world gathered in one place for two days of meetings. (February in Chicago! Who could resist?) We’re quite an international group, and we invited a speaker (from one of our businesses, which consults on talent management issues) to talk to us about working on cross-cultural teams.

This is just the sort of touchy-feely stuff that I typically can’t bear, but this guy was actually pretty interesting. He both revealed the cultural biases of people within our group and gave some suggestions about how to work together more effectively in the future.

I’ve now stalled for long enough. If you’ve drawn your three circles representing past, present, and future, you’re allowed to click through the jump and learn about your cultural prejudices….

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Let me regale you with two recent examples of lawyers disclosing client confidences. There’s a lesson tucked into each.

First: An acquaintance sent me the résumé of, and asked me to speak to, a young lawyer. The idea was to give some general career advice, rather than necessarily to hire the person.

I’m a pushover, so I agreed to have a cup of coffee with the relatively new lawyer. Over coffee, he (or she, but I’ll use the masculine) explained that what he liked least about the job he’d just left (which was identified on his résumé) was being asked to do unethical things. My curiosity piqued, I asked for an example. He explained that he’d been asked to draft a contract that committed his employer to violating the law as part of the contractual relationship. (Think along the lines of, “We will ship the illegal weapons to you in New York.”) My young acquaintance said that he’d gone to the general counsel, who had instructed him to draft whatever contract the business wanted. The earnest young lawyer had solved the ethical problem by drafting a contract that, when read carefully, would prohibit the illegal conduct. (Think: “Under no circumstance will any weapons of any type be shipped pursuant to this contract.”)

I’m afraid I won’t be recommending this person for any jobs. . . .

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I have to make a public confession:

Ten years ago, I co-authored a book that analyzed in all 50 states the existing analogues to the federal multidistrict litigation process. (Some states have analogues; some do not; some have procedures that serve the same purpose through very different mechanisms.)

Don’t scoff! That book served a public purpose, because the information was not then available anywhere else. And it served a business development purpose: If you work at a large firm, you don’t want to defend one-off product liability cases, because the fees won’t bear the big-firm freight. But you do want to defend those silly products cases the instant they transmogrify into mass torts. What’s the point at which the client knows that it is confronting a truly big and bad mass tort? When it’s defending not only a federal MDL, but statewide coordinated proceedings, too. Presto! Time to retain yours truly, the expert in that untrodden field!

Having written the book, my co-authors and I naturally publicized it. We published articles summarizing the substance of the book; explaining how to draft mini-MDL statutes; and, for publication in specific state bar journals, analyses of the mini-MDL processes available in certain populous states. Although I can’t find an online link to the piece, we wrote in a Ohio bar journal that Ohio was the most populous state not to have a formal procedure for coordinating related lawsuits filed in many counties.

Naturally, this triggered some thought in the Ohio bench and bar about whether the state should catch up with the rest of the world. In 2004, more or less, some judicial committee called to solicit my help (and that of my co-authors) in creating a mini-MDL procedure in Ohio.

That’s when I sinned . . .

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Some general counsel of public companies return to private practice involuntarily: The new CEO changes the management team, or your GC job becomes redundant after a bigger fish acquires your company.

But a relatively few voluntarily choose to leave the perceived comfort of being the top dog in an in-house law department to resume the battle of private practice.

That’s why I raised an eyebrow when a guy (or gal) who I’ve known for a couple of decades recently left his (or her) GC spot to return to big firm life.

Let me give the details needed to make the story worth telling, while concealing enough to protect my friend’s identity. This person had worked at firms small and large, became general counsel of a Fortune 1000 company within the last three to five years, and left within the last year to return to an Am Law 20 firm. When I heard that this person had returned to private practice, I could feel a blog post waiting to happen, so I naturally picked up the phone.

Here’s why my friend left the life of Riley to return to the big firm fray:

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I don’t live in Lake Wobegon.

I live in Lake WoeIsMe: All of the children are a little below average.

Or maybe I just have a bad attitude.

I’ll be frank: If I just met you, I assume that you’re inept. Not because you necessarily are inept, but because I’ve been blindsided too often in the past by the mistakes of people who I foolishly believed to be competent. That ain’t gonna happen again.

I understand that not everyone views the world through my gray-tinted glasses. I’ve met folks who are shocked by my attitude: “Mark, that outside lawyer from Honduras just told you that you’d win the case. Why are you acting as though we’re going to lose?”

“Because the lawyer is probably incompetent.”

“Why do you think that? He comes highly recommended by Smith.”

“Why do we think that Smith is competent? Or that Smith knows enough about the Honduran guy to have a right to judge him? My working presumption is that people are incompetent until they prove otherwise.”

“I’m shocked by your attitude, Mark. I’m exactly the opposite. When I meet new people, I always assume that they’re good at what they do.” . . .

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I really like what Bruce MacEwen does over at Adam Smith, Esq. He thinks hard about the legal profession, and he says smart things that you won’t find elsewhere.

But he’s not perfect. He recently wrote that clients were partly responsible for the demise of Dewey (which may well be true) because clients had endorsed “the . . . toxic notion that you hire the lawyer, not the firm.” Here, I beg to differ.

Hiring “the lawyer, not the firm” is not a toxic notion; it is sanity.

Hiring the firm would be nuts, for at least two different reasons. First, the firm has many invidious institutional incentives: Let’s suppose you “hire the firm” by calling the managing partner (or head of litigation, or whoever) to say that you have a new case that you’d like the firm to handle. The managing partner naturally pokes around to see “who has time.” Presto! Your case would be staffed with the partner who has nothing else to do, because the firm can’t foist that guy off on any other sorry client. That inept partner would likely be assisted by a few associates who also “have time,” and you’d be wallowing in B-team city.

Not for me, thank you very much.

If you’re an intelligent client, you don’t want the lawyers who “have time;” you want the lawyers who “are good.” There’s no reason to think those two categories overlap, and plenty of reasons to think they do not.

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

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When I worked at a law firm, I knew that lawyers’ responses to audit letters — in which the firm confirms to auditors the status of litigation pending against a client — were a massive waste of time.

Firm policy dictated that we would speak only pablum in response to audit letters. We would identify each case by name, court, and number; explain that a complaint had been filed; list the causes of action; say where we stood in discovery and whether a trial date had been set; and then say that we didn’t have a clue who would win. (If we thought that the client’s chance of losing was either “probable” or “remote,” we were required to say so. I’m not sure we ever saw such a case.)

Every once in a while, a junior associate would receive an audit letter and write a real response to it — analyzing the lawsuit, the tactics, and who would win. When the powers that be learned about that mistake, there’d be hell to pay: “How could you write those things? Didn’t you run this past an audit letter review partner? We don’t actually provide information in those responses, you fool! Never do this again!”

As a partner at a firm, I knew that responding to audit letters was an expensive nuisance: A full-time audit letter assistant cranked out first drafts of responses to the letters. (That’s all she did, eight hours per day, 52 weeks per year — honest.) The appropriate client relationship partner reviewed each draft. An “audit letter review partner” (I had the misfortune to be one of those for four or five years) took another pass at the thing. Only then — after the letter had been stripped of all content — did the response go out the door. That was an awful lot of time and money invested to insure that the firm didn’t accidentally say something.

But I always assumed that someone — the client, the auditors, someone — thought those ridiculous letters served a purpose. Now I’ve gone in-house, and it turns out that audit letters serve no purpose at all. . . .

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I’m a week late in reminiscing about 2012, but what can I say? I’m a step slow; you’ll just have to excuse me. These are some of the memorable things I heard during the last year.

First, an employment lawyer who recently moved from the United States to the United Kingdom:

“What’s the correct way to refer to black people over here?”

“Excuse me?”

“In the United States, we refer to black people as ‘African-Americans.’ But you must have a different word for black people over here in England. Those people aren’t Americans, so they can’t be African-Americans.”

“We call blacks ‘blacks.’”

Second, a senior partner who serves on the executive committee of his Am Law 20 firm:

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