In-House Counsel

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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Landing a corporate client is usually a happy time for any law firm, big or small. Now, the representation may not be a day in the park — after all, there are many, many ways for general counsel to drive outside counsel absolutely nuts. But even so, this kind of a client is another notch in your firm’s belt, no matter how difficult the relationship. Especially given today’s economy, this is a client that your firm will want to keep for as long as possible.

But regardless of everyone’s efforts, your firm just couldn’t seem to get it right. Your firm’s lawyers tried to placate the legal department’s every whim, to apparently no avail. Perhaps the proposed budget was a little too high. Perhaps an attorney from your firm was just a bit too snippy with in-house counsel. Whatever the case may have been, your firm got fired.

Why does this keep happening, and how can you make it stop?

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* “This case has nothing to do with the United States.” We’d normally let that slide because of this law from 1789, but now the Supreme Court is suddenly skeptical about the validity of the Alien Tort Claims Act. [Reuters]

* “Why are we being punished for Dewey & LeBoeuf?” Come to think of it, former employees at the failed firm are probably wondering the exact same thing as the fictional characters on “The Good Wife.” [WSJ Law Blog]

* Reduce, reuse, and recycle your claims? New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed suit against JPMorgan, alleging that the bank’s Bear Sterns business defrauded mortgage-bond investors. [Bloomberg]

* A man of many firsts: Randall Eng, the first Asian judge in the state, was appointed to lead New York’s Second Department as presiding justice, the first Asian-American to serve in the position. [New York Law Journal]

* UC Irvine Law is planning a six-week summer camp for in-house counsel. They’re calling it the Center for Corporate Law, but Mark Herrmann’s “General Counsel University” has a nicer ring to it. [National Law Journal]

* Why shouldn’t you get a dual JD/MBA? Because hiding out in school for another year isn’t going to save you from all of the extra debt you’ve incurred earning yet another degree. [Law Admissions Lowdown / U.S. News]

Everyone has been mistreated — by bureaucratic institutions, unhelpful sales people, or phone systems that make you press ten buttons only to be left on hold for half an hour.

Given how awful the “usual” service is, it’s really not that hard to impress people with the quality of service that you provide. But, remarkably, lawyers (and others) screw this up all the time.

Suppose (to recount an incident I heard about recently) you’re asked to handle a trivial legal issue at a time when you’re swamped with other stuff. You are able to help; you are simply unable to help today. Consider two ways of handling this: First, silently ignore the issue for several days until you have time, and then deal with it. Second, tell the client that you’re currently swamped, but that you’ve received the request and your best guess is that you’ll handle the matter, say, early next week. If you’ve misunderstood, and this is an emergency, the client should let you know, so you can move this task up in the queue.

This should be an easy choice, shouldn’t it?

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Nothing pisses off a lawyer more than uncertainty. Uncertainty gives rise to the risk of undermining the facade of perfect knowledge that attorneys prefer to convey to their clients. Given this character trait, it’s no surprise that the collective white-collar and corporate counsel community is freaking the hell out about every scrap of information it can glean from the Justice Department about its new Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement policy.

So what exactly has these observant lawyers in a tizzy?

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