In-House Counsel

Think good deeds are only for good people? Every once in a while, an uncommon opportunity comes along in which even grinchy, ol’ meanies can contribute positively to society. On occasion, jerks are mistaken for people who actually care about others and, if they’re lawyers, they may be asked if they would be willing to do a mock interview for a law student or junior attorney.

If you’re a jerk, I have good news for you. Your natural grouchy demeanor could make you an ideal candidate to give mock law interviews. This is your chance to fully exhibit your abominable self and earn the sincere appreciation of others at the same time. It’s a true win-win situation!

Because when it comes to practice interviews, many interviewers try to pretend that they’re the ones who are actually interviewing someone for a real job at their law firm or company. Silly counselors….

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I wrote last week about ideas to build a book of business. My main point was to start small and branch out from there. I mentioned how, as a young and naïve (ok, ignorant) associate, I was quickly disabused of the idea that I would soon be able to waltz into Pfizer and pick up some strands of litigation.

Then I received the following email in my Gmail account. It is a well-written counterpoint to my argument. A partner in New York City argues that starting small is a recipe for staying small.

I reprint his email (largely unedited) below….

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Last week I spoke with an In-House Insider, a Biglaw refugee turned in-house counsel. You can see what our Insider has to say about the state of Biglaw and client relations here and below.

As with the initial installment, the only changes I made to the Insider’s words were those done to protect their identity, and the Insider was given the opportunity to revise their points once I added the questions and commentary.

Again, I thank the Insider for the candid observations and thoughtful opinions on these core issues. Now, on to the discussion….

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The grass isn’t quite this green in the ‘new normal.’

In a piece from last month, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wondered: Is Growth Over? One could very easily take this question, posed with respect to the broader economy, and apply it to the world of large law firms.

And what would the answer be? According to a client advisory just issued by Citi Private Bank and Hildebrandt Consulting, “Probably.”

Their analysis is gloomy, although guardedly so; we’re not talking about “the sky is falling” pronouncements. Let’s take a look at the specifics….

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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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If you work as a corporate lawyer at a law firm, you aren’t usually making distinctions between legal issues and business issues. There are just issues. You spot all of the potential ones that you can come up with (hoping to God that those are most of the ones out there), share them with your client, and your client decides how to proceed from there.

If you work as corporate lawyer at a company, you need to keep these two types of issues straight for a couple of reasons. First, the type of issue you’re dealing with will determine how much authority you have on the matter. Your authority on a legal issue? A respectable amount. Your authority on a business issue? Diddly squat. If even that much.

Second, it’s important that you know the difference because, a lot of the time, your business people won’t have a clue. Especially some of the more junior-level people. And it’s your pleasant duty to inform them…

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What does 2013 hold for the world of large law firms? Let’s look into our crystal ball.

Actually, scratch that. Making predictions is a tricky business. Sometimes we’re right — like when we predicted robust bonuses out of Cravath, based on their large partner class — but sometimes we’re wrong.

For now, let’s keep our powder dry, and instead check out historical data about hours, billing rates, and corporate legal spending. Can we gain any insight into the future by looking back over the past?

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In this new year, since there have been several columns of late of the “confessional” type, I thought I might join the bandwagon. Since the overwhelming majority of inquiries from readers regard how best to market themselves to start to build a book of business, let me tell the truth: you can’t. At least not through me, or anyone in a position like mine.

I just passed my fifth year anniversary with my company, and in that time period, I have assigned a relatively low five-figure amount of work to outside counsel. And of that amount, only a small portion went to a former colleague in my network. The rest went to counsel from a list of approved firms for particular regions of the country. My intent is not to depress you, senior associates who have just realized in 2013 that you really don’t have a book to speak of, it is to get you to read between the lines.

In other words, find the differences from whence I speak, and fill in the holes. Those spaces in between are where opportunities exist for you to start to gain your own clients….

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Now that bonuses, year-end collections, and holiday parties are behind us, it is helpful to remind ourselves (early on in the new year) that it is (paying) clients that make everything possible for Biglaw firms. A few months ago, I was the fortunate recipient of some illuminating correspondence from a Biglaw refugee turned in-house counsel, offering a “customer’s” take on what is both right and wrong with the “current law firm service delivery model.” Because I truly believe in the importance of this column offering an anonymous outlet for informed discussion of Biglaw-related topics (see my posts detailing my conversations with Old School Partner and Jeffrey Lowe), I offered to make my correspondent the resident In-House Insider.

Agreement was not long in coming, together with yet more astute observations about Biglaw. For our initial “discussion,” I have (similarly to how I handled the Lowe interview) added questions and some brief commentary to our Insider’s points, and share this written interview with you. The only changes I made to the Insider’s words were related to their identity, and the Insider was given the opportunity to revise their responses once I added the questions and commentary. I hope we can continue to benefit from this In-House Insider’s perspective in the future. For now, I definitely appreciate when I get contacted by Biglaw-related personalities looking to discuss the issues raised in my column, and share their thoughts with this audience. Without further ado….

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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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