In-House Counsel

* A federal judge in Kansas has given Planned Parenthood’s Abortionplex a new lease on life. [WSJ Law Blog]

* What? A former Supreme Court clerk who got passed over for a job at a law school? Nicholas Spaeth, who’s also the former state attorney general for North Dakota, is suing the Michigan State University College of Law, for age discrimination. [The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times via SBM Blog]

* Interesting thoughts from Scott Greenfield on making executions public. I certainly don’t oppose more-comprehensive coverage of the criminal justice system in general. [Simple Justice]

* Elsewhere in criminal justice news, should prisons be run on a voucher system? Dan Markel offers some thoughts on Sasha Volokh’s interesting proposal. [PrawfsBlawg]

* An interesting profile of Alan Gura, the celebrated Second Amendment litigator, by a fellow small-firm lawyer, Nicole Black. [The Xemplar]

* Hopefully this will all become moot after a deal gets done, but remember the Fourteenth Amendment argument for Obama unilaterally raising the debt ceiling? Jeffrey Rosen thinks a lawsuit against Obama would get kicked for lack of standing — or might even prevail. [New Republic]

* But Orin Kerr believes that a recent SCOTUS case might change the analysis. [Volokh Conspiracy]

* Howrey going to pay all the creditors? A lot turns on how some contingency-fee cases turn out, according to Larry Ribstein. [Truth on the Market]

* From in-house to the big house: former general counsel Russell Mackert just got sentenced to more than 15 years in prison for his role in a fraud scheme. [Corporate Counsel]

* Keep It Simple: a commendable theme for Blawg Review #313. [Patent Baristas via Blawg Review]

If you haven’t yet read the long piece in Fortune magazine about the rise and fall of Jeff Kindler as the CEO of Pfizer, you really should. The story may or may not be true — I have no idea — but it would be interesting reading even if it were a work of fiction about corporate political intrigue.

I’ve never met Jeff Kindler. I do know several people who are close friends of his, and I’ve watched his career from a distance as he moved from Williams & Connolly to GE to the general counsel of McDonald’s to the general counsel of Pfizer and then, startlingly, to the CEO of Pfizer. The Fortune piece traces this whole career in detail and then describes why and how Kindler resigned from the CEO spot after serving only very briefly.

Why mention that article here? First, I’m doing you a favor; if you hadn’t previously heard about the piece, now you have a link.

Second, the article said two things about in-house counsel that rang true with me — whether or not these things actually occurred at Pfizer….

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At big law firms, people gripe. It’s a way of life.

Junior associates gripe about being condemned to do scutwork. Senior associates complain about friends having been screwed out of partnership. Junior partners bellyache about not being invited to participate in client pitches. Senior partners grouse about their peers, who don’t work very hard and aren’t very good lawyers, being paid too much. The law firm’s “owners” — the half-dozen guys who actually run the joint — moan that all those other lawyers should quit their whining and get back to work. And everyone kvetches about opposing counsel, unreasonable clients, and working too many hours.

(You’ll note that nobody b*tches about anything. I offer the preceding paragraph as evidence that we needn’t degrade the level of discourse to express ourselves.)

At corporations, this just doesn’t happen. People occasionally whine, of course — there’s a reason why they call it “work” — but griping is not the order of the day, every day, year in and year out.

Why not?

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Call me a step slow.  I’ve only recently stumbled across the memo prepared by Yale Law School warning students about the tyranny of the billable hour. As someone who billed hours for more than 25 years but no longer plays in that sandbox, I feel compelled to comment.

At the outset, let me type words that may startle lawyers just now beginning their careers:  I never felt burdened by the need to bill hours.  (Let the abuse begin!) After clerking, I started my career in the 1980s at a small firm that didn’t make a big deal about billing time.  I was instructed by one senior partner (and I very nearly quote):  “You learn the area of law that you’re researching; that’s what will make you a valuable lawyer some day.  I’ll take care of the bill, making sure that our client pays only a fair price for your work.”  (I later dedicated a book to that guy.)

I was told by another partner:  “We’re a small firm, so we’re not as prominent as the big firms are.  It’s part of your job to help raise the collective profile of this firm and its lawyers.  We don’t particularly care whether you join a bar association, write articles, or go on the board of a non-profit, but we do care that you do something to let people in the community know that we exist.  It’s part of your job.”

I thought those guys were right, and I took that attitude with me when I later (must have popped a gasket and) moved from a small firm in San Francisco to one of the world’s largest firms in Cleveland.  I continued to stay busy with client work, but I also made a point of helping to raise the firm’s profile in the world. I occasionally felt burdened by the crush of work, but I never felt burdened by the need to “bill hours.”  In the course of 25 years, while I practiced law at two different firms, no one ever said a word to me about the number of hours that I billed.

That cuts in both directions. On the one hand, no one ever asked me why I was foolishly wasting all that non-billable time teaching classes and working on non-profit boards. On the other hand (at least after I left San Francisco), no one ever said, “Congratulations for having written those books,” or, “Congratulations on getting that article published in the Wall Street Journal.”  But I, at least, took far more satisfaction in those accomplishments, and in the results that I achieved for clients, than I ever took in having billed a lot of hours (which seems to me like a uniquely unsatisfying professional goal).

How many hours did I bill?

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As an in-house lawyer who occasionally influences our selection of outside counsel, I hear an awful lot of law firm pitches. And I must admit that I’m often entertained by them. I spent better than 25 years in the private practice of law, where attracting new business was an important part of the game. I was never sure which pitches had a chance and which didn’t, so it’s pretty amusing to sit on the other side of the table to see how other folks approach this.

I recently saw one good pitch and one bad one, and I just have to share.

First, the bad one. Several lawyers from a firm visited us for a chance to explain their firm’s capabilities. I don’t remember why we were meeting with them — we actually had a need for them; someone recommended them; someone important asked us to meet with them as a favor; whatever. I used to think that getting in the door to meet with potential clients was a big achievement; I now realize that it meant less than I thought.

Anyway, these guys started the pitch the usual way: The firm has lots of great lawyers who’ve done lots of great things in their lives. The firm is divided into several departments, and those divisions should for some reason matter to me. A couple of magazines had bestowed some awards on the firm or its lawyers. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

And then the associate speaks….

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Which GC took home the most cash in 2010? For the first time, the winner was a woman.

Corporate Counsel just released its annual list of the highest-paid general counsel in the land. On the whole, the news is good: “If last year’s GC Compensation Survey showed the aftereffects… of the deepest trough of the recession, this year’s results show that chief legal officers made steady gains and recovered some momentum.”

This year there was at least one surprise: a winning woman. For the first time since the inception of the survey in 1994, the highest-paid general counsel on the list was a female attorney.

Who topped the list, and how much did she make? Let’s take a look….

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A couple of days ago, we invited in-house counsel to join this group of interesting speakers at the Legal Technology Leadership Summit, taking place on September 6 -8 in Amelia Island, Florida.

We received a bunch of responses from people who work with in-house counsel, which is nice. But that still leaves us looking for a few more attorneys who actually work in-house. We want to hear the thoughts, concerns, hopes, and demands of in-house counsel, directly from their mouths.

So, if you are working in-house and you have something to say, please take this opportunity to tell people how you prefer to be served. For free, at the Ritz, right after Labor Day.

If you would like to participate, submit a speaker proposal via email, to speakers@abovethelaw.com (subject: “Summit Speaking Proposal”). Let us know the company where you work, your title, and the subject on which you would like to speak, picked from the Summit agenda located here. Speakers will attend the event for free. Travel scholarships are available for qualified corporate counsel, and applications for CLE credits have been submitted. But obviously space is limited.

And if you don’t work in-house but want to hear what these in-house lawyers have to say (as well as network with them), you should sign up to attend the conference, over here.

Career paths are easy at big law firms: As an associate, stay fully occupied doing great work, and become a partner. As a junior partner, stay fully occupied doing great work, and become a powerful partner. As a senior partner, generate enough business to keep you and others fully occupied, and become an even richer and more powerful partner.

These things may or may not be attainable, but everyone understands the career path.

Things are much trickier in-house. Corporations tend to have fewer lawyers than big law firms do, and in-house law departments tend to be flatter. Turnover tends to be less common. Six or eight people often report up to a single supervisor. In that environment, staying fully occupied and doing great work may not move you up the ranks. You can be fully occupied doing great work, but your boss is competent, happy in her job, not close to retirement age, and in good health. She’s going nowhere, so you have nowhere to go in the corporation.

The corporation can actually be very good to its lawyers — investing in leadership and management training, using incentive or equity compensation, and employing other tools for recognizing achievements — but still fall short in actually creating career paths that make sense.

How do corporations create career paths for their in-house lawyers?

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If you’ve been searching the Illinois State Bar website looking for employment opportunities, you might have come across a “super duper” job option. Unlike most attorney job offers that grace our pages, this is not facially offensive. It’s an in-house position. The responsibilities seem legit.

The salary is not listed, but that is better than a listed wage of $10 per hour or something ridiculous. They appear to offer nice benefits to all their employees.

So why are we bringing this opportunity to your attention? Because when Red Bull and beer are listed as job perks, we know that our “bro” readers will want to hear about it…

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I’m thinking again, as I did on Monday, about why lawyers go insane over time.

Years ago (long before MapQuest was even a gleam in its inventor’s eye), an older lawyer sent me directions for driving to his home. It was pretty easy to get from my apartment to his house; I had to make only three or four turns. But the directions were several typed pages long. Why?

Because this guy had been driven insane by mistakes in the past. He had told someone to turn east on a road, and the person had turned west. So now the directions eliminated that possible mistake: “Turn east (that is, turn right as you are proceeding northbound on route 1) at the light.” Someone else had missed the turn. So now the directions eliminated that possible mistake: “If you see a shopping mall followed by a McDonald’s on the right side of the road, then you have gone too far. Turn around, go back to the light, and turn east (that is, left as you are now proceeding southbound on route 1) at the light.” Having experienced all of these mistakes, the older lawyer felt compelled to help me avoid them, which made his driving directions nearly incomprehensible.

What does this have to do with being a lawyer?

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