In-House Counsel

If you ask a small-firm attorney what is the advantage of a small firm over Biglaw, most will tell you that smaller size makes firms more nimble and better able to adapt to client needs and market changes. It stands to reason, then, that small firms could revolutionize the law firm model. But what changes should small firms make? And how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

To answer these questions, I spoke to Mae O’Malley, founder of Paragon Legal, and a visionary when it comes to offering legal services. Paragon Legal is one of the fastest growing alternative legal models. Their model is to offer highly-qualified attorneys (with a minimum of 8 years of experience) to Fortune 500 companies, akin to a contract-attorney arrangement.

This model allows the client to obtain top-notch legal help for a fraction of the cost of Biglaw. The arrangement is also appealing to high-caliber lawyers, particularly women, who look to balance their professional growth with their family obligations. In light of the model’s success, it’s not surprising that Fortune recently featured O’Malley as an individual “fixing a broken legal industry.”

What advice does Mae O’Malley have for reforming legal workplaces?

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We recently had to hire a new lawyer to help with our litigation in the United States. Not surprisingly, that got me to thinking: What are we actually looking for in lawyers that we hire?

Some companies litigate their own cases in-house, writing their own briefs, taking depositions, and trying cases. If that’s your company’s model, then you’ll need to hire lawyers with a certain skill set.

My joint operated that way at times in the past, but now uses in-house lawyers to manage litigation. We hire outside counsel to represent us, and the in-house lawyers typically supervise the work being done by outside lawyers. In that environment, who’s the right person to hire?

Even in that more restricted world, the answer isn’t immediately clear….

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I told you last week that today’s column would focus on “how to get my attention.” And I’ll let you know in a bit.

But first, let’s play “Which Biglaw Anecdote is True?” Here are the options:

(1) A partner at Law Firm A regularly has his briefcase sent to his home in a limo;
(2) Law Firm B is chock full of lawyers of all faiths and backgrounds, but holds its summer outing at a country club known for being “restricted”; or
(3) Attorneys at Law Firm C take a helicopter from the 34th Street heliport in Manhattan to a hearing in Connecticut — and then bill the client for it.

Which story is true?

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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).

As The People’s Therapist, my door is always open. I don’t turn away poor clients.

“Pay whatever you can afford,” I tell them.

Naturally, they get what they pay for. If I’m a little sleepy, or staring at the clock – who are they to complain? Come to think of it, why do we have to talk about them all the time anyway….

Just kidding.

But let’s be real — are things any different with the the high-fidelity first-class traveling set than they are with folks flying “comfort class”? I ask myself that question a lot. I do it to stay honest….

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In 25 years working at law firms, I never offered this to a client. In two years working in-house, no outside law firm ever before offered this to me. But I heard it moments ago, and I couldn’t believe how foolish I’ve been. I smiled, shook my head, hung up the phone, and popped open the blogging software for your benefit.

“When we’re handling a major case that is so terribly expensive to defend,” says my outside counsel, “we like to have an ‘all-hands’ meeting with the client once a quarter. Our entire team will fly to your headquarters for the event. We’d like you to invite not just any appropriate in-house lawyers, but also relevant people from the business unit and any senior managers who might either be concerned about the cost of the litigation or have ideas to offer. We find that people who aren’t directly involved in the litigation often suggest great ideas.

“We won’t charge you anything for these quarterly meetings. We’ll write off our time, and our firm will pay the travel expenses. We just think it’s a good idea to have these meetings regularly in cases as important as this one.”

Brilliant!

I personally had nibbled around the edges of this idea when I was in private practice: “We’d like you to schedule a two-day educational conference about the product involved in the litigation,” I had said in the past. “Have each of your folks who helped to design the product, know its regulatory history, and so on, speak for an hour. We want to educate our entire team and to meet the key players in person. Naturally, we won’t charge you for our time or travel expense.”

That’s okay. It’s a nice offer; it serves an important function; and it causes a bunch of your lawyers to meet a bunch of client representatives. But the offer I just heard is much better. It achieves so much more. Why?

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You spend three years of your life going to law school. You spend over a hundred thousand dollars on getting that education. You take a difficult entrance exam to prove that you are qualified to practice law. You’d think that after all that you’d be able to convince sophisticated clients of your value as a lawyer.

You would, of course, be wrong.

The Wall Street Journal reports that over 20% of corporate clients simply refuse to pay for first- or second-year associate work on some matters.

This is a terrible indictment of the value of a legal education….

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In Feeling the Kumbaya (Part I), we looked at how different the perspectives of business clients and in-house lawyers can be. Below are a few techniques that have helped me and my clients to feel the Kumbaya for each other (or at least have helped them to not think I’m only a total loser who has nothing better to do than change all of the commas in a list after a colon to semicolons).

Prioritize. I used to suspect that there was something about going in-house that made perfectly good law firm attorneys develop permanent amnesia when it came to good drafting. It was the strangest thing. Even my husband, a supposedly respectable corporate law firm attorney, after going in-house, suddenly started to let minor errors appear in his emails. My judgment of him was quick and deliberate. He would sometimes mistakenly use “there” instead of “their,” for God’s sakes! What lawyer does that?

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Hiring of attorneys by corporate legal departments has picked up in recent months. As companies became more cost-conscious during the recession, they began reducing legal expenditures by keeping more legal work in-house and relying less on outside counsel with their high billing rates. This has resulted in an increased workload, and thus a need for more legal staff for manyin-house legal departments.

So if you’ve been thinking about looking for an in-house job, now may be the best time to make a move. In today’s Career Center Tips Series, Lateral Link’s recruiters discuss which practice areas are in the highest demand for the in-house job market. However, since practice area activity can be very region-specific, the following are general trends observed in the in-house legal sector nationwide….

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I’m begging for help here: If you have global responsibilities and are routinely dealing with documents created in languages that you don’t speak, how do you assess outside counsel’s skill at communicating?

As any regular reader of this column knows, I’m a realist at heart. I know in my bones that most lawyers write poorly. I learned this lesson early. When I popped open the first brief that crossed my desk as a clerk in the Ninth Circuit, I exclaimed to one of my co-clerks, “This is great!”

“What’s great?” she asked. “The brief?”

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I received a fair amount of mail this past week asking about transitioning to in-house positions from firm life. I tried to offer useful responses when time permitted. I certainly appreciated all the kind words, and I feel for those enduring the struggle of a job search, especially in this economy. Many folks share in the struggle, and many folks have struggled before you — myself included. It doesn’t make it easier, but it will get better. The words “going in-house” presuppose that you have a choice: to go. For most people these days, the choice is to go where you’ll be able to cover your budget. And that doesn’t always translate to getting the job you want.

I do not view this column as a place to preach, I view it as one side of a dialogue. If you feel moved to write to me and ask for advice or ideas, I will certainly do my best to respond to your email. I knew going in to this that by publishing my real name I was setting myself up for abusive comments from a small group of people. It’s all good; I have been a long time reader of Above the Law. But I also knew that, far more importantly, folks who really wanted or needed to discuss topics that I write about might contact me. To that end, let’s talk about choosing the right person for the job….

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