In-House Counsel

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 was hiking in Iceland this past summer. We were pretty high up – around 1,000 meters – and it was raining hard, high wind, snow on the ground.

“Damn, it’s cold,” grumbled one of my American companions.

An Englishman behind us stumbled over a patch of frozen volcanic ash. “There’s a clue in the name, mate,” he offered helpfully.

Some things are so obvious they really don’t need to be explained anymore. Like it’s icy in Iceland. Like it sucks working at a big law firm. You kinda ought to know that by now — which is why interviewing 2L’s feels so heart-breaking.

I should know; I’ve been listening to senior and mid-level associates for the past month, telling me how much it sucks interviewing 2L’s….

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So you’ve moved in-house or are planning to go in-house sometime. Be ready to think less like a lawyer.

Business clients think differently. I know, crazy, right? But, seriously, one of the biggest transitions from working as a transactional lawyer at a law firm and moving over to a company is learning to understand the business client’s perspective.

At a law firm, your client is typically another lawyer, whether it’s a senior associate, a partner, or an in-house lawyer. Lawyers hold court at the top of the hierarchy and are assumed valuable until proven otherwise. Legal work reigns supreme.

At a company, your boss will probably be an attorney but, as a transactional in-house attorney, you will most likely consider non-lawyers — people in other areas of the company — to be your clients. Plus, you’ve probably shifted from your law firm throne to mingling as one of the middle-management masses. At a company, mention “legal work” and “supreme” in the same sentence and you’ll get laughed off your middle-management office chair. On the contrary, you may sometimes need to remind business people that you exist (this can be kind of awkward, really) and that you can, you know, maybe provide value once in a while….

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There’s a six-year-old trapped inside of me, pounding on the inside of my skull and screaming to get out. (Many of you would say that the quality of these columns proves that I don’t manage to keep the kid fully contained. Yeah, well: It’s a good thing you’ve never heard any of my jokes.)

My inner six-year-old likes to understand things. He likes e-mails and memos that start at the beginning; use short, declarative sentences in the middle; and conclude somewhere near the end.

He likes easy rules that he can understand and then immediately put to use, so he remembers the rules in the future. It was surely my inner six-year-old who developed the “one rule you as a witness must remember” when you’re having your deposition taken: “Listen carefully. Pause. Answer narrowly.” To the six-year-old’s eye, that’s the essence; “the rest is commentary.”

My inner six-year-old recently realized that outside counsel have it easy: For each entity they represent, outside lawyers typically communicate with just one person who serves as the “client.” Although the outside lawyers may meet many corporate employees, the outside lawyers view themselves as speaking to the “client” when they talk to the in-house lawyer who’s supervising their matter on a daily basis. That’s the one key point of contact.

My inner six-year-old realized that this isn’t true for in-house lawyers. In-house lawyers have three clients….

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Ed. note: Welcome to the inaugural installment of House Rules, a column for in-house lawyers by our newest writer, David Mowry. David’s column will appear on Wednesdays.

“I am going in-house.”

When I first said these words to my former law firm colleagues, they connoted a sea change in my career: a coveted position with a prestigious international corporation, no more billable hours, and no more partner pressure.

I am fortunate to practice with smart, engaging, and truly collegial and competent lawyers. And no more billable hours — I do wake up happy every day.

Of course, all good stories must have a conflict; mine was that I was taking a job as a transactional lawyer. I had always viewed transactional work as the “dark side,” and outside of my comfort zone of years in litigation. The more I thought about the transition, however, the more I realized how my perspective as a litigator would serve me well as a contract negotiator….

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Admit it: Your corporation has a lot of legal flotsam and jetsam.

This is probably true no matter what business you’re in. On the corporate side, you have routine business transactions, and you may well handle those in-house. On the litigation side, you have a bunch of routine cases that pose little risk to the company but represent a recurring, and predictable, expense.

I propose that you package up that flotsam and jetsam and sell it off.

What am I thinking?

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Ed. note: Welcome to the inaugural installment of Moonlighting, a column for in-house lawyers by our newest writer, Susan Moon. Susan’s column will appear on Fridays.

Come one, come all, to this paradise we call The In-house Wonderland. This is a magical place where all of your time-billing nightmares turn into hazy clouds of doing whatever the heck you want, when you want, and not keeping track of any of it. Where you hire outside firms to do all of the legwork while you sip your latté and email them to let them know that you actually need it a week earlier than you thought (so yeah, that would be in about two hours, kthxbai)! A Xanadu in which you’re never in fear of getting pushed up and out just because you can’t find ways to bring in millions (wait, is it billions now?) for the firm.

Yes, it is a dream…. Unfortunately, just a dream.

I’ve been in-house for the past several years at a travel and hospitality company. My work is varied and transactional, which means the general public has absolutely no idea what it is I do, since the only lawyers that they know exist are litigators from Law & Order, The Practice, Boston Legal… need I go on? Let’s face it, even most law students have no idea what corporate lawyers do either, since law schools seem to have signed a pact to pretend that transactional law doesn’t really exist. Sigh….

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Years ago, I saw a memo written by a law firm partner who was renowned for mistreating junior partners, associates, staff, and lost children who wandered in the front door looking for their parents. But this memo showed a whole different personality. The memo was directed to a practice leader who had solicited comments about how best to expand the practice. (In case you’re wondering, the memo was distributed widely by mistake. The practice leader told his assistant to gather in one document all of the comments about how to improve the practice, so the comments could be shared and everyone could discuss the ideas at an upcoming meeting. The assistant then took all of the unedited inbound memos and assembled them in a single packet that she distributed to the entire group. Voilà! There was the ogre’s memo, for all to read.)

The ogre’s memo was breathtakingly — what’s the right word here? — “solicitous” to the practice leader: “I’ll satisfy your request for suggestions about how to expand this practice area further, but we should first acknowledge what you’ve achieved to date. When you were appointed to lead this practice ten years ago, everyone thought you’d been sent on a fool’s errand. No one thought it was possible for our firm to compete in this space. We had no cases in the area and none of our lawyers had any expertise. But you’ve defied all the odds. You’ve made this practice one of the great success stories in the firm. You deserve endless praise for what you’ve done, and I want you to know how much we respect — indeed, admire — you.” And so on.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand the fine art of sucking up. (I’m not much good at it, but I understand it.) And I appreciate the wisdom of people like the ogre who try to do their sucking up in private. But I don’t understand folks who do these things publicly. Can’t we control at least the public manifestations of unequal treatment being accorded to people who matter to you and people who don’t?

What am I thinking of?

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At the Creating Pathways to Diversity Conference, sponsored by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), there was a great lunchtime discussion called “Her Stories: The Evolving Role of Women in Business and Law.” It featured a panel of heavy hitters: two women currently serving as general counsel to Fortune 500 companies, and a third who previously served as GC to no fewer than four Fortune 500 companies over her career.

What does their rise say about the changing role of women in the corporate legal world? How did they get to their lofty perches? And what advice would they offer to lawyers aspiring to such successful careers?

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Yesterday I participated in a panel at the Creating Pathways to Diversity Conference, sponsored by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), entitled “Attitudes & Opinions: Generation Y Speaks about their Workplace in 10 Years.” The spirited discussion covered a wide range of topics relating to Gen Y’s workplace attitudes.

I also attended a number of other interesting events. In the afternoon, I checked out “Special Considerations: The In-House Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Lawyer Experience.”

If you’re interested in LGBT issues or in-house diversity issues, keep reading to find out what the panelists had to say….

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I’m fast approaching the two-year anniversary of my move in-house, and I don’t often look back wistfully on my former life as a partner at one of the world’s largest law firms.

But last Tuesday was different. Please bear with me.

For 25 years, I practiced, and tried to develop new business, in the complex litigation space. I worked at a firm that wasn’t interested in defending companies in one-off pharmaceutical product liability or Automobile Dealers’ Day In Court Act cases. Those cases were frequently insured (and the carriers often wouldn’t agree to pay our rates) or otherwise too small to fry. But the moment one of those silly little cases morphed into something real — a mass tort or a Dealers’ Act class action — we were chomping at the bit to get retained.

It’s tricky to market into that niche: “I don’t want your ‘drug caused an injury’ case until you have 1,000 of them. Then, even though I spurned you before, I want you to hire me to displace (or, at a minimum, supplement) your existing counsel on the cases.” The existing lawyer already knows the facts and the law, and ignorant you, who showed no interest before, now wants to butt in. How do you pitch that?

I figured the answer was to develop a reputation at the point where small cases transmogrified into big ones: the filing of a class action, the filing of enough cases that a motion for multidistrict litigation became likely, and advising companies how to respond when “60 Minutes” or “20/20″ called for an interview. I thus spent an awful lot of time writing about those topics and speaking at any conference that would give me a lectern and a worthwhile audience.

Then I moved in-house and changed my focus entirely. Until last Tuesday . . .

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