In-House Counsel

Damn, Tony Scott! L.A. does weird things to a person. Each time I am there I am struck by a palpable sense of “difference.” It may well be the fact that I’ve been on the East Coast for so long, but I can’t shake the feel of Los Angeles. It is akin to being at Disneyland. The facades are constructed so realistically, but then you see Winnie the Pooh having a cigarette. Anyway, props to Mr. Scott for giving us some of the best films of my lifetime.

On to the task at hand. I was watching Mary Poppins the other day with my daughter. I swear that I only watch these things because my kids love them; really. As you know Jane and Michael Banks draft a list of qualities that they desire in a new nanny. Soon thereafter, Mary Poppins appears and straightens the entire household, kids and all, spit spot, er, I mean ship shape. And the Banks’ children’s list of got me to thinking about qualities to look for in a recruiter. So, I have compiled my own list of things to seek when considering a recruiter for your job search, if you have chosen to go that route. Some of you who are do it yourselfers can stop reading here. Those of you in the market for a recruiter, read on….

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I recently participated in a podcast for the ABA Journal on the subject of what drives partners nuts. (Here’s a link to where previous podcasts can be found. The session in which I participated won’t be posted until September 10.)

Because the podcast was supposed to analyze “what drives partners nuts,” I naturally prepared a list of things that drive partners nuts. But when we taped this session, the conversation veered away from its original focus and covered other subjects instead. That leaves me with a list of the things that drive law firm partners nuts — perfect material for a blog post! And, because this column often focuses on life as an in-house lawyer, I’ll throw in an added bonus: the in-house analogues to the things that drive partners nuts.

How can an associate drive a law firm partner nuts? Let me count my top three ways . . .

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Last week, I wrote about how gossiping at the office can indicate that you’re in dire need of soft skills training or may be a pathetic, passive-aggressive coward. Or, more likely, both. After I submitted the post to ATL, David Lat (aka The Legal Gossipmonger Grandmaster) reminded me that hey, gossip can be positive too! The Grandmaster was absolutely right, of course, as my article had really only focused on the type of gossip where people whine and complain about their coworkers.

I thought, hmm, true — gossiping at work can definitely have a positive impact on you if you’re gaining information that will be useful to you on the job. Like finding out about which IT dude won’t treat you like the complete tech idiot that you are. Thanks to one of the commenters, I decided to dig a little further into what some of the other positive effects of gossip could be. And I was surprised by what I learned….

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Law firm consultants have endless advice about how best to compensate partners at firms. The consultants analyze the extremes: Lockstep compensation avoids quibbles about pay, but it may reward less productive older partners at the expense of the young turks. Eat-what-you-kill compensation rewards people who bring in business, but may cause bitter fights over client origination credit or cause partners to hoard their clients.

Various permutations on those extremes have their own advantages and disadvantages. But riddle me this: Why don’t we see consultants debating the pros and cons of pure black-box compensation? Under this system, the managing partner (or a small committee) sets compensation for each partner in the firm. There is no specific formula for allocating the spoils, and partners are forbidden from discussing their compensation with each other. Each partner is told what he’ll make in the coming year (either as an absolute number or as a projected draw assuming the firm hits 100 percent of budget), and the process is over.

At least a few large firms use black-box compensation systems, so this subject surely deserves a moment’s thought. What do you think of a black-box compensation system — good, bad, or indifferent?

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David Bernick

As we just noted in Non-Sequiturs, the litigation powerhouse of Boies Schiller & Flexner has managed to fill the — possibly peep toe? — shoes that were recently vacated by Elizabeth Wurtzel. Trading one famous name for another, the firm just hired celebrated litigator David Bernick (as reported earlier today by Thomson Reuters).

So it seems that there will be two David B’s in the building. Boies Schiller was founded, of course, by the legendary David Boies, one of the greatest litigators of our time — known for his work on such marquee cases as Microsoft, Bush v. Gore, the Perry / Prop 8 case (which could end up in the Supreme Court), and too many others to mention.

Let’s take a closer look at David Bernick’s résumé, and analyze what his arrival means for BSF….

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Ed. note: This is a continuation of last week’s post by in-house columnist David Mowry, True Confessions (Part I).

I decided that it was somehow a good idea to live apart from my (pregnant) wife and 3-year-old son for about a year. I needed a job. I was scared and desperate, my clerkship was ending, and I had no prospects in D.C. or New York. So, I headed to Rochester.

At first, it was great to have law firm money coming in, and my salary and relative short distance from Rochester to Maryland allowed me to either drive or fly down to BWI on the weekends. But soon, the rigors and expectations of moving from junior to senior litigation associate began to make such trips difficult, and always stressful. This was when Citrix connections and Wi-Fi were in their infancy, and of course our house was just in a valley deep enough to cause problems with me connecting.

Stress soon turned potent as the pending birth of our second son was timed to occur with the due dates of several motions and depositions, etc. The Rochester partner for whom I was doing a majority of my work was not pleased that I took time to be in D.C. waiting for the baby to be born. The situation took a toll on me, my wife, and our son.

On the day of my wife’s labor, D.C. experienced the backlash of an East Coast hurricane, and a storm was brewing with my lawyer gig as well. Things were coming due, communication with the home office was difficult at best, and my work was suffering; I was suffering. I still have the emails that came to me in the delivery room and during recovery. I was torn between being present with my wife during this most important time, and trying to please the boss(es) in Rochester.

A mere two weeks after my son was born, we were caravanning to our new house upstate. Oh yes, I failed to mention that I was house hunting up until the date I traveled to D.C. to be with my wife while we awaited the due date. It was more than enough to break me….

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Ed. note: This is the final column by Anonymous Partner based on his interview of a more-senior partner, “Old School Partner” (“OSP”). You can read the first column here and the second column here.

We had been talking for a while, when the conversation turned to Old School Partner’s experiences as a general counsel. He pulled no punches. “I was a very sophisticated consumer of legal services,” Old School Partner told me. In short, Old School Partner, when he turned to outside counsel, had high standards.

Having already decided to leave the security of a leadership position at a Biglaw firm for in-house life, Old School Partner demanded the same attention to detail and professionalism from his chosen outside counsel as he displayed when doing work for his former clients. As an example, he shared how he went about choosing litigation counsel.

“I was looking for counselors,” he told me, and that meant no fluffy credentials without real experience backing them up. “I wanted trial lawyers with real trial experience, who could have the confidence to forego a deposition that was not going to be of any value at trial.” Unlike many clients today, Old School Partner was willing to pay top dollar for real guidance, and did not default to assigning his cases to the lowest bidder or a firm that had a “preferred relationship” with his company. I got the sense that he viewed each case his company was engaged in as a business problem that needed solving, and was willing to pay handsomely for a solution — because he realized that throwing money at a litigation “team” was ultimately less effective and more costly than buying top-drawer help….

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Writing at Above the Law brings you fame, if not fortune: Two different groups (an ABA Committee and a CLE outfit) recently asked me to help design courses that would be irresistible to all in-house lawyers. These guys wanted me to pick topics for “must attend” programs — events that no in-house lawyer could afford to miss.

My first reaction was this: Are you kidding me?

If I’d stumbled onto the “must read” topic for all in-house lawyers, don’t you suppose I would have shared that insight in these columns? If I knew what everyone really wanted to know, would I still be filling my twice-weekly slot here at ATL with random musings and pontifications?

But my second reaction was better: Now, at long last, I’ve figured it out….

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So, OMG you seriously haven’t heard that Brittany likes Mark, but Mark likes Claire even though he’s flirting with Brittany? Yeah, Mark — the guy who’s so dumb that the last time he cheated on a test he still failed… I know right, he’s so hot!

High school gossip can cover many aspects of life. Sometimes the chatter is about school and tests. Sometimes it’s about who got invited to the cool parties and got sick on the street later. But most often, it’s about juicy dish. (Kind of like ATL, pimply puberty-style, except… hmm, never mind, it’s just like ATL.)

In-house gossip is thoroughly less satisfying. It’s more about who ticked off whom a couple of years ago, who’s slacking off and getting away with it when the rest of us can’t, and who could vie for the gold if kissing up to senior executives were an Olympic event. The juicy stuff that I used to get wind of once in a while from law firm peers seems rare in an in-house setting. Little did I realize that I was giving up such a quality of life factor when taking this job. People really need to give you a heads up about these things.

Seriously though, kids who gossip in high school are immature. But, well, that’s just about everybody in high school, so it’s all good. (The mature ones are the weirdos — avoid them like the plague, high school kiddies.) Gossiping at work, however, is viewed as less acceptable and is instead indicative of needed soft skills improvement…

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At law firms, you only occasionally hear people criticizing lawyers for not “being proactive.” Maybe that’s the nature of the beast: When you’re a litigator at a firm, you’re always considering what moves to make, anticipating the other side’s responses, and planning several moves ahead. Being proactive is the name of the game.

But I often hear in-house lawyers either being criticized (or criticizing others) for not being sufficiently proactive. How can you prove to the world that you’re proactive?

There are two parts to this puzzle: First, you can create the illusion of proactivity. This takes no effort at all, and it will impress people. Do it! Second, you could actually be proactive. This takes a little effort; I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the game is worth the candle. But at least consider being proactive; you might enjoy it, and it might be good for your career . . . .

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