In-House Counsel

You really don’t want to be sued in a corrupt, backwater swamp.

No, no! I don’t mean Louisiana! I mean a truly corrupt backwater swamp like, say, Sudan.

(I pick Sudan because it’s subject to sanctions by most first-world countries, so I don’t have to worry about someday being dragged before a Sudanese judge who isn’t tickled by my having called his country a “corrupt, backwater swamp.” I may well pay a price for having tarred Louisiana with that label, but my opening two sentences just wouldn’t have been funny if I hadn’t named a specific state. I’ll have to hope that judges in Louisiana have a sense of humor.)

You get sued in Sudan. You hire Sudanese counsel. You probe him about Sudanese substantive law, Sudanese procedure, and whether the Sudanese judicial system can be trusted. He answers your questions about corruption with vague assurances about how he’s a pretty well-connected lawyer, and most judges aren’t too bad, and corruption isn’t quite as rampant as outsiders seem to think. Then he goes on to explaining how he’ll defend your lawsuit.

That advice may be okay as far as it goes, but it’s missing the global perspective. Here’s one place where in-house lawyers — and sophisticated outside counsel — can add real value in litigation….

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It is that time of year when “A Christmas Story” begins to play on the endless loop left vacant by the old WPIX yule log. The scene I refer to is when Scut Farkus tortures Flick by turning his arm behind his back and forcing him to say “uncle” until Scut and his yellow eyes have had enough. Then he and his toady, Grover Dill, retreat back under the rocks from whence they came.

The Scut Farkuses of the in-house world are thankfully very few and even farther between. Usually, there is at least a façade of collegiality between different counsels representing their respective companies. Sometimes, this collegiality becomes real, and drinks are shared as deals are closed. But, yes, Virginia, there is a Scut Farkus Society.

They are the barely competent; just enough to be dangerous, and they usually somehow hit the lottery and work at uber-corporations whose money we as a company desire. As a vendor attorney, there is always a bit of kowtowing to the purchaser. Sometimes it’s a cultural necessity, but more often than not, it is a factor of needing the business. But everyone has a breaking point, yes, even me….

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I’ve been living in London for almost three months now, so it’s time to declare myself a native. What do natives know about the City?

First: Dryer technology is apparently too tricky for this country. Listen, chaps: A dryer is supposed to dry your clothes.

These folks don’t get it. They’ve invented a washer/dryer thingy: You put your clothes in the machine, press some buttons, and the machine washes your clothes. Without moving your clothes, you then push some more buttons, and the machine spins and makes some noise. At the end of the so-called “dry cycle,” you remove your clothes from the washer/dryer thingy and hang your clothes in the living room to dry.

The United Kingdom is one of eight countries in the world that has successfully detonated a nuclear weapon, but these boys can’t crack dryer technology? What’s up with that?

Hey, maybe that’s an answer! Nuke the friggin’ clothes! They might come out a tad radioactive, but at least they’d be dry, and they wouldn’t be hanging in my living room. Or maybe you could import some dryers from the United States: We’ve got a bunch that work, and we could use the export business.

But dryers are the least of it . . . .

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Foraging: it’s not just for grizzly bears.

Last week, in the inaugural installment of our Career Alternatives video series with our friends at Bloomberg Law, we brought you the story of Lisa Granik, a lawyer turned “Master of Wine.” She’s living the dream, drinking and thinking and writing about wine for a living.

Well, how would you like some food to go with your wine? Today’s career alternative for attorneys: forager.

Forager? Does ordering something on Seamless count? Is Tristan Taylor Thomas looking for food in the trash again?

No, no. This foraged food gets eaten at one of America’s most acclaimed restaurants, by folks who pay hundreds of dollars for the privilege. And the forager, who graduated from a top law school, walked away from a high-powered legal career….

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I am guessing that approximately six people will read this column. That’s down from the usual nineteen, and it is because this is the day before Thanksgiving 2012 — the Last Thanksgiving if the Mayans were right, and just another day gorging on turkey with the family if they were wrong. Since so few of us are toiling away today, I want to give thanks for some things, and to some people, instead of writing another piece on in-house life.

First, thanks to David, Elie, and Staci. It has been an adventure writing for you. I used to read this site every day, and enjoyed it more often than not. I am sure that one day we’ll meet face to face and share some cocktails, discuss open-toed shoes, and admire Staci’s weight loss and wedding ring.

Thanks to the other writers on this blog, especially Tom Wallerstein and Mark Herrmann. Among the other writers here, those two consistently cause me to attempt to step up my game. That is the mark of good writing, when you strive to write as well as those whom you admire.

Thanks to the Commentariat. I am inspired and chastened by your (sometime) wit, and disgusted by your depravity. However, and I mean this sincerely, you are like the hordes in the pit of the Globe theater, ready to throw waste or snark on a moments notice — sometimes deservedly so, and sometimes with good humor. I hope you find jobs, and that the Internets always remain anonymous for you….

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* “[L]awyers aren’t trained as accountants,” but Gibson Dunn, Freshfields, Drinker Biddle, and Skadden may have some splainin’ to do when it comes to Hewlett-Packard’s M&A blowout with Autonomy. [WSJ Law Blog]

* Looks like it’s time for some holiday musical chairs: Dorsey & Whitney’s managing partner Marianne Short will be leaving the firm at year’s end to join UnitedHealth as its chief legal officer. [Twin Cities Business]

* The court-ordered mediation between Hostess and the bakers’ union broke down last night. If Judge Drain approves the company’s liquidation plan, the Twinkie may disappear from whence it came. [Reuters]

* Remember the students from Texas Southern who sued because their contracts prof allegedly “curve[d] them out of the class”? Yeah, that got dismissed faster than you can say R2K §90. [National Law Journal]

* You shall not pass — or use Lord of the Rings characters in online gambling games! J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate is suing Warner Brothers for $80M over improper licensing of the late author’s characters. [Bloomberg]

* Please don’t tickle me, Elmo. One week after an accuser recanted his allegations against puppeteer Kevin Clash, another one filed suit over an underage sexual relationship. [Media Decoder / New York Times]

* There’s nothing like some man-on-man sexual harassment to get you going in the morning. Sparks Steak House paid $600K to settle charges lodged by 22 male servers over an eight year period. [Corporate Counsel]

* Seems like this pulchritudinous plaintiff’s contract case is still kicking, and Emel Dilek testified that sleeping with the boss was “absolutely not” one of her roles during her time at Mercedes-Benz. [New York Post]

* Lululemon and Calvin Klein have settled their patent spat over elastic waistbands on yoga pants. Here’s hoping the Canadian yoga-wear company turned this lemon of a lawsuit into lemonade. [Businessweek]

* What do divorcées do in their spare time? They go to Florida’s $350M courthouse to spray paint it with broken hearts and notes for the judge who presided over their proceedings. [Riptide 2.0 / Miami New Times]

This week marks the second anniversary of my “Inside Straight” column at Above the Law.

Two years. Two hundred columns. One book. And 1.5 million clicks through the “jumps” to “continue reading” my silly little ditties. Your favorite columns were here (but it was a fraud, and I admitted as much), here, and here (and the kid landed a great job within weeks after the post went up!). I’ll lift my exhausted typing fingers to crank out these words: Thank you!

But back to business.

Oooh, oooh, oooh.

I wrote back in September that clients don’t prompt law firms to open new offices by insisting on one-stop shopping, and I suddenly became a popular guy. The letter carrier was exhausted, schlepping all those e-mails to my e-mailbox.

Remarkably, few people fundamentally disagreed with my thesis. I wrote that clients don’t insist on one-stop shopping, and I expected to hear that my experience was limited, my evidence anecdotal, and my position ridiculous. Instead, I heard largely that law firms open new offices for many and varied reasons, but client insistence on one-stop shopping is far down the list.

So why do firms launch new offices?

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In-house lawyers receive a good amount of guidance on ways to effectively deal with business clients. However, we typically receive less direction on how to work well with another big, and in some ways, our biggest, “client”: our managers.

Managers differ. Some are very hands-off and rely on you to update them only when you think it’s necessary. (Sometimes you may need to remind them who you are.) Or you may have a micromanager. Does he insist that you provide him with a memo, with citations, for each bathroom break you plan take? Bingo. Management skills vary. Some managers sincerely care about your well-being, and others suspect everyone wants to off them for their job. There are those who want to be your bestest friend forever and ever, while others maintain a cool distance.

As a “direct report,” you need to learn how to effectively work with your manager’s style and preferences. Banging your head against your office wall is only one of many good options. There are also several “managing up” approaches that apply when working with nearly all managers, regardless of how much of a freakshow your own boss may be….

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* BP agreed to plead guilty to 14 charges and pay $4.5B in fines, but before going through with it, several Biglaw firms helped the company sell off assets to fund litigation- and spill-related costs. [Am Law Daily]

* According to HBR Consulting, compensation for in-house attorneys has risen over the past year — including bonuses, which went up to $62,500. Sorry, but Biglaw isn’t following suit. [Corporate Counsel]

* It’s better to leave well enough alone: Pryor Cashman was ordered to pay more than $21K in legal fees for filing a frivolous motion over its repeated attempts to dismiss a case. [New York Law Journal]

* Judge Susan McDunn, who claimed that her “life [was] being ruined” by the secret lawsuits of many powerful Chicagoans, has resigned. Looks like her $182K salary wasn’t enough to buy crazy pills. [Chicago Tribune]

* James T. Hayes Jr., the ICE agent who accused his superior of subjecting male employees to her “sexually offensive behavior,” settled his discrimination lawsuit against the government for $175,000. [Washington Post]

Long ago, my law firm won an appeal, and we were thinking of publicizing the victory for the benefit of both the client and our firm.

“It’ll be good to get some attention,” I said to the senior partner.

“It’s easy to get attention,” said he. “Just run naked down Market Street at high noon. We don’t want attention. We want good attention.”

The same could be said of corporate law departments: It’s easy to get attention. It’s harder to get attention for simply doing a good job.

Suppose you wanted your corporation’s law department to be the darling of the press and be nominated for “law department of the year” honors. What would you do?

It’s easy: Make the type of big, public announcements that draw attention: “Our law department is announcing three major initiatives. First, we’re announcing a pro bono initiative. All of our in-house lawyers will devote at least 500 hours per year to pro bono matters. Second, we’re implementing a diversity initiative. [Insert details here.] Third, we’re completely eliminating reliance on the billable hour. Henceforth, all of our law firms will work on flat-fee or other alternative billing arrangements.” (There are surely other items that one could add to this list, too, that are escaping my feeble imagination.)

Gin ‘em up. Send out a press release. Presto! Your law department would be the toast of the town. People would be beating down your doors seeking interviews. But what would you have accomplished?

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