In-House Counsel

If you took a poll in which you had to answer how good a lawyer you are, how would you rank yourself — below average, average, or above average? With the “illusory superiority” phenomenon at work, more than 50% of you would respond that you’re an above average lawyer. Now, you don’t have to be good at math to figure out that something’s not quite right here.

Because I care about my ATL readers, I’ve decided to make it my mission in this post to enlighten those of you below average lawyers as to your not-so-great-as-you-think-ness. The key to getting around illusory superiority is to not rely on your own fallible opinion of yourself. Instead, look to other more objective indications of your inferiority.

What are some signs that you may be a below average lawyer?

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How to drive partners nuts. How to drive associates nuts. How to drive your boss nuts. How to drive clients nuts.

What’s left? Today’s topic: How to drive outside counsel nuts.

I’d say that I’ve been thinking long and hard about this subject to permit me to draft this column, but that wouldn’t be true. I’m a natural at this!

How do you drive outside counsel nuts?

First: Insist that outside counsel prepare a budget for every matter. Then complain that the budget is too high; tell counsel to reduce it. Complain that your business will never accept even the revised budget, and tell counsel to cut the estimate further. When you get the second revision, gin up some reason why even that’s too high, and have counsel cut the budget again.

Six months later, when counsel has blown through the budget, refuse to pay the bill! “You told me you could handle this case for damn near nothing. And now you want all this money? This is far more than what you budgeted. There’s no way we’re paying this!”

See? I told you that I was a natural. And I’m just getting warmed up . . . .

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I am told there is a fad wherein you get up on a faux bicycle, and make your legs go around on pedals as fast as possible until the room starts spinning. To my Cheetos-stained mind, this sounds like an awful idea. (Hey, at least my mind is not nicotine-stained.) But the “spinning” I am talking about goes by several different identities: panic, anxiety, etc. It is caused by a single source: error.

As lawyers, we are expected to be perfect. Oh, not perfect people, oh no no no. But perfect in our writing, analysis, and so on. Laypeople have no understanding of the pressure that we regularly practice under, be it in Biglaw, or for overly anal-retentive judges. We are not allowed mistakes, there is no such thing as a first draft, there is instead a “perfect” draft that gets reviewed to the level of uber-perfect. However, because we are human, and not perfect, there is always a chance for disaster — missing a deadline, missing a citation, or worse.

Once error is introduced into our perfect worlds, spinning can set in if not immediately and staunchly held in check. Now, it is true that we aren’t following the NYC St. Patrick’s Day parade on shovel duty, but the pressure under which we practice manifests itself in some horrible things such as alcoholism, divorce, and suicide….

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If you are bad at these things, it can ruin you life.

I don’t even remember my SAT score. I know it wasn’t a round number. I know it was in the top 5 of my high school class. But the actual number, I couldn’t tell you. And I wouldn’t know where to look it up. I mean, we’re talking about something that happened to me almost two decades ago. I think the last time somebody asked me about my SAT score to my face I made a mental note to have sex with his girlfriend.

And in the intervening two decades, hasn’t the scoring scale changed multiple times? I have no idea how my score that I can’t remember would look compared to others who took the test more recently.

Luckily, none of this matters because nobody is going to ask to see my SAT score before they let me spew nonsense on the internet.

It’s a good thing that I’m not trying to be a general counsel at a hedge fund. I know it’s kind of “industry standard” to ask for that information if you want a job, but can’t we all agree that it’s an incredibly lazy way to hire employees?

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The average person is relatively honest. Why do we create rules that force otherwise honest people to lie?

We do this to many people. Think first about physicians.

For some reason, New Mom and Baby should spend one extra night at the hospital. Mom and Baby are doing fine, but the doctor sees a reason for one more night of rest. What does Doc do?

The insurance company won’t pay for, and Mom can’t afford, an extra night at the hospital, so Doc lies: He falsely notes that Baby is “jaundiced,” which justifies the necessary night at the hospital. The rules have turned Doc into a liar.

I’m sure that’s just the start of what the insurance bureaucracy does to turn honest physicians into routine liars. But I’m thinking today of rules that turn perfectly honest lawyers into liars. Once you start thinking about it, you’ll come up with endless examples . . .

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I assumed that pretty much everyone had seen the music video by now — multiple times. Scores of news sites, including CNN, ABC, and the Huffington Post have written it up. There have been tons of positive responses from significant players in the entertainment industry (including T-Pain, who tweeted, “Words cannot even describe how amazing this video is…”). As of writing this article, it has over 170 million YouTube views, and is currently the number one downloaded music video on iTunes. Heck, they even did a “dance cam” of the video at Dodger Stadium and non-Koreans watching the game broke into the dorky-becomes-cool horse dance!

But I kept finding that friends, even people active in social media, hadn’t yet experienced the greatest music video ever (did I mention flash mobs in Australia?). I had thought that just because there was promotion, you know — everywhere — for it, the video was more broadly known than it actually was.

Promoting yourself at work can be similar. No, not celebrities tweeting your awesomeness or dance cams in the office conference room. What I’m talking about is that you may think that you’ve made your contributions at work obvious to those around you. But you may be surprised to find that they’re clueless about your efforts, just as I’m surprised to find that people around me haven’t yet heard about the Gangnam Style music video, which is after the jump….

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Fair is fair is fair is fair: First, I analyzed what drives partners nuts. Next, I revealed what drives associates nuts. Third, I suggested how secretaries could drive their bosses nuts. Which (unless my imagination improves) leaves only today’s column: How to drive clients nuts!

How can you drive clients nuts? Let me count the ways.

First, remember that it’s really not the client’s case; it’s yours! The client retained you. You’re tending to the thing. If you win, you’re going to link to the decision from your on-line firm bio. So take the case and run with it!

When journalists call, answer their questions. (Make sure they spell your name, and your firm’s name, correctly in the published piece. Free publicity can’t hurt.) That silly little client surely trusts you to handle the press properly and, if the client doesn’t, the client’s wrong.

In fact, don’t limit yourself to handling the press. Figure out what an appropriate settlement should be, and then move the process along on your own. Call opposing counsel and tell her that you haven’t yet run this idea past your client, but you think the case should settle for 500 grand. Tell her you’ll recommend that amount if she’ll recommend that amount, and see what happens. The client will be pleased that you evaluated the case and sped the process without bothering the client at all. That’s both convenient and cost-effective: You’ll be a hero! (It’s quite unlikely the client was thinking more broadly than you are, considering the effect of settling this case on business issues, or other cases, or the like. After all, it’s your case. Don’t be a weenie; you handle it!)

Great! We’ve pushed the client one step closer to the brink of insanity. What else can we do to nudge the client over the edge?

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Sometimes the customer is right. Once in a while, the customer is so very correct that I will go to the trouble of writing down a noteworthy quote or two. Recently, during a call with a CIO of a major corporation, she told me (and several others on the call) that what had occurred was at the level of “nothing less forgivable.” And she was absolutely dead on in her assessment of the situation. I dropped my usual schtick of “lawyer,” and had an honest and candid conversation with her. I sought her counsel on what solution(s) she would propose to the problem, and I promised to get back in touch.

The facts of this situation had to do with HIPAA compliance. Now, if you’re running a financial firm, it’s unlikely that you are overly concerned with HIPAA; instead, you have to worry more about Gramm-Leach-Bliley. And if you run a fireworks stand, you really need to focus on keeping sources of flame away from your establishment. My point is this: in no matter what field your business exists, there are acts that could cause a cataclysmic problem for you and your future.

As an in-house attorney, you must always be on both sides of the field with these issues — offense as well as defense. You must be vigilant about interactions with other entities, and you will sometimes be on the receiving end of criticism flowing back to you. Neither is much fun (though, as an old litigator, offense is still kind of enjoyable now and again), but both are absolutely essential. Especially your response skill set….

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Law firms are not unique.

There are many professional services firms in the world, and there’s no reason to think that corporations would naturally be nicer than law firms.

But I’ve recently heard words spoken by in-house lawyers that I swear you would never have heard at a firm.

Get a load of this one: “The document that Galt distributed had many typographical and other errors. I believe Galt needs some coaching on document presentation.”

“Coaching on document presentation”???

I never heard the concept expressed quite so pleasantly during my decades at law firms.

And that’s just one of many times corporate life has recently seemed nicer than law firm life . . .

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Fair is fair is fair: Two weeks ago, I wrote about how to drive partners nuts. Last week, I wrote about how to drive associates nuts. Today, I’m continuing along the lawyers’ food chain: Secretaries (or “administrative assistants”) — it’s your turn: How can you drive your boss nuts? [FN1]

First: Your time after work is yours, to tend to your family, watch TV, go clubbing, or whatever. So you have to handle all of the other stuff — like making appointments, chatting with out-of-town friends, shopping, and the like — during work hours. Happily, the telephone and computer at your desk are all the equipment you need. So do all your shopping on-line during business hours. Talk to your friends, post stuff at Facebook, and surf the web from your office desk.

That does three things for you. It gives you more free time at home, to spend as you like. It helps to pass the time during work hours. And — best of all! — it’ll drive your boss nuts! Every time your boss walks up to give you a project, just click away from Amazon.com and whisper “gotta go” into your receiver. Your boss may not notice and, if he does, you’ve just pushed him one step closer to the edge, which is, after all, the name of this game. Use your time at work intelligently; use it to handle all of your personal affairs.

Don’t just fritter away your eight hours a day at the office. Also, nibble around the edges. Leave the office at 4:55 without telling your boss. Maybe she won’t notice, and she’ll surely never come frantically looking for you seconds after you’ve left. Sticking your head in the door and saying good night would just tip her off that you’re cutting out early; don’t do it!

Also, remember that Mondays and Fridays during June, July, and August are meant to be taken as sick days. If you take them regularly, your boss will get used to this, and he’ll become more efficient, doing all of his work between Tuesday and Thursday. He’ll probably thank you for this.

How else can you drive your boss nuts?

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