In-House Counsel

Why do so many people think that you must be a blowhard to be an effective litigator?

I’ve recently heard several tales of business folks (or in-house lawyers) worrying that outside counsel is not aggressive enough. What prompts the concern is the lawyer’s performance during a conference call or at a meeting: The lawyer is civilized. The lawyer speaks quietly, asks probing questions, gives intelligent advice, and appears to be an effective advocate.

After the meeting, one of the participants says: “Are you sure we should use that guy? He doesn’t seem very aggressive.”

Remarkably (at least to me), I’ve heard the same thing at law firms. I’ve heard transactional lawyers wonder about litigators who are calm and intelligent at the lunch table: “He’s such a nice guy. I’m not sure I’d trust him in court.”

What’s my reaction? On the one hand, we can’t ignore perceptions. If a lawyer is so low-key that he doesn’t inspire confidence, then that is a legitimate concern. If I don’t trust the lawyer who’ll represent me at trial to defend me during a vigorous cross-examination, then that’s a real issue; we shouldn’t hire that lawyer. Confidence matters.

On the other hand, if the concern is simply that the litigator is not a blowhard — the lawyer speaks quietly and intelligently during business meetings, where there’s no need for bluster — then I have a very different reaction. In fact, I have three reactions:

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Last week there appeared a column on this site that denigrated clerkships in the middle of the country. I could not decide if the author was attempting satire, but it seemed to be a straight piece. I would like to offer a counterpoint.

I began my career at Biglaw in New York City. The firm began to have troubles, and I saw the writing on the wall as my class dwindled from 40 to 30 to 20. I then heard from a family friend that a federal judge in Oklahoma City was looking for a clerk to assist with some topics with which I was familiar. I scored an interview, we hit it off, and I moved my wife and new baby to OKC for a year.

Full disclosure: I went to 15 schools before graduating high school, and OKC was the place I called “home.” Many decisions about this move were simple: it allowed us to live near family for a year, which was great support for the baby; my wife was working on her dissertation, so she had time to write; and I had a circle of friends from high school with whom I could reconnect.

Further simplifying the issue was that the government payscale is based solely on experience. How much did I earn, as a law firm associate turned law clerk?

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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).

Atul Gawande is a medical superstar -– a surgeon at Harvard who’s also a New Yorker magazine writer, and the author of several books. His latest push is for doctors to use checklists to prevent common mistakes during surgery. A scary percentage of the time, it turns out, things grow overwhelmingly complicated in an operating room and a nurse or an anesthesiologist, or a resident (or whoever) gets distracted and forgets to do something basic -– like confirm there’s extra blood in the fridge, or plug that little hose into the machine that keeps you breathing.

It happens. People forget things. Best to err on the safe side, and use a checklist.

The idea comes from aircraft pilots. It turns out they use checklists for absolutely everything — a pilot literally can’t step into a plane without a checklist. Pre-take-off, take-off, pre-landing, landing, and every possible contingency that might happen in-between is assigned a checklist. That’s because when you’re a pilot and you forget something, well… it can be a problem. Kind of like a surgeon.

Or a lawyer….

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Do law firms set performance objectives for their lawyers?

I worked at two different law firms over the course of 25 years, and I remember only one meeting where anyone sat down and talked with me about setting performance objectives. We set the objectives; no one ever followed up to see whether I’d achieved them; and the rest was silence.

Perhaps some firms regularly set performance objectives for lawyers, but that was nothing I’d experienced before I moved in-house.

Many corporate law departments set performance objectives for in-house lawyers, and many people do this poorly. “Setting objectives” is viewed as an annual chore inflicted on the supervisor that he cannot ignore; the computer system keeps nagging him about it and ratting him out to others up the ranks. The supervisor finally relents and types a few objectives into the system: “Meet budget. Work closely with business units. Negotiate alternative fee agreements.”

Now that’s out of your hair, and no one will bother you until next year.

Or, if you preferred, you could do it right . . .

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Lawyers are great at thinking small — small picture, that is. We’re awesome at details, however painstakingly minor. We sport the “grammar police” badge proudly, even though we know that it’s the dorkiest one out there (wait, except for the “I memorized all of the two-letter words in Scrabble” badge — that one’s slightly dorkier). We find nit-picky, meaningless, hypothetical debates to be “intellectually stimulating,” while the rest of the world sees them as a complete and utter waste of time. And it’s all good. Details are essential to the practice of law. But so is seeing the big picture.

A law firm associate friend once represented a bank on a loan in which the borrower later ended up missing a payment date. Upon learning of the missed payment, he promptly drafted a default notice. When he presented the default notice to the law firm partner, the partner’s reaction was, “Whoa, Nelly… hold on there — no way are we sending any default notice.”

The associate was thinking small picture — how dare the borrower miss a payment to his client! In full gunner mode, he proceeded to take steps to ensure that the bank was paid the monies due (and, by the way, now at a default interest rate — haha!). He was only trying to zealously represent his client, right? Right? The partner, on the other hand, was thinking big picture….

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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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