In-House Counsel

I just read Susan Beck’s piece at the American Lawyer reflecting back on 25 years of legal journalism. That prompts this odd post.

The year is 1987. There’s a hearing in a court in San Francisco that will likely affect the price of a publicly traded security. An arbitrage house retains us: “We must know the result of that hearing first — the instant the information becomes public. We want to be able to trade before our competitors can act on the news.”

What do you do?

You and a colleague arrive at the courthouse an hour before the hearing will begin. One of you goes to the pay phone on the second floor of the courthouse — down the hall from where the hearing will be held — and gets on the line to New York. That person is about to hold an open line to New York for three hours.

The other of you goes into the hearing room, elbowing your way to a seat in the back, near the door. (It’s like the sign outside the country church: “Services 9 am Sunday. Come early for a seat in the rear.”) The hearing lasts a couple of hours, and the judge announces the ruling. All of the lawyers and arbitrageurs push through the door and run down the hallway.

Ha! All of those other guys curse as they run past your guy, who’s holding the open line to New York! You get on the phone and explain the decision. The guy in New York says: “Repeat that.” You repeat it. The guy in New York shouts: “Buy!!!”

And all of the other lawyers and arbs are just now jostling out of the courthouse doors downstairs, heading to the Greyhound Station across the street, where there’s a bunch of pay phones.

So your arbitrageur-client is a happy man, and he retains you again several months later . . .

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Last night’s debate was fun to watch, and would have been that much better if the president had actually followed his instincts and decked Mitt Romney, à la “Two Tribes.” There was a lot of huffing and puffing and talking over each other and ignoring Candy Crowley, and that was all in good fun. But for me, the most pointed moment was when Mitt claimed to understand that the women in his precious binder needed to get home to cook dinner and get the kids. Here’s the transcript:

“But number two, because I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school. She said, I can’t be here until 7 or 8 o’clock at night. I need to be able to get home at 5 o’clock so I can be there for making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said fine. Let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you. What we can do to help young women and women of all ages is to have a strong economy, so strong that employers that are looking to find good employees and bringing them into their workforce and adapting to a flexible work schedule that gives women opportunities that they would otherwise not be able to afford…”

Holy crap. It is 2012, and we have a candidate for President of the United States not only completely avoiding the direct question regarding equal pay, but also claiming that women need flexible schedules to be employable? WTF?!

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As outside counsel handling a new piece of litigation, where do you start?

At closing argument.

That’s an oversimplification, of course, but it’s a valuable one. When you’re retained to defend a new lawsuit, you have to figure out how your client can win. What’s the other side’s weakest point? What are your strongest points? Where’s the emotional appeal in your case? What legal angles can you exploit? You put all that together and then spend a couple of years developing an evidentiary record that builds your path to victory.

It’s not rocket science: Figure out how to win; get there. Good lawyers do it intuitively.

As in-house counsel, when we receive preliminary case assessments from mediocre outside counsel, we don’t get the route to victory. What do we get?

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Last week, we evaluated the importance of executive presence for gaining your colleagues’ trust and confidence, as well for career advancement. We also examined more specifically what we may be inadvertently communicating to others with just our body language. For those of you who didn’t have a chance to read last week’s article, I know you’re dying to find out what you missed (your body language told me), so you can catch up right here.

In this article, we’ll explore several other qualities that together create the bright and beautiful package of executive presence that you can use to rule the world. MUAHAHAHAHA. (I know, I have a bit of a problem…sorry….)

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Last week, I wrote about the ACC Annual Meeting. A highlight of that meeting was an interview with Lauren Stevens, linked here. The clip is over an hour long, with the interview starting around eleven minutes in; I can see the tl;dw comments now. Let me give you a summary.

This is a case of an in-house counsel getting prosecuted, twice, for doing her job. We are tasked with protecting our companies zealously. Just like any outside lawyer. And you know what, sometimes we’re the windshield, but most times we’re the bug, to paraphrase Mark Knopfler. This isn’t a fluff piece, it’s a column about stuff getting real, and what can happen to a gatekeeper simply doing her job….

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I told careful readers six months ago that I would soon be moving to London. I made the move on September 1, and here’s the local news:

Senior partners at major London law firms can’t afford to live!

Well, not quite: But senior partners at many major London law firms can’t afford to live in London itself.

I recently had lunch with — prepare yourself — a senior partner at a major London law firm. When I told him where I was now living, he said that it was nice that my commute would be so short:

“Twenty years ago, the senior partners at most big law firms lived in London. But today, unless you have inherited wealth or bought your home long ago, most senior partners at London firms can’t afford to live anywhere near the City. Partner pay just won’t cover the cost.”

As an expatriate American, this startled me: I’m confident there’s no American city where senior partners at major law firms can’t afford local real estate. But in London, this has the ring of truth to it. From an American’s perspective, everything in London is nauseatingly expensive (or “quite dear,” as the locals so quaintly put it). But the cost of housing goes far beyond “nauseatingly expensive”; it’s eye-poppingly, grab-your-chest-and-drop-to-the-ground, out of sight. It leaves partner pay in the dust. Here’s what I mean . . . .

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Alex Macgillivray

No one wants a pen that’s going to rat them out. We all want pens that can be used to write anything, and that will stand up for who we are.

Alexander Macgillivray, general counsel of Twitter, commenting to the New York Times about the social media giant’s legal efforts to protect the privacy of its users.

Suppose you had two work colleagues. Both are great lawyers. Both produce superior results, and are admired and respected by their peers for their substantive knowledge and work ethic. Lawyer #1 shows up to most meetings a little bit late, sits hunched over, and speaks in low tones that are difficult to hear, making eye contact with only one or two people in the room. Lawyer #2 is always on time, sits straight, and speaks clearly and loudly enough for everyone to hear, while making eye contact all around the conference table. Lawyer #2 even has nice teeth.

Again, assuming both lawyers are equally competent in their subject matter areas, whom would you send to the next important meeting with the senior executives? Since this is not a trick question, no duh — Lawyer #2. Heck, I’d choose #2 over #1 for anything I even semi-care about (including proper dental hygiene).

Executive presence is one of those soft skills that they just don’t teach you about in law school. Yet, it’s a critical quality you’ll need to perfect in order for you to gain your clients’ trust and to progress in your career. Your pretty face and ability to spew out boilerplate assignment provisions in your sleep will not get you there alone. And despite its name, executive presence is not just for executives….

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Merge; merge; merge. It’s all we hear about from law firms these days.

But corporations do these things in both directions: Corporations do acquisitions, but they also do divestitures. Corporations merge, but they also de-merge.

If it occasionally makes sense for a corporation to divest itself of a business unit, or to split itself in two, then it surely also makes sense for law firms occasionally to divest themselves of practice groups or split themselves in two. But we almost never hear about those things. (A reader of this column tells me that he googled “law firm” and “de-merger” and found only this five-year-old announcement about a firm in the UK.) (Don’t complain about my shoddy research. That’s more spadework than goes into a typical one of these columns.)

So here’s the idea: You have a global mega-firm that combines a fine M&A practice with a great litigation practice. Just as corporations sometimes think that combined business units would have more value if pulled apart, the law firm decides that everyone would prosper if the litigation firm were spun off from the transactional practice.

Divestiture! It’s not a dirty word in the corporate world; why is it never spoken among law firms?

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This column was written in the middle of a swamp in Central Florida. Yes, I speak of Orlando, and specifically, the 47 square miles of property belonging to the Disney Corporation. I am attending the Annual Meeting of the Association of Corporate Counsel, but all my kids know is that Dad disappears for a while each day while they ride, eat, play, swim, etc., to their hearts’ content. I have written before of my membership in ACC and the benefits that I have enjoyed in my five plus years as a member. This week, Lat asked me to report in from the conference, and I was happy to oblige.

As an in-house attorney, there are numerous organizations seeking your membership. Depending on your specialty, there are national and even global organizations to join. However, if your company is like mine, and will cover the cost of a state bar membership and one association, the one to join that is truly comprehensive in scope and resources is ACC….

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