In-House Counsel

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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I have two memos sitting unread in my inbox.

One of the memos is great; the other one is terrible. I know which is which. And, as I said, I haven’t yet read either one of them.

Isn’t trust terribly unfair?

Think about the many ways that establishing trust permeates a business relationship. Once the superior (whether that be partner, client, boss, or whomever) trusts the underling, the underling can do no wrong. And once the superior mistrusts the underling, the underling can do no right.

Which of the two unread memos in my inbox is great? The one from the guy I trust. All of his earlier memos have been great. They’re crisp, incisive, intelligent, and lucid; the one that I haven’t yet read is surely a thing of beauty, too. Which memo stinks? The one from the guy I don’t trust. All of his earlier memos have left me gripping my head in agony, trying to figure out what in God’s name this clown was trying to communicate and why anyone would think it was worth trying to communicate that drivel.

Trust permeates everything; it’s terribly unfair. Trust infuses more than just the memos I haven’t yet read. Trust permeates silence, too. How can trust permeate silence?

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This is the second part of a series on getting yourself in the door to an in-house position. If it’s not up your alley, read no further. Based on the feedback I received from last week’s entry, this is helpful to some folks out there. Don’t worry, my tell-all book is in the works, and when I’m ready to retire, I’ll regale you with stories of love triangles and hexagons that will make your head spin. Until then, let’s work on getting you that gig in-house.

It is presumed that you worked hard on your resumes and cover letters in law school, vetted them through the career office, and had at least two or more folks review them before sending them out for OCI and beyond. If you’ve been practicing for a while, and are now looking to jump in-house, you’ve likely dusted off your resume and edited it to include the substantive work you’ve done, your many court appearances, and your list of mega deals that you’ve brought to completion. Or not. The reality may be that you don’t have all that much “sexy” work to list on your updated resume.

This may not be a problem…

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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 law student client — already an MBA — said she needed convincing to drop out of her third-tier school.

I told her to calculate the return on investment for the final three semesters.

She crunched the numbers.

“Debit-wise, I’ve burned $80k in savings and I’m looking at another $100k of borrowed money. On the credit side, I might find a low-salary doc review gig.” She pretended to scratch notes. “So… big loans, interest payments, inadequate cash flow…opportunity cost of 18 more wasted months learning legal mumbo-jumbo followed by the bar exam…”

“In other words…” I egged her on.

“I’d be totally screwed.” She affixed the cap on her pen. “Thanks. I’m convinced.”

I posed the question we were dancing around: “Why are we having this conversation?”

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I won’t say whether I actually heard these conversations or I just dreamt them.

First: The head of the business unit confronted with a new litigation matter:

“This is an outrage! How could they have accused us of this? We want to fight! Fight! Fight!”

“The defense costs will be charged to your business unit, which will reduce your bonus pool.”

“Settle!”

Second: One partner at a law firm — who wants to visit a client, make a presentation, and take the client to dinner — to a second partner — who is the relationship lawyer for the client:

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