In-House Counsel

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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It’s been a bad few days for the Church of England. First, it gets slammed for siding with the bankers, rather than the protesters, after its flagship venue, St Paul’s Cathedral, finds itself at the heart of Occupy London. Second, a change to the U.K.’s ancient royal succession laws strikes a blow for its great rival, Rome, as a ban on royal family members who marry Catholics taking the throne is lifted.

Beginning with the Occupy London controversy: the protesters’ original plan was to occupy St Paul’s neighbour, the London Stock Exchange, which nestles alongside the U.K. branch of O’Melveny & Myers on an adjoining square. But they were blocked by the police, forcing them instead to set up camp on the forecourt of the great cathedral (built from the ashes of the Great Fire of London in 1666). At first this seemed like a defeat, as the Church of England played victim, shutting the doors of St Paul’s to visitors for the first time since the Second World War on what it claimed were health and safety grounds.

Here’s what the encampment looked like:

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Four months ago, you revised your company’s policy on employees’ use of social media. The policy said all the right things: When employees use social media, they should respect the rights of others and treat people with dignity; obey the company’s code of business conduct; maintain corporate confidences; and so on.

Unbelievably, some recent communications from the National Labor Relations Board suggest that each of those provisions (except for the “and so on”) could actually cause your company some labor pains. Why?

Here’s the easy part: The National Labor Relations Act protects employees who engage in “concerted activities” for the employees’ “mutual aid or protection.” Those words apply across the workforce and are not limited to unionized employees. An employee acting solely on his or her own behalf is not engaging in “concerted activities.” On the other hand, consider an individual employee who is working with (or on the authority of) other employees, or is trying to induce a group of employees to act, or is bringing group complaints to the attention of management. The NLRA may protect all of those activities, and an employer may violate the NLRA if it maintains a rule that could reasonably “chill employees in the exercise of their” rights.

What does that mean for the three examples suggested in the opening paragraph of this post?

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Willkie Farr is getting raided.

But it’s not an entirely bad thing. Instead of losing talent to a rival law firm, Willkie is losing talent to a top client. Bloomberg LP has decided to beef up its in-house presence, and it’s doing it with a boatload of Willkie attorneys.

Is this a good thing for Willkie? The firm will remain Bloomberg’s outside counsel, but there could be much less work coming from the client.

And Willkie did feel the need to send an email to all their people to make sure nobody freaked out….

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Does your company hold employee “social events”? These range from bigger events like town halls, summer picnics, and holiday parties, to smaller, more intimate socials like Friday afternoon ice cream sundae breaks, cubicle-decorating contests, and themed get-togethers. They all have the same goals — encourage a team atmosphere, help boost morale, and announce company information.

Do you think of these events as times for you to relax, stuff yourself with free food, and take a break from work? Do you have a tendency to blow off some of these events as fluffy wastes of time (obviously the lawyers who show up for these aren’t as busy as you are)? If so, that’s a big mistake.

My take is that these “social” events should generally be viewed as “work,” not breaks from work. They’re fantastic opportunities for you to advance your in-house legal career, so just relaxing and having fun at these events means you’re missing out on a lot. Also, let’s be serious here, they’re not really all that fun. I mean, Mardi Gras = fun. A night on the town with your best buddies = fun. Cocktail weenies in the lobby next to the copy room = meh.

So forget the fun, and get to work at the socials!

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At age five, when I was driving him to kindergarten one morning:

“Dad, you’re a lawyer, right?”

“Yes, Jere.”

“So you’ve read all the laws?”

“Oh, no, Jeremy. No one could ever read all the laws. There are way too many laws for anyone to read them all.”

Pause.

“Hey, Dad: How are you supposed to obey all the laws if you haven’t read them all?”

Longer pause.

“That’s a good question, son. When you get home tonight, ask your mother.”

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So you’ve decided to take the plunge in-house. You have likely had to accept a pay cut. Not the worst thing to have happen, given that you’re about to get your life back. But most in-house counsel do not make the mid-six figure salaries of senior associates, or junior partners.

You can over time, but in general, your salary’s going to drop in exchange for the sanity of a schedule. A “what,” you say? That’s right, a set schedule. In my position, I am aware that quarter end, and especially year end, are going to be extremely hectic times, but the luxury of being able to plan for them is worth every minute. Over the past few years, I have: had dinner with my family most evenings; coached various sports teams for my children; scheduled, and taken, full vacations (sans Blackberry); and enjoyed the holidays, save for New Year’s Eve.

Do I miss firm life? No, I do not.

Do I wish I was making more money?

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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).

If it’s happened to you, keep reading. If it hasn’t, keep reading anyway. It happens a lot.

It begins with the standard set-up. You feel trapped. Hate your life. Nerves shot. Self-esteem shredded. You know the drill: biglaw.

That’s when the dæmon lover appears. It doesn’t end well.

There’s biglaw hanky-panky and biglaw sexual harassment. There’s also biglaw romantic infatuation. It’s the one you talk about least because you least feel like talking about it. Once you reemerge on the other side and wish it never happened, you never feel like talking about it again.

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It’s hard to create career paths for in-house lawyers.

It’s easy to describe the career path for a junior lawyer at a law firm (even though the path may be illusory for many): Work hard and well and become a partner; work harder and better and become a richer and more powerful partner. Retire. Die.

So long as law firms are growing, that path appears to be available to some percentage of junior lawyers, and all can strive to follow it.

Corporations are different. There’s one general counsel, who probably has six or eight people reporting to her. Unless the general counsel moves on, retires, or dies, none of the lieutenants is moving up. The lieutenants in turn all have six or eight people reporting to them. Unless a lieutenant moves on, retires, or dies, none of the sub-lieutenants is moving up.

What can you do to create a career path for someone who reports to you in a corporation (other than eating poorly and exercising little, which might create an unexpected opening in the ranks)?

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