In-House Counsel

Holiday season is in full blast now, so what better time to discuss traditional end-of-year topics like performance reviews, gifting at the office, and what it’s like to advise business clients. Okay, so maybe that last one’s not quite the merrily common topic at around this time. But I’m already getting weary of all this have a happy holiday however it is you celebrate, and here are also some brand-spanking new year wishes thing, so bah. This is what we’re talking about today.

How companies expect their lawyers to advise them differs among companies. If you’re lucky, you work among people who appreciate and value lawyers for both their legal advice and their business sensibilities. (And if you’re really lucky, among people who are strangely okay with you blogging on an occasionally gossipy legal news site.) Business people who listen to your legal and business advice may respect that you work across several business units and get to see stuff that the individual groups don’t. Or they may just blindly trust you. That works too (for you).

At other companies, business people just want the in-house lawyer to stay focused on talking about legal issues and only legal issues, and don’t want to hear about any of the non-legal perspectives the lawyer may have to offer. And of course, there are other business people who don’t even really care for listening to any of the legal stuff (this may pose a bit of a problem if lawsuits or jail are some of the things they are interested in avoiding).

To be fair, the level of appreciation that business people have for their counsel’s advice, whether legal or non-legal, depends a lot on the individual lawyer’s capabilities….

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Years ago, I was a barrel of laughs. (Well, more of a barrel of laughs then than I am now, anyway.)

When I was defending antidepressant-suicide cases, I barely resisted the urge to send in-house counsel an e-mail containing a political cartoon: The little lab rat was dangling (with his tongue hanging out) from a noose in the cage, having plainly just kicked the little stool out from under himself. One of the two researchers in white coats was saying to the other: “We have some bad news on the new antidepressant.”

Herrmann, you idiot! You can photocopy the thing and show it to the in-house lawyer the next time you see him, but the company just can’t have that in its e-mail system! Can you imagine that as Exhibit 1 at trial?

But I didn’t always censor myself. I’d share (funny) on-line humor with colleagues and clients, figuring that they’d appreciate it, and it was a painless way of letting clients know that I was thinking of them. I may well have been violating some firm policy by using the computer system for “non-business” purposes, but who cares, really?

When you start speaking to big audiences, you become more cautious. I wrote in Monday’s Inside Straight column, for example, that something had happened years ago, “when God was young.” I thought long and hard before I pressed the “publish” icon: Who will I offend? Orthodox Jews who never speak or write the name of Gxd? Devout Christians offended by the use of the Lord’s name in vain? Anyone else? Is it worth the risk of giving offense for the small benefit of making one column slightly more interesting?

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Bull and S***. If you’re not slaving away trying to get last minute billing hours, you’re slaving away trying to support a crazed population of folks trying to meet year-end sales numbers. It has been a difficult year, at best, for business. Heck, even Apple was downgraded to neutral yesterday. So, here comes the push.

The push is to close every deal possible, no matter the amount, no matter the risk, by 11:59 p.m. on December 31. But our job is to stanch the flow of craziness, is it not? Stay with me here — I am not allowed to collect commission due to a conflict of interest, yet every dollar that boosts our revenue, and thus our numbers for Q4, goes toward the bonus pool from which I directly benefit. If our end of year numbers are strong enough, the analysts punch our ticket into the new year and my options’ value rises. I may be dense (just ask my wife), but I fail to understand the difference from a commission-based return, and a bonus- or option-based return. The end result is the same, is it not? A benefit is conferred upon me based in part on my participation in the process of my sales-side corporation. But I am expected to “push” back.

I cannot, for real reasons, as well as flippancy, express some of the nuttiness that goes on at this time of year. Risks are taken akin to jumping from the high dive toward a half-empty deep end in the hopes that the water will be there in time. And it always ends happily with a splash. But, the troubling aspect to me is this incongruent fallacy of ethics. I am ethically bound to zealously represent my corporation, and at the same time, I am representing people whose very careers are at stake. I am well aware of the order of precedence there, but practically speaking, that line becomes blurred at this time of year, and frankly, I find it to be unsettling to be forced to live a legal fiction….

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A correspondent recently posed this question: I’m a litigation partner at a big firm. If I go solo, will my corporate clients continue to use me for their smaller matters?

I’ll use this column to do two things. First, I’ll offer the customary answer to all legal questions: It depends.

Second, I’ll ask my in-house readers at large corporations to let me know (either by posting in the comments or sending an e-mail to the link in the shirttail below) whether their corporations use sole practitioners.

Will big corporate clients follow an individual lawyer who jumps ship and goes solo?

It depends . . .

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, in the second part of a two-part series, Casey Berman gives some practical advice to attorneys considering a corporate in-house counsel position.

While some are viewed as a valuable resource, many non-lawyers in the company automatically stereotype company attorneys as mere red tape, as an expense, or as an obstacle to be avoided (or derided as the “Department of Sales Prevention”). “Often, lawyers are considered overhead in a corporate situation, and to be a success, it really helps to be able to show how you contribute to the bottom line or at least don’t add significantly to it,” says Katie Slater, former Assistant General Counsel at AEI Services, a Houston based energy company, who now runs Career Infusion Coaching, a career management firm for lawyers.  In-house attorneys always have to manage expectations and demonstrate over time how their legal skill set contributes to the collective goals of the company.

The best way to demonstrate this value is to be able to communicate and express ideas in a quick, clear way in order to give guidance and ideas for next steps. “Bottom-line communication ability — can you say things in three bullet points or less, and in plain English?” says Slater.  “Being able to break down a legal issue simply and coherently to get to why this is an issue from a business perspective is a huge skill that will be valued.  Can you give ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers, and, if the answer is ‘No,’ can you come up with alternatives or work-arounds?”

Many business types think lawyers are put on earth to tell them “No.” To combat this, successful in-house attorneys are responsive (even if they are still working on an answer), and provide the business units with alternatives to mull on and consider. This interaction can build trust and shows that the attorneys is indeed on their side and contributing to business persons personal goals and the overall growth of the company.

Read more at the ATL Career Center….

You know that there are a lot of holiday parties going on when planning to hang at another one starts to feel like a burden. Even if there’s karaoke involved. This is what happens when bar associations seem to have forgotten that there is now newfangled technology such as email and phones that can be used to avoid scheduling their holiday parties all during the same one week in December. Yes, I’m looking at you, NY/NJ minority bars.

Networking in festive environments is kind of like opening a nicely-wrapped holiday gift. It’s out of the ordinary and there’s a bit of surprise involved. But as with gifts, you don’t find out until after you’ve engaged someone new in conversation whether it’s just what you were hoping for or kind of… meh.

As with many things in life, preparation is key. Preparing for cocktail schmoozefests is easy. Look your best — clothes, hair, teeth — looking fabulous will help you to feel more confident as well. Have an interesting elevator speech ready and bring lots of business cards.

And please avoid these networking blunders….

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First, a shameless plug: Here’s an interview in which Ari Kaplan and I discuss “Inside Straight and the Impact of Getting Published on Professional Success.” (That’s Inside Straight, the book, not Inside Straight, the column, although I guess I see the room for confusion there.)

But enough of that. Let’s hear from the managing partner of our law firm:

Ah! Orlando in March! What a fine time and place for our annual firmwide retreat.

I want to welcome everyone to this magnificent resort, and I want to take this opportunity to say a few words about a subject that’s dear to our hearts: Billing time.

To paraphrase Sir Thomas More in “A Man For All Seasons“: “When a man [fills out his timesheets,] he is holding his own soul in his hands like water; and if he should open his fingers then — he needn’t ever hope to find himself again.”

For the junior associates in the crowd, consider this: You will, at some point, have a slow month. You’ll get nervous that the firm will punish you for not having billed enough hours. To protect yourself, you’ll be tempted to borrow from the future. You’ll think that, if you add just four hours to this month’s time, you’ll have hit your billing target. If you charge those four hours to your largest client, no one will notice that you’ve slightly padded the bill. And you’ll figure that you’ll make this up to the client in some future month; you’ll work four hours some Saturday morning that you won’t write down, so the client will come out even in the long run. “That’s not really fraud,” you’ll think, so you’ll have eased your conscience. . . .

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I often tell the story of my first assignment as a summer associate, to draft a one-page complaint. Two hours later, the assigning partner checked on me and saw that I was still stuck trying to get the index box to align. Shaking his head, he showed me the magic of the firm document library, and the “secret” of cutting and pasting necessary language. Chastened beyond belief, I vowed to avoid reinventing the well-worn wheels of documents. However, once in a while, reinvention becomes a necessity, as the “same old same old” becomes vestigial, and if you cannot coherently answer “why” you are utilizing some form or other, maybe it is time to examine the wheel treads for wear.

Look at the following indemnity clause and decide for yourself how many changes you might make:

[***] at its expense, will defend indemnify, and hold harmless Customer, its parent, subsidiaries, affiliates and their respective members, partners, shareholders, employees, officers, directors, managers, agents and representatives against any and all claims, damages, liabilities, losses, actions, government proceedings and costs and expenses, including reasonable attorneys’ fees and disbursements and court costs (collectively, “Losses”) arising out of, resulting from or relating to [***].

I would remove “hold harmless” and “shareholders,” and limit “any and all claims” to “any and all third party claims”; let me tell you why….

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* As an in-house compliance officer, there’s only one guarantee: you’ll be paid, and you’ll be paid quite well — we’re talking like six-figure salaries here. Regulatory corporate compliance, on the other hand, isn’t such a surefire thing. [WSJ Law Blog (sub. req.)]

* When it comes to employment data, this law dean claims that using full-time, long-term positions where bar passage is required as a standard to measure success in the employment market is “grossly misleading.” Uhh, come on, seriously? [Am Law Daily]

* “Bar passes and jobs are inextricably tied,” but eight of New York’s 15 law schools had lower bar passage rates than last year for the July exam. Guess which school came in dead last place. [New York Law Journal]

* You know, it may actually be a good thing for a monk to apply to law school right now. It can’t get much worse; after all, the guy’s already taken a vow of poverty. [Law Admissions Lowdown / U.S. News & World Report]

* Dominique Strauss-Kahn officially settled the sexual assault civil lawsuit that was filed against him by Nafissatou Diallo. Given that she thanked “everybody all over the world,” it was probably a nice payout. [CNN]

* Steven Keeva, a pioneer in work/life balance publications for lawyers, RIP. [ABA Journal]

Personally, I gave up on law reviews in the mid-90s.

For a while after I graduated from law school, I flipped through the tables of contents of the highest profile law reviews, to see what the scholars were saying and to read things that were relevant to my practice. But by the mid-90s, I gave up: There was no chance of finding anything relevant, so the game was no longer worth the candle.

(When I took up blogging about pharmaceutical product liability cases, I began rooting around for law review articles in that field, which could generate the fodder for blog posts for which I was always desperate. Even then, the law reviews rarely offered much that practitioners would care about.)

None of that convinced me that the law reviews were dead, however, because I figured that the academics were at least still relying on the law reviews to screen and distribute each other’s work. But I had dinner recently with an old law school classmate who’s now (1) a prominent scholar in his or her field and (2) a member of the hiring committee at his or her law school. A short conversation with this guy (or gal) convinced me that law reviews are not long for this world. . . .

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