In-House Counsel

During the decades that I worked in Biglaw, I occasionally felt put upon by clients.

“You won’t pay for travel time? Why not? I’m not flying to Philadelphia for my health. And I’m sure not on vacation. If you want me to travel to Philadelphia, then you pay for the time I kill making the trip.”

But many clients felt very differently about it.

“If you’re doing productive work on my matter, then I’ll pay. If you’re flying around the country reading a novel, then I won’t pay. You surely don’t expect us to pay for time that you choose to make unproductive?”

[Or, in some situations: "If you want to handle a matter that's based in Philadelphia, then you eat the time (and travel costs) of getting there. If that's not acceptable to you, then we'll hire a Philadelphia firm. Do you want the matter?"]

These discussions strike me as fair fights. There are things that law firms plainly should not charge clients for, things they plainly should, and the middle ground, where fights are arguably fair. Today, I’m walking the middle ground . . . .

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It drives me crazy that my kids had “Harvest” parties at school today. Harvest what? It’s Halloween for Chrissakes. Every calendar in the office here says it’s Halloween. It is not Harvest Day, and believe me, with the reduction of old-time husbandry and the growth of corporate farming, it is difficult to envision ConAgra holding a Harvest Festival. Anyway.

I am not in a good mood of late. The hurricane has really put a damper (seriously, no pun intended) on the spirits of a lot of folks in the Northeast. Spare me the “it’s about time New York got its comeuppance” crap; this is serious stuff. Politically savvy or not, when Chris Christie starts praising Obama and FEMA with apparent sincerity, you know that stuff just got real. For us in Western New York we had a crapload of leaves to shovel; first world problem, I know. You almost feel an embarrassment of riches when you have a sore back from yard clean-up and many people have no home to clean. But, Springsteen postponed his show here from last night until tonight which is a blessing, so there’s that. And my kids are going to be done trick or treating and in bed before the first notes of “Badlands” ring out.

But I digress. This is a Halloween post, and I should have some scary stuff to discuss….

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I reported several weeks ago that I had been solicited to write an article about the future of Biglaw firms. But it was actually better than that: The invitation came from the “Sunday Review” (formerly “The Week In Review”) section of The New York Times, which is a pretty cool place to ask you to write.

Unfortunately, and apparently unbeknownst to the editor of the “Sunday Review” section, the Times ran a “DealBook” section on the fate of large law firms before my ditty could appear in print. This preempted my article (or at least that’s what the editor said, although maybe she was just sparing my feelings). So instead of having a piece in the NYT, I’m just another schlub typing away at Above the Law.

But if I took the time to write a 1,200-word piece on the future of big law firms, then I’m sure as heck going to get some use out of it. So here you are: “The Assault on Biglaw,” by yours truly, which damn near appeared in the Sunday Times….

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Now THIS is a mansion.

In the world of Manhattan real estate, life begins at $1 million. Sure, you can get a very nice studio or one-bedroom apartment for six figures. But if you’re looking for at least two bedrooms and two baths, in a decent part of town, be prepared to pay the mansion tax (although a 1,200-square-foot apartment is hardly a “mansion”).

In today’s edition of Lawyerly Lairs, we’ll present you with two apartments, both priced between $1 million and $2 million. Then we’ll ask you to vote in a reader poll and say which one you prefer. We’re all about interactivity here at Above the Law.

Now, on to our first contestant….

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You’re an attorney at a mid-sized or large firm and have received an opportunity to pitch your firm’s work to a brand new prospective client. You’ve researched the company and the deals that your firm has worked on that would be a good match. All you have to do is go into the meeting sounding like you know what you’re talking about, and soon you’ll be raking in the hourly dough, right?

Perhaps. Many attorneys would be benefit from heeding Alexander Graham Bell’s words: “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” A lot of you falsely believe you’re just unnaturally talented at just winging it. And most of the companies you pitch to will never tell you that no, you’re really not. What follows are some actual examples of some common mistakes that lawyers make when pitching their firms to in-house counsel….

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It’s rare for a lawyer to face criminal charges (even if you might get a different impression based on the content of our pages). It’s rare for a criminal case to go to trial (as opposed to being resolved through a plea agreement). It’s rare for a defendant to take the witness stand at his own trial. And it’s rare for such a defendant to win an acquittal.

But this is exactly what happened in the case of Bryan Brooks, which we covered last month. Brooks went into the courtroom and emerged victorious, but it was not an easy experience. When you’re the defendant as opposed to defense counsel, your life and liberty are on the line. Higher stakes would be hard to imagine.

I recently sat down with Bryan to hear the story of his harrowing journey through the criminal justice system….

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Life in a service profession — there’s nothing to it!

When you’re asked to do something, think about how you can make the other guy’s life as easy as humanly possible. Then, do precisely that. Presto! You’re a star!

When a client asks you to do something, do it. On time and right.

When a partner asks you to do something, do it. On time and right.

“On time” is typically pretty easy to understand: That means “on or before the established deadline.”

“Right” is slightly trickier: It certainly means, at a minimum, “done to the absolute best of your ability.” (There’s a chance that “the absolute best of your ability” won’t make the grade. That’s an individualized issue, not capable of being resolved in a blog post. But it’s a lock-cinch that you won’t make the grade by “submitting a crappy first effort, riddled with incomplete research, barely literate, and filled with typographical and grammatical errors, because all I’m really trying to do is get the client/partner off my back.”)

Now I’ve moved in-house, and life in an in-house service profession is just like life at a firm — there’s nothing to it! . . .

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I realized this week my one-year anniversary writing for Above the Law had come and gone. For some of you, it may seem like I have way overstayed my welcome, and for others (especially the hundred or so who sent heartfelt letters to my Gmail account) it may have gone quickly. For me, the year has been, well, interesting.

I “applied” for the position of writing about in-house life in August 2011. To their credit, or not, Lat and Elie asked me to write about what life is like as in-house counsel. I figured that the opportunity would help keep my writing skills sharp, get my name around, and offer me an opportunity to interact with others in the same arena, or those who wanted to go in-house. All have come to fruition.

I looked through some of my past columns, and like other writers, am frankly embarrassed by some, and proud of others. Candidly, it is difficult to write a weekly column on a topic such as in-house life. I am awestruck that Mark Herrmann can do it twice weekly. You can discuss how you got here, why you got here, and how others can get here. Then, for the Biglaw folks, you talk about how to get work from here, how to write RFPs for here, and so on. Finally, you can discuss what you do, why you do it, and give some anecdotes about your failures and successes.

You can throw in some gossip from your stint as a clerk and in Biglaw, and some very veiled gossip about in-house life. You can even approach the precipice of being honest about your career, all the while keeping one hand behind you grasping to a root, as you must always remember that this is a highly public forum….

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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, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist, is available on Amazon, as is his previous book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy (affiliate links).

Someone posted the following astonishing comment in response to one of my columns a few months back:

“I’ve never worked in a Biglaw firm, but what happens if an associate just says no, I am busy this weekend, or no, I am on vacation that week, so I won’t be able to do that project. Do you immediately get fired? If that’s true, then you must not really have much to offer to the firm in the first place. In a situation where the associate had some real value to offer to the firm, I do not see why the firm would fire someone for that. Am I hopelessly naive?”

Go ahead — laugh. Get it out of your system. You know perfectly well your guffaws wear thin, right about when that twinge of poignancy creeps in. You, too, once mulled the notion of rising above the fray — going all Bartleby the Scrivener and muttering, “I’d prefer not to,” when asked — oops, I mean told — to work and work and work and work and work….

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As careful readers of this column know, my daughter just started business school in Chicago. (As particularly careful readers may have deduced, Jessica moved to Chicago just as I was being transferred to London. The kid inherited the finest dorm room in the history of The University of Chicago.)

What’s the first thing you do at business school — before classes start, before orientation, before anything?

Draft your résumé. And then give it to an advisor who helps you polish the thing. And then go through several more iterations before you submit the final form to “the first of three résumé books,” as Jessica’s email explained, although I don’t quite understand what the words mean.

(Unless times have changed in the last 30 years, law schools are not nearly as aggressive as business schools in immediately preparing students for the job market. Perhaps that’s an institutional failing. Or perhaps law school runs for three years, so students have two summers available for internships, while business school lasts just two years, which places heightened importance on the recruiting season in the fall of year one — before students have finished a single course.)

Jessica asked me to take a look at the original form of her résumé, which she prepared, and she later sent me (for the customary Dadly-proofreading) the final version — which was much, much better.

I haven’t prepared a résumé for myself in more than two decades, and, mercifully, I’m forced to look at relatively few résumés these days. But I learned a few things from watching my daughter’s résumé pass through the belly of The University of Chicago beast. And this experience prompted me to think about the difference between preparing a résumé when you work at a law firm compared to preparing one when you work in-house . . . .

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