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 [email protected].

Posts by Mark Herrmann

As regular readers of this column know, my son, Jeremy, took a pass on law school: “I really love you, Dad. But basically you help big companies that did it get off the hook.”

Now, if I mention to physician-friends that my son’s in medical school, those friends often react the same way: “God love him; I hope he enjoys it. But I’d never go to medical school these days. Between the insurance companies, the hospital administrators, and the government, there’s no longer any joy in practicing medicine. It’s hard to treat your patients, and it’s hard to make a living. I suspect that things will only get worse over time. I loved being a doctor, but I sure wouldn’t want to be coming out of medical school today.”

I guess that means that today’s college graduates should think hard before deciding to go to medical school. Cross medicine off the list of desirable career choices.

And everyone in the legal profession knows the story about law . . .

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According to George Will, “Pessimism has its pleasures. Ninety percent of the time you’re right, and ten percent of the time you’re delighted to be wrong.”

That’s how I go through life.

What made me a pessimist? Nature or nurture, perhaps? (Should I blame my parents’ genes or their parenting skills?) Decades defending litigation, which forced me perpetually into a defensive crouch? (If that’s the reason, then plaintiffs’ lawyers must be optimists.) Or my preferred explanation: Keen observation of reality, coupled with endless experience, naturally breeds pessimism.

As an outside lawyer, my pessimism meant that I presumptively expected the worst (or, at a minimum, the least) from colleagues, opposing counsel, clients, and courts. Those folks generally performed precisely to my expectation, reinforcing my pessimism.

As an in-house lawyer, how does pessimism infuse life?

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I’ve recently heard two seemingly related thoughts: (1) lawyers’ legal skills deteriorate when they go in-house and (2) this makes it harder to move back to a law firm.

I doubt that the difficulty in moving from an in-house job to a law firm (if that difficulty exists at all) has anything to do with one’s skills having deteriorated. Although one headhunter recently told me that it’s hard to go back to a firm after you cross the in-house Rubicon, he insisted that was because most in-house lawyers won’t naturally bring a book of business to the firm that hires them. (I stuck the qualifier “most” in there intentionally. Some in-house lawyers move to a firm, bring the corporation’s legal work with them, and do quite well. But that’s not the typical situation.) It’s no surprise that lawyers who bring clients with them find jobs more easily than lawyers who do not. In-house lawyers often can’t guarantee that business will travel with them, so it’s possible that in-house lawyers are less attractive candidates for firms.

But that’s not my main point today. I also don’t agree that moving in-house automatically causes a lawyer’s skills to deteriorate. How going in-house will affect your skills depends on the nature of your in-house position, how your corporation works, and what skills you’re thinking about . . .

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Breaking news to lawyers at firms: In-house, we have these things called “business plans.”

Our business units prepare those plans at least annually. The plans typically contain both general objectives (such as achieving a specified level of organic growth, or margin, or whatever) and concrete steps that the business will take to achieve those objectives (such as introducing new products, controlling specified expenses, or whatever).

In-house law departments may create those plans, too. We commit to implement controls, or improve response times, or give a specified number of training sessions to a specified number of people, or the like. Depending on the corporation, a lawyer may be paid less than his target bonus if he doesn’t achieve his objectives and perform according to plan. A system like that is pretty good at grabbing folks’ attention and causing things to be done.

Do law firms (or individual lawyers at firms) prepare business plans?

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I worked for twenty years at the darkest of the black-box compensation law firms: No one knew what anyone else was being paid, and the firm forbade talking about compensation. Here’s the curious part: We obeyed.

I saw the raised eyebrows of partners considering moving laterally to my firm: “Right — no one talks about compensation. You guys must talk about it all the time, just like we do at my firm. It can’t be a secret.”

Wrong. We really, honest-to-God did not talk about compensation. The subject just didn’t come up.

I’ve heard second-hand that this is true for other black-box firms, too. The managing partner of a different large, black-box comp firm recently told one of my colleagues: “Once you take compensation out of the limelight and forbid people from talking about it, then people stop talking about it. The subject drops off the table.”

That sets the stage: At firms where lawyers are permitted to talk about each other’s compensation, they do. And at firms where lawyers are prohibited from talking about compensation, they don’t.

Riddle me this: In corporate law departments, we are not prohibited from discussing each other’s compensation, but we don’t do it anyway. Why is that?

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I’ve watched Dewey’s collapse only from a distance, as have most lawyers. And I’m no student of law firm finances or management. But this struck me as I read the news:

Dewey: 2012.
Howrey: 2011.
Thelen: 2009.
Heller: 2008.
Coudert: 2006.
Brobeck: 2003.

And I’m probably overlooking other recent collapses of prominent firms, since I cobbled together that list from the names that came to mind unprompted.

This history suggests that another large, well-respected firm will collapse next year, and it’s a near certainty that a firm will collapse within the next two years. Who will it be?

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I recently got a lift to the airport from a lawyer at a mid-sized firm who I’d met only earlier in the day. “It must be a pleasure to work for you,” he said.

On the one hand, that seemed strange, since I work so hard to establish a public persona that I’m a pain in the neck. (Frankly, that’s not much of a charade.) On the other hand, this seemed not at all strange, since I’ve now grown accustomed to lawyers at firms sucking up to me.

But I figured I’d play along: “Why would it be a pleasure to work for me?” I asked, innocently. “I’m pretty tough on our outside counsel.”

“Because you can tell good from bad. You worked in private practice for 25 years, and you’ve labored in my field. I suspect that, back when you were playing the game, you could write a pretty good brief. When an outside lawyer sends a bad brief to you, you may criticize it, but at least when a lawyer sends a good brief to you, you’ll recognize that it’s good. I work with an awful lot of clients who can’t distinguish good work from bad.”

Ha! Here’s an issue that I’d noticed when I was in private practice, but never really thought about. And it’s an issue that arises frequently in-house, because an in-house lawyer’s clients typically are not lawyers. My chauffeur may have thought that he was currying my favor by flattering me, but in fact he was doing something much, much better — he’d given me fodder for a blog post.

What should lawyers do when their clients can’t tell good legal work from bad?

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I got caught.

In a column last week, I criticized a brief for using the alphabetical short form “EUSLA” to signify “end user software license agreement.” Depending on the circumstances, I suggested, one might shorten the name of that contract to “agreement,” “license agreement,” or “software license agreement,” but “EUSLA” just doesn’t work — it’s meaningless alphabet soup that doesn’t help the reader of a brief.

As I said, I got caught: The lawyer who had drafted the brief read my column, cleverly figured out who I was criticizing, and called to take issue with me. (Serves me right for using real-world examples in this forum, I suppose.)

“You’re wrong, Mark,” my outside counsel said. “We called that contract an ‘EUSLA’ in all of the depositions in the case. When we quoted deposition transcripts in the summary judgment brief, those quotations called the contract an ‘EUSLA.’ We would have confused things if we called the contract an ‘EUSLA’ in the deposition excerpts and a ‘software license agreement’ in the rest of the brief. ‘EUSLA’ was the right choice.”

This conversation illustrates, first, why you shouldn’t quarrel with me while I have this nifty megaphone at Above the Law and you’ve got bupkis; I can’t possibly lose. And the conversation illustrates, second, the meaning of “digging yourself into an even deeper hole.” “EUSLA” is the wrong short-form in a brief, and your earlier mistakes don’t justify your later one . . .

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I had a cup of coffee last week with an old friend who happens to be a legal recruiter.

“Are you going to try to pry me out of my job?” I asked. “That’ll be a pretty tough sell.”

“I couldn’t place you if I tried,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“You crossed that Rubicon two years ago. I do searches only for law firms, and they don’t hire in-house lawyers. You’re no good to me anymore.”

“Excuse me?”

“Law firms buy books of business. Not only that — they buy only past books of business. Nobody buys a story — a promise of future work — these days. Firms buy only your past successes. That’s often incredibly stupid, but it’s what they do.”

The guy had my attention: First, I’m no longer a hot commodity; somehow, that annoyed me, even though I’m not looking to sell myself these days. Second, law firms are stupid about lateral hiring; this was a blog post waiting to happen . . .

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First, a stand-up comedy routine; then, my point.

In the early 1980s, Robin Williams performed in a nightclub. His performance was taped and later broadcast by HBO. During the performance, Williams spied on-stage a wine glass filled with a clear liquid (which was, in fact, water), and Williams was off and running:

“There are white wines. There are red wines. Why are there no black wines?

“Reggie wine! It’s a m*therf*cker! Goes with meat; goes with fish; goes with any damn thing it wants to.

“I like my wine like I like my women — ready to pass out.

“We’ll get Mean Joe Green to advertise the stuff: ‘Reggie wine! Drink this sh*t or I’ll nail your ass to a tree.’”

After HBO broadcast the performance, an African-American winemaker named David Rege (pronounced “Reggie”) sued Williams and others in California state court, claiming that Williams had damaged Rege’s reputation and adversely affected the sales of his wine. (You knew there was a lawsuit tucked in here someplace, didn’t you?)

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