In-House Counsel

I’m spreading my criticism widely here: Lawyers both in-house and out are often guilty of the sin I’m describing today.

Look: When people ask for legal advice, they need legal advice. They don’t need to hear from empty conduits through which information passes unfiltered by a human brain.

What’s today’s lesson? When asked for legal advice, give useful advice. Don’t regurgitate silly nonsense that doesn’t help anyone.

Let me give two specific (but fictionalized) examples, both analogous to real-life situations, and which give a sense of the broader issue.

Example number one: A regulator raises a concern about some statement that your company has made repeatedly or some product that you’ve sold widely. A business person — or another lawyer, or any living human being, for that matter — asks you, reasonably enough, “What’s our likely exposure in this matter?”

At this point, many lawyers turn off their brains and give the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad legal advice . . . .

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At a law firm, law matters. Law is the center of the institution’s universe, and it’s all everyone is thinking about.

It’s the other functions that don’t matter: “Another email from IT? Telling me about interfaces and gigabytes? Why don’t those clowns leave me alone?”

“Another email from finance hectoring me about time sheets? Don’t those morons know I’m busy?”

At corporations, law (and compliance) is an “other function.” The businesses are concentrating on their businesses, and law and compliance — along with human resources, information technology, and finance — are, at best, a means to an end. If you mirror the other “shared services” and send incomprehensible communications to the businesses, the businesses will soon realize that you’re just one of the pests, meant to be ignored.

Inevitably, if a business person accidentally steps over some legal line, you’ll hear that the business guy had no clue that the line existed: “Yeah, yeah. Now that you’re telling me about it, I understand that we have that rule. But how was I to know? The rule is buried on the fourth page of some impenetrable policy hidden somewhere in our computer system. I spend my time selling; I can’t waste time trying to make sense of your legalese.”

If you don’t sympathize with that guy, then you’ve been a lawyer for too long. His criticism is not just an excuse for having violated the rules; his criticism may well be the truth. How can you change that reality?

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Christina Gagnier

If you are a solo or small firm who is looking to work with startup companies, you have probably been asked to take equity in lieu of compensation or to set up a deferred payment plan. When you are talking to companies who sound like they may be doing the next big thing, you may believe you are taking an educated gamble.

Yet, when you turn to the economics of being a solo or small firm, the numbers often do not pan out…

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I’ve now written more than 250 columns at Above the Law; I’m invoking a point of personal privilege.

Neil Falconer (of Steinhart & Falconer in San Francisco) passed away last week at the age of 91. He was an extraordinary lawyer, a fine man, and a mentor to anyone who had the sense to listen. Between 1984 and 1989, I learned from Neil what it meant to be a lawyer – “be a sponge; soak up the law;” “never tell a small child not to stick peanuts up his nose;” “you take as long as necessary to solve the problem; let me worry about the bill” – and I later dedicated The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law to him. I expected to shed a tear when I read his obituary, but I didn’t expect to be dumbstruck. Words are a terribly feeble way to encapsulate a life. And sometimes you’re paid back, years later, for even the smallest of gestures. Here’s a link to Neil Falconer’s obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle. Rest in peace, Neil. And thank you.

Thinking about Neil caused me to reflect on the decision that I made, 30 years ago, to work at a small firm (of 20 lawyers) on the West Coast.

Everyone told me that I was nuts: “You can always move laterally from a big firm to a small one, but you can’t move laterally in the other direction!” “You can always move from a big New York firm to a firm in California, but you can’t move west to east!” “You have to start by getting the ‘big firm experience.’ Then you can always move to a small firm.” “Go to a big firm! That’s how you keep your options open!”

The conventional wisdom isn’t always right . . . .

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One of the most common soft skills issues that comes up in every environment, whether work, home, or play, is how people deal with others’ negative perceptions or criticisms of them.

When we receive negative feedback from others, most of us go autopilot into some level of defensiveness. We’ll tend to find excuses for our behavior (“I was really overworked at that time,” “I was preoccupied by personal issues,” “That wasn’t my intent,” etc.). Or we’ll blame the other person (“She wasn’t paying attention,” “He’s always so closed-minded,” “She doesn’t get the big picture,” etc.).

Even if any of the explanations above are true, there are other ways of responding to criticism and negative feedback that can be lot more helpful….

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Rachel Canning

* The panel investigating the Bridgegate scandal gave Gibson Dunn until the end of the week to turn over all materials relied upon to clear Gov. Christie from wrongdoing. Thankfully, the governor was too busy working out to be upset. [New Jersey Star-Ledger]

* Penn Law has named Wendell Pritchett, the chancellor of Rutgers University-Camden, as interim dean to take over for Michael Fitts, who is leaving to become Tulane’s president. What an incredibly deanly name he’s got there. Congrats! [Philadelphia Inquirer]

* New York Law School is launching an in-house institute — the first of its kind in New York City — to help corporate attorneys solve their problems and law students learn about life inside a legal department. Gee, this idea sure sounds familiar. [Corporate Counsel]

* Jennifer Gaubert, the New Orleans lawyer/ former radio diva who lied about a cabbie sexually harassing and taking a lewd video of her, is now being sued by him. Karma’s a real bitch. [New Orleans Advocate]

* Rachel Canning, the New Jersey schoolgirl who recently dropped a lawsuit against her parents, was caught partying with the boyfriend who was the cause of the entire affair. Tsk tsk, bad girl! [New York Post]

I recently had dinner with the dean of a law school. To give you a sense of this person’s perspective, I’ll say that he (or she, but I’ll use the masculine) is responsible for a law school that U.S. News ranks somewhere between 50 and 100. His school has thus been hammered by the Great Recession and the decrease in applications to law school, but the school is not (yet) thinking of turning out the lights.

I didn’t actually pry into what was happening at his school. He simply volunteered that his life was far different now than it had been a very few years ago. I guess that’s no surprise, given the tumult of the times.

Anyway, what are law school deans doing these days?

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Duke: national champions when it comes to law school softball.

* According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the legal sector added 2,300 jobs in 2014. Our sincere condolences go out to all those who are still “too overqualified but too under-experienced,” all at the same time, to get hired. [Am Law Daily]

* This lawyer protested jury duty by emailing the judge to say she’d “blame the plaintiff” for making her work nights and weekends for her client, but she can only blame herself for having to spend the night in jail. Oopsie! [Daily Report (reg. req.)]

* “Would it be great if all unpaid internships paid really well? Sure. It would also be great if my dog made breakfast for me every morning, but I am not going to file a lawsuit over it.” Yep. [Los Angeles Times]

* The law school transparency movement has come quite far since its inception, but there’s a lot of room for improvement. Encourage your school to hurry up and “publish what it has at its fingertips.” [Law.com]

* UVA Law held its Softball Invitational this weekend. A Duke Law dude emailed us to say his school sucks at basketball, but it’s awesome at law school softball. Sweet accomplishment, brah. [Newsplex]

Anna Nicole Smith

* Sonia Sotomayor has been dubbed as the “people’s justice” in a law professor’s article recently published in the Yale Law Journal Online. If only RBG had appeared on Sesame Street, the title could’ve been hers. Sigh. [WSJ Law Blog (sub. req.)]

* It’s a “procedural game-changer”: Virginia’s class action lawsuit against same-sex marriage has been stayed pending the outcome of the Fourth Circuit’s decision in the case that struck down the state’s ban on gay marriage. [Legal Times]

* “They’re certainly going to be very careful about biting the hand that feeds them.” Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, the firm behind the “Bridgegate” report that cleared Gov. Christie of wrongdoing, received $3.1M from New Jersey last year. [New Jersey Star-Ledger]

* Now that approximately 60 percent of compliance officers are women, in-house insiders are starting to wonder if the position is being reduced to “women’s work” — and not in a good way. [Corporate Counsel]

* Everyone involved in this case is dead, but it’s been hanging in the courts for more than a decade. Soon we’ll find out if Anna Nicole Smith’s ex-stepson will be sanctioned in the grave. [National Law Journal]

Thumbs up, managing partners!

April Fools’ Day is a terrible day to be in this business. Every tip that comes in requires an extra layer of scrutiny because even longstanding, trusted sources are trying to troll. It’s really not all that funny to make up false but entirely believable stories and pass them off as real. That’s why the Daily Currant isn’t funny.

Which is why when Citi Private Bank issued its First Quarter report on the confidence of managing partners across the legal landscape and declared that managing partners have a rosy outlook, it earned a double take on this end. After all, wasn’t it just a few months ago that managing partners were telling the American Lawyer that it was all gloom and doom on the horizon?

So is this result real? It is, but the headline isn’t the end of the story….

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