In-House Counsel

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).

It’s hard to conjure up bad stuff to say about clerking. It’s an honor, and an all-expense-paid ticket on an exclusive legal gravy train. If you’re lucky enough to clerk for a federal district or circuit court judge, you can rest assured you’re looking good and feeling good.

You might even shoot the moon and sing with the Supremes. In that case, you’re good to go: You’ll never have to practice actual law again. You can sign up now to teach a seminar on “Law and Interpretive Dance” at Yale or attend sumptuous international human rights conferences hosted by African dictators. Life is good at the top. Imagine the stimulation of interacting one-on-one with the mind of a Clarence Thomas (and acquiring access to his porn collection.) You could be the clerk who builds an ironclad case striking down universal access to healthcare — or witness the day Justice T opens his mouth to speak during oral argument….

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First, a shameless plug. Then, back to business.

I’ll be giving my “book talk” about The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law at The University of Michigan Law School on Monday, March 5, and again at Northwestern University Law School on Tuesday, March 27. If there’s a chance your organization might be interested in that talk, and you’ll be in Ann Arbor or Chicago at the right times, please let me know. We’ll sneak you into the room, and you can get a sense of the topics that I discuss.

Now, the business: You are not a potted plant! When you transmit something, either within a law firm or to (or within) a corporate law department, add value. You are not — or should not be — simply a conduit through which things flow. You don’t impress people with your timidity, and you may well annoy people.

What am I thinking of?

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In-house promotions are tricky. There are so many different kinds of companies, and so many things that can go wrong when you’re looking for a promotion. Some companies are upfront about the process: they’ll inform you if you’re being considered, let you know which committees need to approve, etc. Others are kind of like, “Uh, promotion, what’s that?,” and then they’ll just drop one on you when you least expect it, and run away (not that you’d complain about it).

Here are a couple of the obvious considerations that the powers-that-be will take into account when deciding whether you are worthy of attainment of the next level:

1. Do you do good work (i.e., do you have good legal/technical skills)?

2. Do you have good soft skills? Remember, from my last couple of posts — this covers everything from effective communication, to leadership, to being tasked with convincing your peers that going as breakdancing elves to the holiday party can show the rest of the company that Legal can be fun, too! Soft skills make or break a lot of promotion opportunities, and your superiors are looking for them. For example, one very senior in-house attorney mentioned that having courage of your convictions — to speak up (in an appropriate manner and in the appropriate venue) when you think a strategy is flawed, or when you think you have a better idea — is what distinguishes a leader from the rest of the pack.

Alright, so let’s say that you have #1 and #2 covered. And you’ve made it absolutely clear that you want a promotion (and “I was wondering if, uh, you noticed what a good job I did on that contract the other day” doesn’t count). You should start evaluating color schemes for that larger office you’ve been eyeing, right? Well, don’t switch your name plate over just yet. As far as your company’s concerned, “yes” answers to the above questions are great, but they just mean you’re performing as expected for your level. Here are some of the less obvious questions that they’ll also be thinking about….

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The “commenters” at Above the Law are — as you know if you’ve ever looked — a tough crowd. If you’re a partner at a big firm, then you’re a loser, because you’re a workaholic stiff with no life. If you’re a partner at a small firm, then you’re a loser, because you couldn’t succeed at a big firm. If you’re an associate at a big firm, you’re a loser, because you’re a lifeless drone who doesn’t have the courage to pursue your dreams. If you’re a scholar, then you’re a loser: Those who can’t do, teach. If you’re a judge, then you couldn’t cut it in private practice, so you had to bail out.

You get my drift.

The correspondents who choose to write to me personally (by clicking on this link) are an entirely different breed. (Perhaps it’s because they’re not anonymous.) My correspondents have been consistently civilized and reasonable, and often quite thoughtful. But I recently received a well-crafted, nicely written email from a law student who utterly missed the boat. I devote this column to that correspondent, and to others who might be suffering from a similar misconception.

Here’s the backstory: I wrote a column about how improving the quality of law firm interviews might improve the quality of associates that a law firm hires. A law-student-correspondent suggested that law firms might in fact not care about the quality of associates. To paraphrase: “Law firms count on having high attrition in the associate ranks. So you need a fair number of associates who will either leave on their own or have to be shown the door. And law firms make very few partners, so, after an entering class has been winnowed down over the course of a decade, the firm is likely to have one or two remaining candidates who can be offered partnership. That’s true regardless of the quality of the entering class.”

That email is proof that insanity can be made to sound plausible . . .

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This column will be published the day our year-end numbers are made public. Word on the street (and the Street) is that we should beat expectations. If true, that would be a very good thing. This isn’t inside information; it’s been opined and published in several national media outlets, and in any event, I am not on the side of the house that has access to that information. I get the comuniques at the same time as everyone else. Luckily, I’ve been here in times of growth. That said, I have colleagues across town experiencing a very different situation.

The downfall of Eastman Kodak can be attributed to many things, and the failure to exploit its own invention of digital photography is chief among them. However, this isn’t a piece pointing the finger of vision opacity just at Kodak. The statement above this column is attributed to Steve Jobs after he viewed a mock-up graphic user interface (“GUI”) invented in Rochester, New York. The company that invented the prototype failed to capitalize on the invention, and the story goes that Jobs stole/borrowed/utilized the idea. We all know where that led. That same company also invented the computer mouse, and again didn’t capitalize on the invention. Stories like these are legend in the field of technological advancement.

What is it that causes companies, which are often on the cutting edge of technology, to miss opportunities that, in hindsight, seem so obvious?

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Complete honesty is such a dangerous thing.

I’m going to give it a shot.

I’m posing three questions to myself today. First, why might a lawyer at a law firm choose to write articles? Second, what topics should lawyers write about, and where should they publish the articles? Finally, why might an in-house lawyer choose to write?

The honest truth is that outside lawyers choose to write for many, varied reasons. In-house lawyers might also choose to write for many reasons, but those reasons are different and fewer. Across the board, authors’ motivations for writing will be mixed.

Do I have a right to speak on the subject of publications? My credentials, in a nutshell, are these: Three books; twelve law review articles; two book chapters; about 70 other, shorter articles (in places ranging from The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune to Pharmaceutical Executive and Litigation); and maybe 600 blog posts (roughly 500 at Drug and Device Law and north of 100 here). Call me nuts (and I may well be), but I’ve spent a professional lifetime doing a ton of “recreational” legal writing.

Why did I do it? Should you?

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Last week, we looked at why lawyers need soft skills and noted that there’s a general lack of this kind of training for them. Today, we’ll consider some strategies for learning to play nice in the legal sandbox.

As mentioned last week, there are so many different types of soft skills — communication, leadership, management, presentation skills, etc. What does a socially-awkward lawyer work on first? Well, it depends. (Fyi, “it depends” is a great lawyerly response for virtually every situation where you don’t know the answer.)

As with hard skills, the soft skills you should focus on depends on your pre-existing responsibilities and the skills you already have. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume you have none.

Below is a very basic outline of some required soft skills for particular levels of attorney seniority. I’ve listed a few skills listed for each level and a further description of one skill per level, to prevent this post from becoming a mind-numbing two-hour read (as opposed to a mind-numbing five-minute read). It’s a bit of a laundry list, but the idea is to provide a big-picture overview….

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Here’s the sad rule: If it comes across your desk, then you’re responsible for it.

Period.

That’s the rule at law firms. It was my rule when I worked at a firm, and it’s the rule that I now impose on outside lawyers. Thus, when I was a partner, I did not tolerate this excuse after an associate sent me a crappy draft brief, supposedly ready to be sent to a client for review: “I know the draft is not very good. But I didn’t write it. Local counsel did.”

Yeah? So what am I supposed to do with the crappy draft? Send it to the client with a cover note explaining that we propose to file the attached terrible brief, and we should be excused from blame because local counsel wrote it? I don’t think so. If a brief crosses my desk, then it’s my brief. I’m responsible for it. It has to be good.

So, too, with you: When the brief hit your desk, you became responsible for it. The draft brief that you send to me is your best possible work product; there are no excuses.

The same thing is true in-house . . .

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I very much appreciate reader feedback on my columns, whether received via email or in the comments. Here’s one of the better critiques from the comments section last week, from “Guesty”:

“David — you need to decide what you’re trying to accomplish with this column rather than just describing negotiating a form contract with a customer in vague terms. Every corporate attorney negotiates contracts; you aren’t telling us anything interesting when you say you consider the risks to your client in each provision. For example, if you explained the degree of autonomy you have in negotiating (and why), that might be interesting (you might also describe your level within the legal group and who you’re answering to when you make a legal decision). Are you just playing CYA games within your company or do you really need the input of lots of different specialists? You imply it’s all a BS CYA game to make auditing happy — if that’s true, it’s kind of a depressing way to make a living.”

There are some worthwhile points made by this commenter. Let me try and address some of them….

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Alex Macgillivray

Bad day for the Internet…. Having been there, I can imagine the dissension @Google to search being warped this way.

– Alexander Macgillivray, general counsel of Twitter, commenting via Twitter about Google’s recent plan to alter search results based on users’ Google+ networks. Macgillivray used to be in-house counsel at Google. Corporate Counsel analyzed his comments yesterday.

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