In-House Counsel

I saw this all the time at law firms: I’d be in the middle of preparing to argue an appeal — reading key cases, studying the excerpts of the record, and thinking about likely questions from the bench. My mind was completely engrossed in what I was doing. And someone would walk into my office and say, “It went well.”

I had only one reaction: “Who are you again, and what are you talking about?”

Now that I’m in-house, I see this even more frequently. Cases — or legal issues, or administrative inquiries, or whatever — cross the desks of many in-house lawyers at a frantic pace. The things that an outside lawyer, or some other in-house colleague, is thinking about, may not have flitted across your mind in six months. But folks figure that you’re thinking about whatever happens to be on their mind at the moment.

Here’s an example….

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I recently spent a week in Denver over two days (“ba dum bum”). The day I arrived, the temperature hit a record high of 80 degrees, and it snowed several inches the next evening. I was supposed to be attending (and enjoying) the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Annual Meeting, but instead, I was frantically trying to close deals for month end. A constant barrage of emails and calls from clients kept me from really focusing on the innumerable offerings at the conference.

I have written before in this space about my membership in ACC, and no, I don’t get paid to mention what a wonderful organization it is, and has been, for this fairly new in-house attorney. I cannot stress enough the importance of an organization like ACC for a new in-house counselor. Not only are there countless resources available on the ACC website — everything from forms, templates, e-groups, and career services — but there are also any number of networking opportunities for the enterprising lawyer….

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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 mid-September. I’m talking with a client , a 3L at a top-tier school.

“Here’s how it works,” she explains. “There’s the have’s and the have-nots. Either you have a job offer, or you don’t. If you don’t, it sucks. You feel like an illegal alien.”

Unfortunately, she’s a have-not…

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To qualify as a lawyer in the U.K., you first have to eat 12 dinners. Seriously. OK, it’s only barristers (British trial lawyers) who must meet this requirement. And they have to pass legal exams as well as eat. But the essence of my slightly sensationalised opening sentence is true: no dinners, no qualification.

Here’s what happens: students go to law school in the day, then every month or so go and eat a formal dinner at one of London’s inns of court (ancient clubs for trial lawyers). The medieval ritual has its roots in the pre-law school days when “sons of country gentlemen” from across Britain would come to lodge in the inns, attending lectures, taking part in mock courts, and dining together in the inns’ main halls (Harry Potter-style places that are famous for hosting Shakespeare’s original plays). Certain traditions are still followed, like toasting the Queen and refusing to shake hands with anyone (barristers are historically forbidden from shaking hands each other’s hands). But mainly it’s about getting drunk — on port, the U.K. establishment’s tipple of choice.

Why am I telling you about this? To give you a sense of port’s central role in the education of our young, as a primer for a story about the Oxford University Conservative association accidentally revealing its hate-filled Nazi soul at a recent “port and policy” night….

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Here’s proof that I view my readers at ATL as family: In this post, I’m going to share with you the results of my recently concluded 360-degree performance review and tell you how I plan to improve my personal job performance. (That may not be quite as sexy as pictures of naked judges, but you must admit that I’m making terribly personal information awfully public.)

I’d never been through a 360-degree review before. As part of the process, I completed a self-evaluation, so we could see whether my self-perception matched how the world perceives me. In addition to my self-rating, I received anonymous feedback from (1) the person to whom I report (who was classified as a “peer,” so that his responses would remain anonymous), (2) five other “peers,” or people who hold jobs equivalent to mine in the company and who work with me occasionally, and (3) seven “direct reports,” or folks who report up to me through the ranks. The human resources guy who discussed the review with me did a very nice job; he knows a fair amount about performance evaluations. (Aon is not just the world’s leading provider of insurance and reinsurance brokerage, but also the leading provider of human capital consulting. This means that (1) at long last, Aon finally just got some free publicity out of my having written this column for almost a year, and (2) we have many colleagues at Aon who do human resources consulting for a living, so they’re slightly better at delivering the results of reviews than the kid down the block or the head of your practice group at your law firm.)

What did I learn from the results of my 360-degree review?

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Readers, we know what you must be asking yourselves: fashion law? Is that similar to unicorn law? No. Unlike unicorn law, and contrary to public opinion, fashion law actually exists.

In the past, we’ve written about lawyers and law students who have violated multiple fashion laws. We’ve even profiled a lawyer who specializes in fashion law. But we’ve never given you the scoop on what it’s like to be an insider in the business of beauty.

Earlier this week, the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on Fashion Law hosted an event that featured in-house attorneys from some of the country’s most prominent cosmetic brands — companies like Coty, Avon Products, Elizabeth Arden, and Revlon.

So, what’s it really like to be an in-house attorney working in the beauty and fashion industry? Will you get to flex your copyright and trademark muscles? Is it really as glamorous as it all seems?

Read more at Fashionista….

Last week was my company’s annual legal conference. This year, lawyers from around the world descended upon the cultural and historic haven called New Orleans. And we had lots of stuff planned. And I don’t mean just food. Although the week did feel kind of like this:

Food / Event / More Food / Event / AND More Food / Event / Full-on Food “Event”

We spent a part of the first day volunteering with a New Orleans-based organization called St. Bernard Project. SBP is an amazing non-profit that was formed 5 years ago by a lawyer (Zack Rosenburg) and a teacher (Liz McCartney). After a week’s visit to New Orleans, these two decided to give up their lives as they knew them and settle in New Orleans to help people whose homes and lives were devastated by Hurricane Katrina and the Oil Spill. SBP has several programs and about 60 of us worked in the effort to rebuild houses — painting, removing siding, installing insulation, et cetera. SBP is all about quality when it comes to rebuilding homes; so if the air bubble in the level you’re using is even just touching one of the vertical lines on either side, you can expect an earful from your supervisor who won’t care that your “real” job doesn’t involve the use of power tools. Unless it’s April Fool’s Day at the office. (More on that at another time.)

Our legal conference also included a couple of training sessions. One of them was held by Second City. Yes, Second City — you know, the famous comedy club/school that has trained (among other comedy elites) the entire original cast of Saturday Night Live?

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I posted last week about the idea of providing training intended to give lawyers wings — to teach lawyers the skills, and give them the experiences, they need to leave their firm or corporation and move forward on a career path elsewhere. If you thought that was a good idea — if you thought that your firm or corporation might benefit by being known as the place that trained people to become great lawyers — how would your firm pursue that goal?

I actually saw this happen once: I saw a lawyer design a training program to permit him to perform adequately in another job. But the situation was a bit unusual. A heavy-hitting litigation partner at my former firm accepted a job as the general counsel of a large corporation. That guy realized that a litigator’s training has gaps; litigators know the rules of procedure and the substantive law governing cases that they’ve handled, but litigators may be ill-equipped to become general counsel. A litigator is likely to know very little about preparing securities filings, negotiating M&A transactions, advising boards of directors about non-litigation matters, and the like.

My former partner created for himself what I’ll call “General Counsel University.” He asked a bunch of our partners to set aside a half day each to give him a primer about their areas of expertise. He spent time chatting with an employment lawyer about the basics of executive compensation. He spent a half day with a public company securities lawyer, trying to learn the nuts and bolts of securities filings. He talked to M&A lawyers, spent a few minutes with the corporate tax folks, and so on. (Why was he able to do this, you ask? First, he was a heavy-hitter; people were willing to make time for him. Second, he was about to become the general counsel of what could be a very significant client; it made sense to be nice to the guy.)

Could a law firm (or the law department of a corporation) replicate this process for its lawyers generally?

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Now what?

You’re sitting in your new office, with a blank stare out the window, and like Redford in “The Candidate” you say: “Now what?”

Your next move largely depends on the size of your in-house department. Departments with six or fewer attorneys make up approximately 60% of in-house legal offices. Most in-house lawyers therefore have vastly more legal issues on their plate than I, where we have almost 200 attorneys. I am specialized in my company, and am required to focus on closing deals. We have a patent department, litigation department, labor and employment department, and on and on.

Attorneys in my company are also expected to become subject matter experts in a relevant topic, and mine happens to be software licensing. This level of specialization is nowhere to be found for most in-house counsel. Most are expected to be at least somewhat knowledgeable on a vast array of topics: compliance, securities, mergers and acquisitions, et cetera. I am always humbled when I speak to groups of in-house attorneys, because I know that most of them are expected to handle a huge number of topics in order to represent their clients well.

So, you may be asking, now what?

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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).

I tell the truth in these columns — at least, to the degree I find convenient or advisable. There is such a thing as a surfeit of veracity. My clients are lawyers, so God help me if I record something a little too candid with regard to their doings. Just talking about myself raises issues.

I haven’t worked at Sullivan & Cromwell since 1999. A statute of limitations must cover misdeeds perpetrated in that dim, dusky epoch. But I’m not betting the farm on it….

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