In-House Counsel

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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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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