In-House Counsel

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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(Note: the scenarios depicted herein may be vastly different from what you experience(d). They are based on my opinion alone, and fact patterns may differ drastically. The process that I advise is based on an amalgam of numerous colleagues’ experiences.)

There is nothing like the feeling of a strange voice on the phone telling you that they’d like to speak with you about a job for which you’ve applied. There is a rush that comes with finally receiving a response, a euphoric “you like me, you really, really like me…” Okay, so that’s a bit over the top, but after slogging through job hunt Hell for months with no response but the rare (these days) ding letter, it’s certainly a nice change to have someone want to speak with you.

So, after that initial shock wears off, get to the getting. Not only do you want this job, the person on the other end of the phone wants to hire you. Nobody enjoys seeing candidate after candidate — time is money, and unlike law firms where interviews can entail lavish lunches or dinners, in-house interviews are vastly different….

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How do you keep a client (or a boss) happy? Be “light.”

Everyone has worked with people who are heavy, and everyone has worked with people who are light. Light is better.

You ask a heavy to do a job, and he says that he will. But you’re not at all sure that the job will actually get done. You call two weeks later to ask for a status report, and you receive back an ambiguous response about what’s happening. As the deadline passes, you ask for the finished product. It finally arrives, a couple of days late.

That’s a heavy load for you, the supervisor, to bear. Multiply that by eight direct reports (in a corporate law department) or 20 associates (working under your supervision at a law firm), and the burden is unbearable. All that heaviness crushes you, and, next time around, you go in search of light people.

What does it mean to be light?

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Why can’t people admit it when they’ve made mistakes? I think it’s because they focus on the potential negative consequences and not enough on the benefits that admitting mistakes can have on their careers. It’s irritating when people can’t admit that they’re wrong in any situation, but it seems most annoying when it happens in the work environment.

Now, I’m not talking about when there’s an actual disagreement or when you genuinely don’t realize that you’ve made a mistake. Or when you’ve intentionally done something to screw someone else over. I’m referring to the situation where you know you’ve messed up and you won’t ‘fess up.

Instead, this is what happens…

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