In-House Counsel

I wrote last week about how an in-house lawyer overwhelmed by volume should stop worrying and learn to love the ignorance. Talking about ignorance plays to my strength, so I’m choosing here to expand the discussion.

When you’re at a law firm, it’s likely that you sell in part substantive expertise. You’ve assembled a “deal list” to prove that you know more about technology licensing than any other person on earth, or your “case list” shows that you’re better able to handle 10b-5 class actions than all those other pretenders. You may be selling certain things beyond substantive expertise — experience, relationships, presence — but substantive knowledge is part of the package.

When you move in-house, you’re no longer selling anything, because your poor corporate client is doomed to work with you, no matter what your state of ignorance. You’ll no longer polish your deal or case lists, because no one cares anymore.

But it’s worse than that: You won’t simply stop polishing your deal and case lists. You’re actually likely to lose some chunk of your substantive expertise….

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When I was litigating, I was assigned an arbitration. At the behest of a partner, I was asked to represent a “friend of the firm.” Those of you who understand why those words are in quotes already know where this is going.

The “arbitration,” which was supposed to allow relaxed rules of evidence, and take place in an informal setting, was held instead in a beautifully wood-paneled courtroom, with a gallery full of spectators. The very cranky arbitrator, who turned out to be a bitter ex-judge, ruled against me on each and every evidentiary objection the other side raised. In other words, I was prepared to arbitrate a relatively minor dispute, but I found myself knee deep in a full-blown trial, and there was nothing I could do about it. I took it on the chin, and got my clock cleaned. The result for the client wasn’t terrible, but neither did it support my fee.

I still get the shivers when I recall how terrible that experience felt. I could go on about how the assigned judge in the case pressured me to accept arbitration, assuring me that the arbitrator was a fair-minded individual who’d likely cut the mustard in the case. Or about my adversary, who was chummy with the arbitrator (I found out later). Or, about the client himself, who refused to settle, no matter what strategy I tried.

But, ultimately, I blame myself. The fault for any shortcomings in the presentation were my own. I made almost every rookie mistake in the book. Reading that transcript makes me turn red with shame. But, I took it on the chin. And so it should be with your in-house practice…

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One lawyer offers to represent you for $1000 an hour. Another lawyer offers to represent you for $400 an hour. Who’s more expensive?

The correct answer is: You don’t know.

You don’t know for three reasons. First, some $1000-an-hour guys are remarkably specialized.

The efficiencies triggered by specialization are obvious: If I need a lawyer to call the local real estate office and cause my form to be moved from the bottom of the pile to the top, there may be only one person in town who can make that call. He charges $1000 an hour; I buy a half hour of his time; I get off cheap. The $400-an-hour guy can assign a troop of $150-an-hour associates to research local real estate procedures until the cows come home, but that firm is not going to be cheap.

Specialization can yield efficiencies for other reasons, too. If I have a question about a particularly obscure subsection of some obscure law, there may be two ways to get an answer: (1) Call the $1000-an-hour lawyer whose entire practice is devoted to subsection VI(B)(2)(a)(iii) of the Obscurity Code, and have him respond in two hours with an answer, or (2) Have the $400-an-hour lawyer try to figure out the answer from scratch. Who do you suppose is cheaper?

But specialization is the easy case. $1000-an-hour guys can be inexpensive for other reasons, too….

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Generally, when in-house lawyers transition from a law firm to a company, the amount they work decreases, with some exceptions. The particular number of hours depends upon the company and the industry, but it’s usually about 9-5 or 9-6, and increases as you gain seniority. (Unless you come from money and you’re “employed” in the family business, in which case you haven’t worked a day in your life, and never will.)

Often flexible arrangements are available, such as shifting working hours to 7-4 or 10-6, or working from home one or more days a week. These flex-time arrangements are particularly useful to lawyers who have many other obligations outside of work, such as learning new pole-dancing routines.

What about facetime — do in-house lawyers deal with facetime issues? By “facetime,” I mean simply the amount of time spent in the office, whether that time is used to do work or not. In-house lawyers certainly do encounter facetime issues — let’s face it, all lawyers do. (Get it…?)

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When you work as a litigator at a law firm, you know your cases. You know who said what to whom when. You know the recipients and dates of the critical emails. You know the precise terms of the contracts. You know what the opposing expert said at his deposition and how you’re going to attack him at trial.

In short, you know stuff.

When you move in-house — or, at a minimum, to certain in-house positions — those days may vanish. You may never know — really know — anything again.

The little cases may become barely a rumor: The employee was entitled to five weeks severance; he hired a lawyer and filed a lawsuit; we want authority to settle for ten weeks severance. You may kick the tires on the case for a few minutes, but that’s it. If you crave to know who said what to whom when, then you’re in the wrong job.

I feel a bit irresponsible having written those words, because they imply — indeed, they say — that folks in positions such as mine are doing their jobs without full knowledge. To many lawyers, that’s the ultimate sin. Yet in-house lawyers consistently say that a big piece of the transition from a firm to a corporation is learning to make decisions and take actions based on incomplete facts. (One of my colleagues recently said that he suffers from “in-house ADD.”)

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I recently received a cold call from a recruiter. Back in the day, when we were young and cocky Biglaw associates, we’d often just say “no thanks” and hang up on headhunters. For most of you, a call wondering if you’d like to explore a great opportunity in some department or other at another firm hasn’t occurred in years.

The economy just isn’t the same. For me, it’s been quite awhile since I received such a call. First of all, it’s fairly difficult to reach us; our numbers aren’t publicly available, thus making solicitations and cold calls something of an anomaly. Second, now that I’m in-house, the usual course is to seek out a recruiter, if necessary, rather than the other way around.

Well, my interest was piqued, and I chatted with her for about a half-hour. She works for a company with revenue much greater than I am used to, and a market cap well above my current employer’s. The job itself entails working on technology deals for a greater salary and overall compensation package. The company would also relocate me to a very palatable locale. Finally, the location is near many potential employers for my wife.

Seems like a great opportunity on its face. But, as one of my mentors has sagely stated, the devil you don’t know can be much worse than the devil you do know….

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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).

At Barnes & Noble, where I once worked as a marketing exec, we bandied about the phrase “aspirational purchase” to portray a small, but profitable segment of our sales.

Aspirational purchase meant you bought the book not because you were going to read it, but because you aspired to read it. You might even convince yourself you were going to — but in all likelihood, it would serve as a pretentious coffee table tchotchke, an impressive (if un-cracked) spine on a decorative bookshelf, or a useful device to prop up a little kid’s butt so he could reach the cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving.

An aspirational purchase is intended to impress — you want to be seen buying it. It tends to be something conservative as well. And long. And difficult. “War and Peace” is the classic aspirational purchase, but you might also pick up something with a political message that makes you look wise and open-minded, like “The Satanic Verses” (which, for the record, I actually read.) (No, I’ve never plumbed War and Peace. However, I embrace the fact that plenty of you certainly have read it, and yes, loved it and desire for me to acknowledge you’ve read it and how much you loved it — to which I reply, in advance, how very nice for you.)

Law school is an aspirational purchase….

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I recently heard a horror story from an in-house lawyer at another corporation. This may not sound like a horror story to someone who works at a law firm, but if you reflect for a minute, you’ll see the birds gathering on the monkey bars in the background.

Three people — one from finance; one from a business unit; and our hero, the lawyer — were speaking on a panel to a couple hundred people in a business unit. The business-unit panelist said something outrageous and brazenly illegal to the assembled group. Assume it was something like, “As you know, we simply ignore that law,” or, “It’s easier to raise prices if we just conspire with the competition.” You get my drift.

Our hero, the lawyer, involuntarily gasped into his (or her) microphone, “My God, Smith, you can’t say that! How many times do I have to tell you?”

Smith looked over, thought for a minute, and said to the assembled crowd: “That’s just Legal.”

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You’ve probably heard the same advice as I have about participating in meetings — speak up at least once during every meeting. Otherwise, people will wonder why you’re even there — are you engaged in the discussion? Do you even understand what’s going on? Are you nursing a hangover again? What’s the deal?

Now, some of you have absolutely no problem speaking up at meetings. In fact, maybe you’re a little too “good” at it. This post isn’t for you. For those of you who don’t realize you babble on too much in meetings, there will be a different post dedicated to the likes of you, entitled: “When Everyone in the Room Has Ceased Making Eye Contact with You, It’s Time to Shut Up.”

Others of you are shy about speaking up in larger groups, especially in front of a lot of senior people. You feel pressured to come up with something brilliant, and often end up not saying anything at all because you don’t think your ideas are worthy of public utterance. Or sometimes, you really can’t seem to think of anything to contribute….

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When does permissible “flattery” become impermissible “lies”?

I’ll use three real-life hypos — situations that I’ve lived — to explore the question.

First: I was a partner at a law firm. The client had just hired a new, junior in-house lawyer to oversee (among other things) the set of cases we were defending. The client called an all-hands meeting. Four or five of us from the firm attended, as did the general counsel of the company, a couple of deputy general counsel, the global head of litigation, and the month-old, new in-house guy, who we didn’t yet know from Adam.

My senior partner spoke first: “Before we get started, I just want to say that [the new, junior in-house guy] is a great addition to your law department. It’s not often that you work with someone for just a few weeks and immediately know that you’ll be able to do better work, more efficiently, with the new person on board. But you did just that with this hire. Congratulations! What a great lawyer!”

The junior in-house guy was beaming ear-to-ear. Later, in private, your senior partner says to you: “That’s how you cement a client relationship.”

So, what do you say: Permissible (intelligent, praiseworthy) flattery? Or unethical lies?

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