In-House Counsel

I thought it might be fun to try something different for this week’s post. A lot of people post top ten lists to give some semblance of organization to an otherwise random set of ideas, so I thought, “Well heck, we, too, can play at that game!” Thus, a top ten list was conceived for things that make us think, “Toto, we’re not in Biglaw anymore.”

That being said, You Know You Work In-House If….

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I occasionally take advantage of my little megaphone here at Above the Law to vent about poor quality drafts. When I do, “commenters” or correspondents routinely suggest that I’m tilting at windmills: “If you receive a poor quality draft, send it back to the person who wrote it, and tell that person to make it better. There’s no reason why you, Mark, should be saddled with improving the thing.”

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again!

I’m absolutely saddled with improving the thing. It often makes no sense at all to return a bad draft to the author and ask for a better draft. In fact, I submit that there are only two situations in which it does make sense to ask the original author to improve a draft . . .

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I had today’s column dealing with confidentiality provisions all set to go. However, given the Baylor Law School fiasco, I changed topics to another very contentious issue in business-to-business terms and conditions negotiations: data security. I will take some liberties with the factual scenario of the Baylor data release in order to make the issue more relevant to those of us in-house.

Let’s assume that instead of an employee of Baylor’s admissions office allegedly being responsible for the data release, it was an outside contractor who had been hired to perform data collection for Baylor. Let’s further assume that the contractor acted negligently in releasing the information. Finally, let’s assume that Baylor’s legal counsel vetted the Agreement and Statement of Work (“SOW”) between Baylor and the contractor, and included a data security provision. What should happen now that prospective students’ personal information, including LSAT scores and GPA, are in the public domain? I would begin by stanching the bleeding and assessing the damage….

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Someone in the company is going rogue: The person proposes to do something brazenly illegal, or slightly illegal, or perfectly legal but sufficiently immoral that the conduct would turn any reasonable person’s stomach. The rogue is not listening to logic. The person is ignoring everything that your local in-house lawyer is saying.

When the local lawyer calls the headquarters law department for help, these are the words that headquarters must be able to speak: “Local lawyer, you win. This is not a close call; we should not be doing this. In this situation, I guarantee you that you hold the trump card. Who do you need to make a call to solve your problem? The general counsel? The chief financial officer? The CEO? Someone else? We will cause that call to be made in a heartbeat. What do you need?”

Is that what people mean when they talk about “tone at the top”?

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In last week’s installment of Moonlighting, we looked into the challenges of just planning a global meeting. This post will continue the theme by examining particular practical issues that arise during global meetings.

The first few minutes of most meetings are passed waiting for people to join, whether in person or on a call. Those who’ve joined early on typically engage in casual social banter to avoid the awkward silence. But on a global call, you need to be careful as nothing says “you’re not an American company” like banter that leads with, “Say, how ‘bout those Knicks?”

Then what should you talk about — world events? Perhaps, assuming you can talk about them without offending anyone (avoid discussing the madness in Western Europe). Safer, but admittedly boring, topics are weather and vacations. And of course, be wary throughout the call of using American business jargon like “get our ducks in a row,” “circle back,” etc. These are best accompanied by a clear explanation of what the idioms mean: “As we say in America, let’s circle back when we have all our ducks in a row. This just means that we’ll give each other a heads up when we’ve got our house in order.” Wait… not that….

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What’s the difference between a lawyer and a doctor?

Lawyers often do not need second opinions.

Let me explain: Many corporate transactions (or decisions) require advice from an outside adviser — an investment bank; an accountant; a lawyer; whoever. (Back when I was an outside lawyer, I used to think that lawyers were special. Now, you all look alike to me.) In many of those situations, the corporation needs one, strong outside opinion. If someone offers (or requests) a second opinion, then you should think hard. In a few situations, you might want a second opinion. But, frequently, obtaining a second opinion may do more harm than good.

Let me illustrate with two examples….

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By the time I made the switch to in-house work, I was burned out on litigating. Some of my friends and colleagues live for the fight, or as Wallerstein recently said, “have a fire in their belly.” In my case, I just couldn’t draft yet another motion to compel, interrogatory, etc. I had been doing it so long that it had become mundane. Appearing in court was always a kick, and depositions could be entertaining, but the day to day fun had dissipated.

Due to the economy and firm billing practices, I found myself at times resorting to noting “.1s” on my time sheets. So, when my bio says I don’t miss litigation, I really don’t. And what I don’t miss most of all is the bluster of the powerful down to the less leveraged.

In litigation, bluster can begin as soon as the adversary reads your bio and decides that you are not quite a peer. This inappropriate elitism only worsens when one side gains the upper hand for whatever reason; the bluster ends, and the bludgeoning begins….

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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).

A visit to my office has evolved into something akin to the road to Lourdes. Pilgrims arrive red-eyed and defeated, faces etched with misery, searching for a way out of a trap.

The standard story is some variant of the following: You are either out of work or loathe your work. You have $180k in loans. You have either no income or an impermanent income paid to you in exchange for any joy life might offer. You see no hope.

Let me spell out the critical element here: You are one hundred and eighty thousand dollars in debt.

Just to fully drive the point home: that’s bankruptcy-proof debt.

You’ve yelled at your parents, but it’s not really their fault. You’ve wept and wailed and gotten drunk and stoned and consumed a scrip of Xanax. You’ve tried sleeping and pretending you don’t have to wake up.

Then comes the pilgrimage. Perhaps I can heal with a laying on of hands….

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An in-house lawyer receives an email from a law firm with the subject line, “Litigation Highlights!” Does she pop it open?

Probably not; it sounds like an advertisement.

Is there a subject line that stands a better chance of success?

Yes: Something that specifically identifies a subject that might matter to the recipient. Maybe: “The Constitutionality of ‘ObamaCare': A Preview of the Arguments.”

The recipient might or might not care about that subject, but, if she does care, at least she knows to open the email.

My not-so-hypothetical “subject” line — “Litigation Highlights!” — is off-putting enough, but, if you made the mistake of opening that email, the substance could be even worse….

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Companies are doing more business internationally and dragging their lawyers along with them. As you can imagine, doing international work has obvious challenges — foreign law, culture and language, time zone issues, cardboard that airlines call “food,” etc. These next couple of Moonlighting posts are going to delve into some of the nitty gritty of practicing in a global arena by examining one very basic, but essential, part of the in-house practice that I’ve discussed before — a meeting.

But first, a clarification of terms. People often use the terms “international” and “global” interchangeably. However, in-house lawyers who practice in these areas may disagree. Assuming the terms are used by Americans, an “international” U.S. business refers to a business that is headquartered in the United States and operates individual businesses in other countries that focus on the market in each of those countries. In this structure, each business in each country focuses on its own business and does not often coordinate with the others — communicating primarily with the U.S. headquarters in a hub and spoke kind of structure.

On the other hand, a “global” U.S. business is one that’s headquartered in the United States and builds businesses in other countries that focus on how the market in those countries could support cross-border business growth. In the global model, businesses in the other countries often work directly with each other. For the sake of simplicity though, I’ll use the term “global” for the rest of this post to refer to both international and global work. Now that you’re sufficiently confused, we can move on….

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