In-House Counsel

Ed. note: This post is by Will Meyerhofer, a former Sullivan & Cromwell attorney turned psychotherapist. He holds degrees from Harvard, NYU Law, and The Hunter College School of Social Work, and he blogs at The People’s Therapist. His new book, Bad Therapist: A Romance, is available on Amazon, as are his previous books, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist and Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy (affiliate links).

If law students are annoying, then pre-law students are twice as annoying. There’s something about observing these lemmings scrabble their way into the maws of ruthless law schools, despite dire warnings and appeals to common sense, that just… gets under my skin.

Even after so much effort has been expended for their benefit — i.e., which part of “Way Worse Than Being a Dentist” didn’t you understand? — these piteous creatures patiently queue up for their punishment, hungry to “learn to think like a lawyer.” If your resolve weakens, and pity prevails over contempt, you might mistakenly engage one in conversation. For your trouble, you’ll receive an earful of a clueless pipsqueak’s master plan to save the world. Because — you hadn’t heard? — that’s why he’s going to law school: The betterment of humanity.

Because that’s what the world so desperately needs: Another lawyer….

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First, some random thoughts on the legal news of the week:

1) Who gives two ***** if gay folks get married? Or have the same rights as you and me? My goodness, if two people want to get married, God Bless them! And it is a civil rights issue; being told that you can’t have information on your partner’s hospital stay because of HIPAA is downright medieval. The pastor whose YouTube speech went viral after reading from anti-desegregation literature and turning it into an anti-gay marriage diatribe was probably the most brilliant argument in defense of gay marriage. Twenty years from now we’ll be saying: “Gay marriage? Meh, it’s really those damned ______ that we have to watch out for…” Hey, it’s America, **** yeah!!, every group gets a turn at being the downtrodden.

2) Don’t get me started on North Dakota’s draconian steps with regard to a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body. Now see, it’s Holy Week and I probably can’t take communion.

3) This DLA Piper billing debacle? Makes me sick, and is a perfect segue into finishing my column from last week. I know I know, DLA came out and said, “Heh heh, we were just kidding. Those guys aren’t even around here anymore. Overbilling? Meh. Never happened, we promise.” What did you expect them to say?

I happen to know personally one of those mentioned in the story, and he was just as much a dim bulb back then, so it is no surprise that he wrote that stuff in an email. That he moved on to a partnership at another firm is no surprise either. I will say that he is infamous for leaving one of the funniest and most outrageous drunk emails voicemails on a colleague’s phone early one morning. And he probably can’t figure out who he is from this blind item in any event. But, I digress, back to overbilling…

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Today, the National Law Journal released its list of the 100 most influential lawyers in America. The NLJ releases a similar list once every few years, and each time, the nation’s top lawyers — some from Biglaw, some from legal academia, some from the in-house world, and some from the trial and appellate bars — celebrate their success in creating real change in the industry. That said, the people named to this list are relatively well-known to the general Above the Law readership, but they won’t exactly be household names to laypeople.

Which legal eagles soared into the NLJ’s list this time around? Well, the NLJ selected their influential lawyers based on their political clout, legal results, media penetration, business credibility, and thought leadership. We’ve whittled the impressive list of 100 down to our own top 10.

So who made our cut?

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My daughter — you remember her — recently chose her job for the summer after her first year of business school. She was so earnest and diligent about it; it makes a Dad proud.

Choosing a summer job is a huge event in the life of the student: This is, after all, the place where you’re likely to work for at least the first several years of your professional career. A summer job is a big deal.

But consider how things look from the other side of the table: Yet another crop of summer kids appears at your firm for a fleeting moment and promptly vanishes, perhaps to return 15 months later when there’s a chance one of them might help in a real way with some case. Or maybe they won’t come back. Or be any good. Could you remind me again what city I’m flying to tonight, and what motion I’m arguing tomorrow?

Don’t get me wrong: A fair number of lawyers pal around with the summer folks, because (1) those lawyers enjoy spending time with the newcomers, (2) it’s important to the firm to recruit the summer class effectively, and (3) the firm has a budget for entertaining summer associates, and you might as well get your fair share of free lunches and drinks after work.

Eating lunch with a summer associate isn’t a bad deal. But work with one of ‘em? That’s a very different story….

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It is common knowledge around ATL that I am a huge proponent of the Association of Corporate Counsel (“ACC”). I have served on their boards, presented at their seminars and annual meetings, and generally participated as much as my time allows. Now, truthfully, this amount of participation has gotten me to Orlando, Los Angeles and New Orleans; all absolutely necessary trips, I swear. But there is another side to ACC than just fantastically run and organized events and parties, and that other side is advocacy on the part of business, and specifically in-house business.

Lat sent me a press release this week focused on an amicus letter that ACC sent to the S.D.N.Y. regarding the plaintiffs’ attorney fees request in In re Citigroup Securities Litigation, Case No. 1:07-cv-09901-SHS. After reading the letter and doing some research on my own, I came to the conclusion (yet again) that I have missed the boat by not practicing plaintiff-side law. These folks are asking with straight faces for what seem to be exorbitant and outrageous fees. Specific to this post and the ACC letter, they argue that contract attorney time (such attorneys normally make modest hourly wages) should be calculated at Biglaw associate hourly rates in order for the judge to arrive at a fee award. To put on my elite intellectual vocabulary hat for a moment, this is crazy talk…

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Client service. The heartbeat of Biglaw. The area where every firm has to improve. Perpetually. Biglaw hamsters in overdrive. All to make the clients happy. Sit back and admire your Biglaw firm’s willingness to go the “extra mile” by listening to its clients. We might even see a client paraded before our partners once a year. (See my column on improving partner meetings by having guest appearances from clients.)

We are taught happy clients are well-paying clients. And clients that will refer their dissatisfied colleagues at other companies to experience our brand of Biglaw magic. We love clients. Almost as much as the consultants do on House of Lies, a show that provides outrageous, if funny, explorations of the client-service provider dynamic in modern-day America. (A fun business development-training program would involve watching a series of client-interactions from the show and learning from them. Better than listening to Rainmaker X pretend the reason for his multimillion-dollar book was not his maternal grandfather’s business dealings and connections.)

Truly thinking about client service can be all-consuming, especially for a younger partner like myself. No one is giving me clients. I have to fight for them in the marketplace. I love it, but it is difficult and you need patience.

But rather than focus on the process of developing clients, let’s discuss the art of “superpleasing” clients….

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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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Talking Heads was a teensy bit before my time, but some of you know the above lyric. I came into my own with music right around “Burning Down the House.” It wasn’t until my early 20’s that I started to appreciate the world of music instead of my world of music. Living in New York City at the time of Dinkins showed me just enough rough trade to appreciate what New York was like in the 70s. Today, clubs like CBGBs and Wetlands are but mere memories for those of us with enough memory remaining. If you want a taste of “old” New York, I recommend watching “Dog Day Afternoon,” or even “Do the Right Thing.”

These days it’s almost embarrassing to walk through Times Square with its Disney-fied atmosphere. I am all for safety when walking the streets of Manhattan, but velvet ropes outside of my old dive bars in now gentrified neighborhoods make me long for the days when the City had some edge. Some of you may not believe this, but Bryant Park was once avoided like the plague after a certain hour. There used to be a bar guide put out by some enterprising young men, and my then-girlfriend — now wife of 20 years — once highlighted the names of the watering holes we had visited. When we realized we had been in fully 70% of the bars in the book, we knew it might be time for a change.

The 70% part is absolutely true, but the real reason we left Manhattan was that she got into school in Boston and my acting career was at a standstill…

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I love personality tests. They serve numerous good and constructive purposes. And by “good and constructive,” I mean shamefully entertaining, such has finding out about the best ways to totally annoy your co-workers and how to play crazy mind games with them — core skills that you need to develop to perform effectively on the job.

So when a friend of mine pointed me to an article on personality tests titled The Unique Psychological World of Lawyers, I was intrigued. It’s an older article and a bit on the dry side (at least compared to some of the off-the-wall stuff you can find here on ATL), but the some of the observations and conclusions made in the article about lawyers’ personalities are extremely compelling….

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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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