In-House Counsel

There’s a reason why people get crotchety when they get old. People forget about things that went right in their professional lives; that’s like water off a duck. But people remember things that got screwed up; that’s what sticks in their craws.

You personally are not necessarily incompetent. But you’re tarred by the ghosts of incompetents past. When your elder — a partner, a boss, a client, whoever — asks you to do something, the boss assumes that you won’t do it. The boss doesn’t assume this because she knows that you’re irresponsible; she assumes it because the clown she asked to do something six months ago was irresponsible, and she has to hedge against you being an irresponsible clown, too.

How do you prove that you’re not irresponsible?

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A few months ago, I attended a hearing on a motion for a temporary restraining order.

The judge came out on the bench and berated one side’s lawyers: “You filed these papers at midnight last night. Your brief is more than 70 pages long and has a foot of exhibits attached to it. I arrived at court at 9 this morning, and you’re now arguing this at 9:30. Do you really think I had a chance to read this stuff?”

How does this happen? How can lawyers be so silly?

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Some tasks are meant to be delegated; others are not.

Sometimes, whether the task is meant to be delegated depends on what the supervisor has in mind.

Let’s think about three examples…

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I came of age in the law in the late 1980s. At the time, arbitration was viewed as a big deal and a possible threat to the judicial system. Many corporations were adding arbitration clauses to their contracts; companies were agreeing to arbitrate, rather than litigate, disputes; and pundits feared that the judicial system would suffer.

What were the perceived benefits of arbitration?

It’s private. Companies wouldn’t have to share their dirty corporate laundry with the world.

You get to pick your own decision-maker. If you fear generalist judges, you can select an industry specialist as your arbitrator.

Arbitration is cheaper. Limited (or no) document production; no depositions; no silly, time-consuming motion practice. No serious appellate review, and thus relatively few time-consuming appeals.

This was perceived as being not just good, but great! Parties could design their own processes to have private judges resolve disputes quickly and efficiently, and corporations would spare themselves the expense and indignity of appearing in court.

Indeed, a couple of decades ago pundits feared that arbitration would soon threaten the judicial system. Parties with means would plainly prefer arbitration to litigation, so there would be ample demand for arbitrators’ services. Arbitrators are often paid at the rate of private practice lawyers, rather than public servants, so good judges would leave the bench in droves to accept more lucrative jobs as private arbitrators. The quality of judges would decline, and America would be left with a two-tiered system of justice: High-quality, private arbitration for the rich, and low-quality, public courts for the poor.

Or that was what the pundits said….

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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, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy, is available on Amazon (affiliate link).

LGBT people confront widespread hatred, yet each year take new strides towards equality. What’s the secret?

“Straight allies” – a concept every lawyer needs to understand.

As an LGBT person, you face a stark reality – there aren’t many of us. It might not seem like it, but we’re a tiny minority. And it’s a myth that we recruit straight people to be gay – we would, but it’s impossible.

“Straight allies” are the folks who aren’t LGBT but – because they’re caring, patient, loving, open-minded and plain decent – they help LGBT people persevere in the struggle for equal rights.

What’s this got to do with lawyers?

You need some allies, too – allies who aren’t lawyers. It’s key to your survival….

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Do I look like “Dear Abby”?

Somehow, because I’m working in-house and writing this column, I’ve become the adviser to the disaffected. A correspondent now asks: “I’ve worked at a Biglaw firm for several years, am at the end of my rope, and am interviewing for an in-house job next week. How will an interview for an in-house job differ from a Biglaw interview?”

I have three reactions: First, the interview may not be different at all. The in-house lawyers who are interviewing you may be veterans of Biglaw, and they may not have changed their interview styles when they changed jobs. Being qualified and pleasant may be plenty to land the job, as it is at many large law firms that are hiring new associates wholesale.

But the interview may be different in two ways that you should consider….

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As you probably know, the Boston Bruins won their first Stanley Cup since the Nixon Administration. I’m no kind of hockey fan, but as a Boston sports fan, I took a passing interest in it. Which is to say that I watched Game 7 on Wednesday. Mine was a short ride on the bandwagon. (I mean, it’s June. It’s baseball time.)

But Boston is a big sports town, having now won all three major North American sports championships (plus hockey, see what I did there?) in just a seven-year span. The closest any other city has come to that is 11 years (and that’s New York, with two teams in each sport).

But to be fair, the Bruins do have many fans in the Boston area. (Although apparently an entire season was recently canceled because of labor strife, and I’m pretty sure no one noticed.) Many of those fans made their way into Boston on Saturday to watch the Bruins’ victory boat. Police estimated that a million people came into the city to celebrate. Many of them parked in my suburban neighborhood, because we live near the end of one of the subway lines. Because that’s what you want: scads of drunken hockey fans parking in front of your house. Could have been worse, though; in Vancouver, the fans of the runner-up Canucks basically set the place on fire.

But some fans had trouble getting into town because of spotty rail service, and they weren’t too happy about it. What important lesson does this hold for small-firm lawyers?

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I’ve received a couple of e-mails from associates at large firms saying that these folks sit at their desks dreaming about having in-house jobs: One client instead of many competing for your time. More manageable workload. A broader range of work. Less stress. An opportunity to think strategically instead of wallowing in minutiae. No more billable hours. No more time sheets. Bliss!

Please, these correspondents ask, write a column explaining the tribulations of in-house counsel.

This is tricky. First, the in-house life is pretty good. I wouldn’t want to understate the advantages. Second, I don’t hide behind a cloak of anonymity when I publish these columns. If I faced any tribulations (and I don’t, of course), this wouldn’t be a wise forum in which to let loose. Third, my own personal experience doesn’t prove very much generally, and I hear a wide range of varied reactions from others who work in-house.

But I’ll give it a shot….

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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, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy, is available on Amazon (affiliate link).

My client’s concise estimate of her second year at a big law firm:

“Meh.”

For months, the “career” consisted of one-third idleness, one-third word-processing, and one-third pointless research. That morphed over time into “managing” doc review, which morphed into doing doc review, which translated into odious hours staring at odious documents on a computer and clicking “responsive/relevant” or “privileged” or some euphemism for “embarrassing.” According to rumors at her firm, there’s juicy stuff squirreled away in electronic nooks and crannies – most notoriously, emails from execs’ hiring hookers. To date, my client’s experience of “doing doc review” has matched the edge-of-your-seat excitement of watching drywall compound discharge moisture.

“There are days I want to scream, ‘Who are we fooling?!’” she remonstrated. (Granted, there wasn’t much use remonstrating with me, since I’m her therapist. Sometimes you just need to remonstrate – to demonstrate you can remonstrate.) “This isn’t a career – it isn’t even a job. It’s a joke. Every day I think about quitting.”

But she doesn’t.

Why?

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Pile-o’-crap syndrome: We’ve all been victimized by it.

In private practice, it arrives in the form of four boxes of documents (containing about 2000 pages each) delivered to your door with a single handwritten note of explanation: “Here are the documents you’ll need to prepare Smith for his deposition on Wednesday.”

What does that note really say? “Here’s a pile of crap. I can’t be bothered. You deal with it.”

For an in-house lawyer, the pile o’ crap arrives in the form of a one-sentence e-mail responding to your request for a brief description of a particular lawsuit that’s headed to trial: “As you requested, I’ve attached my 100-page, single-spaced summary of the discovery record in this case.”

What does that e-mail really say? “Here’s a pile of crap. I can’t be bothered. You deal with it.”

In business environments everywhere, pile-o’-crap syndrome arrives in the form of e-mails that say only either (1) “see attached letter” or (2) “see attached chain of e-mails.”

What do those communications really say? “Here’s a pile of crap. I can’t be bothered. You figure it out.”

Why do people do this?

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