In-House Counsel

The first month of the new year turned out to be a great one for lawyers, but as usual, we don’t exactly mean that in the nicest of ways. January brought us new legal controversies of all varieties, from all kinds of places.

With terroristic threats allegedly made by an associate at one Biglaw firm, and scandalous sexual allegations raised by a partner from another one, we knew that we’d have a crop of crass and sex-crazed behavior for this round of our Lawyer of the Month competition.

That being said, let’s check out our nominees for the month of January….

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I wish I could name names; I really do. But I work at the world’s leading insurance broker for law firms, and I can’t go around offending the clients (or potential clients). You’ll just have to guess.

All of these interviews actually took place. I swear it.

First, there was the senior partner at a major New York firm, interviewing me at the start of my second year of law school: “You know, a lot of students want to make excuses for not having perfect grades. Sometimes, those excuses are pretty good: You hear from the single mothers. You hear from people who are working full-time and going to law school at night. The excuses aren’t bad.

“But I have to tell you something: If you have to give me an excuse, I don’t want to hear it. We have too many people who are perfect looking for jobs here. If you’re perfect, we’ll hire you. If you have to make an excuse, don’t even bother telling me. If you have to make an excuse, we’re not making you an offer.”

I didn’t say these stories were uplifting. I said only that they were true.

The next one’s at my expense:

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When I was a kid, before many of you were born, there were ads during Saturday morning cartoons for a program called “RIF” -– an acronym for “Reading is Fundamental.” Started in 1966 in Washington, D.C., it is supposedly one of the oldest non-profit educational programs in existence. I mentioned RIFs in my last column, and trust me, in the corporate world, RIFs are not altruistic attempts to get at-risk youth to read.

RIF stands for “reduction in force” — i.e., layoffs, terminations, downsizing, etc. A RIF can take various forms. For example, a V-RIF, or “voluntary reduction in force,” is when a company offers early retirement or severance packages to certain employees. These are usually offered as a first attempt to reduce work force numbers, and they are the cleanest way to lower the population. At the other end of the spectrum is the I–RIF, or “involuntary reduction in force.” The term is self-defining.

I stated before that I have witnessed an I-RIF period, and that it was awful. By “awful,” I meant that seeing people let go from their jobs was uncomfortable for me, having come from private practice where such reductions were not (at the time) as publicized as they are today. My company handled the situation with as much grace as could be expected, and I honestly believed our then-CEO when she stated that the dignity of our people was at the forefront of how the reduction would take place….

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Here’s my thesis: We create rules to hedge against ineptitude, and we thus institutionalize mediocrity.

Here are the examples. First, someone — the Administrative Office of the Courts? God? — creates rules to hedge against incomprehensible judicial opinions, and we thus discourage judges from writing exceptional opinions.

When new federal appellate judges attend what is affectionately called “baby judges’ school,” the judges are told how to write opinions. An opinion should have five parts, the judges are told: An introduction (which does not have to be preceded by a separate heading); a statement of facts; the standard of review; the legal discussion; and a conclusion.

Do we impose these rules because every judicial idea is best expressed in this format? Of course not. These rules impose a basic organizational structure on decisions, so that even the worst appellate decisions will be marginally comprehensible. The rules hedge against ineptitude.

Most judges follow the rules, and society generally benefits; we understand most of what’s written. I suspect that many judges who would be capable of writing better opinions if they were not bound by the rules nonetheless choose to constrain themselves, opting to do as instructed. Society may suffer in those situations, because the opinions are not as well-crafted as they might otherwise be.

A few judges ignore the rules. Whatever your politics, for example, you probably agree that Judge Frank Easterbrook often writes great opinions; he regularly ignores the mandatory structure. (This isn’t a high crime or misdemeanor, so he’s safe.) We don’t complain when Judge Easterbrook strikes out on his own, because readers understand what he’s saying and often delight in how he expresses himself.

On the other hand, if Judge Nobody were to strike out on his own, the law might become a muddle. We try to control that judge by imposing a structure. Bureaucratic rules discourage greatness, but they hedge against ineptitude.

Here’s a second example:

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You may be one of those people who realized early on that law firm partnership is not for you. For me, this was the case even before I started law school. Law was going to be a second career for me, and by the day of my first 1L class, I already had two small children vying for my attention. Surprisingly, having small kids while in law school full time was not easy. You really need to be engaged in your kids’ interests, which can be hard when you’re also trying to dodge Socratic bullets for the first time. There was one semester when it literally took me an entire week to defeat the Elite Four in Pokémon Yellow. Tough times, tough times.

I later went into Biglaw with the understanding that the experience would look good on my résumé, and that I would get what people refer to as “great training.” (And, of course, the money was nothing to complain about, either.) And I actually did enjoy the work. But you can’t work Biglaw hours and expect to just breeze through all of the Pokémon versions — Gold, Ruby, Platinum, Black, etc. — there are so many of them! It’s just not possible, and I will challenge anyone who says it is.

So once you’ve decided that the in-house life is the life for you (or that there’s no way in hell they’ll make someone who’s so obsessed with kids’ games partner), when’s the best time to make the move? Well, it depends….

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In the first lawsuit (during the proxy fight), the judge held that certain statements made in proxy materials were false and misleading. That lawsuit settled. In the next lawsuit (the 10b-5 class action), plaintiffs explain that precisely the same statements appeared in an annual report, and it is now settled law that those words are false and misleading. How do you avoid the devastating effect of collateral estoppel in the second case?

I solved that puzzle back in 1990. Now I’ve moved in-house, and I fear that I’ll never solve a similar puzzle again.

Have I lost my creativity? I don’t think so. Does my job still require creativity? Yes — but different kinds of creativity. This column is a requiem to a type of thinking that an in-house job — or, at a minimum, my in-house job — doesn’t seem to permit….

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February 1, 2012 is a singularly important day to Rush geeks (like me). 2112, get it? I’ve been drumming for over 30 years, and was brought up on trying to play along with Mr. Peart. While I succeeded somewhat in gaining enough chops to play Moving Pictures, Side 1 (back when they had albums, which had sides), and I am proud to say I’ve played some legendary clubs in the Village, the drums never became my end all and be all. Neither did acting, which I tried when I was in my 20s.

When they learn of my distant past, people always ask if I was in anything they’d know — and the answer is that I auditioned for several things they’d know, but since I’m “happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company,” which is impressive, it obviously never panned out. So, as I gaze out my 20th floor window over the lack of snow in upstate New York, my thoughts turn to where I am and where I may be going. Obama gets to give a speech every year on the state of the country, so why can’t I muse about a much smaller universe — the state of the union between me, and others, and the law?

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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).

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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