In-House Counsel

She's not the only one we'll have betrayed.

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).

I raced downstairs to break the news: I’m leaving. I got a new, non-legal job at a major online book-seller.

The reception at the firm gym wasn’t what I expected. My favorite trainer looked pensive, mumbled “good for you, man,” then gave me a half-hearted fist bump. The other two trainers, both women, exchanged looks. One grimaced, and quipped to the other, “see, I told you – the nice ones always leave.” She caught my glance, and turned serious. “Hey, it’s good news. We’ll miss you, that’s all.”

The nice ones always leave.

My client ran into this phenomenon recently. She’s a first year, assigned to a major case with two senior associates. The partner’s missing in action, so she and the two seniors are running the show…

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I never noticed this before I went in-house, because it never made a difference to me: When you’re an outside litigator, representing corporations in significant disputes, your clients are lawyers.

This may not be true for all outside lawyers. If you’re representing a small business, the business may not have inside counsel, so you may report to the business people. If you’re a transactional lawyer, perhaps your clients are more often business folks. But, as an outside litigator representing big companies, your client contacts are generally lawyers.

This matters. The client contacts have been through four years of college and three years of law school. That may not mean much, but it means something. Tautologically, it means that they’ve had lots of years of formal education. (“If I’m still dumb now, it’s my fault.”) Practically, it means that your client contacts have learned how lawyers think and, to some extent, the words that lawyers use. (When I was outside counsel, not all of my clients knew what an “MDL” was. If the client had the misfortune to be dragged into one of those puppies, I might have spent a little time explaining. But basically all of my client contacts knew what the words “complaint,” or “discovery,” or “summary judgment” meant. We shared a common vocabulary.) And lawyers as a group probably care more about legal issues than non-lawyers do.

To be sure, outside litigators often work with non-lawyers. We’ve all had to prepare for depositions senior executives who were way too self-assured, or people whose view of the facts wasn’t exactly confirmed by the documents, or witnesses who required a lot of time and effort because they were slightly slow on the uptake. But, as outside counsel litigating cases for big companies, it was typically the in-house lawyers who ultimately supervised and evaluated our work.

Once you move in-house, that is no longer true. We’re the lawyers; our clients are not….

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Ed. note This is the first in a series of posts that Alex Aldridge, a London-based journalist who covers legal affairs, will be writing for Above the Law about the upcoming royal wedding of HRH Prince William and Kate Middleton.

So, you wish you had a royal family, eh?

Judging by the content of your media, royal wedding fever is even hotter in the US than in the country to which Wills and Kate belong (that’s the United Kingdom, by the way, for the 90% of you without passports who think London is in France). To an outsider, it seems you’re doubting the wisdom of that decision you took to go independent from your colonial forebears and start a republic.

You knew almost before us about the Kate Middleton jelly bean, the emotional pre-wedding visit to Diana’s grave, and the plans of our many extremist groups to hijack the big day in an assortment of eye-catching ways.

But I have stuff you don’t have: namely, on-the-ground insights into the mood of the British legal intelligentsia….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

Can we just put this one to rest?

At every conference, and in many articles, people pose the question: “As a client, do you hire law firms, or do you hire lawyers?” The clients dutifully respond that they hire lawyers, not firms. Hasn’t this become sufficiently obvious that we can stop asking the question?

Why does any rational client hire lawyers and not law firms?

Because law firms are an aggregation of lawyers. Once a firm grows beyond a relatively small size, the quality of lawyers will vary. As a client, what matters is the quality of the lawyer working on your matter, not the quality of people not working on your matter, or the identity of the firm. (An exception may exist when a timid client is protecting itself against the possibility of a bad result: “We hired the biggest, baddest law firm available to handle this matter for us. Now that things have gone poorly, you can’t blame me, because I hired the best and sunk a lot of money into the matter.” But that reasoning is foolishness, and I hope this doesn’t happen often.)

The truth is that law firms themselves are uncertain about the quality of their own lawyers. Why?

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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).

Every guy with a family feels the urge to pack a bag, get in the car, and drive. At least, sometimes.

A client told me that – a straight guy with kids. I don’t think it’s a straight thing, though. It might not be a guy thing, either. It can be a lawyer thing. Any lawyer with loans experiences the impulse to hit the highway.

When you’re “The Provider,” you do constant battle with the itch to hightail it out of town.

Who’s “The Provider”? It’s someone you morph into. A character from an Updike novel… or maybe it’s Cheever. Maybe it’s Mad Men. You become a cliché from 1950′s or early 60′s tv shows: Dad, who arrives home, pecks the wife on the cheek, tousles the kids’ hair, then collapses into a La-Z-Boy and reads the paper while the golden retriever fetches the bedroom slippers.

Except it sucks bad enough that you’re feeling the urge to pack a bag, get in the car and drive….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

Social media: They’re all the rage.

And they should be. At a firm, if you could convince half of your lawyers to write intelligent, substantive blog posts twice a week in their areas of expertise, you could stop paying the public relations folks. You’d dominate the web, and reporters from traditional media would beat a path to your url, seeking ideas for stories and comments on hot topics.

(The same holds for many corporations, although it would be the business folks (who are responsible for generating business) and not the in-house lawyers (who are not) who should be hitting the keyboards.)

But firms and corporations don’t do this, for many reasons. First, firms are skeptical; they’re not sure this would work. Second, this requires a large, non-billable commitment of time; many firms (or individual lawyers) aren’t willing to put in the effort. Third, firms are legitimately nervous. What happens when we urge our lawyers or employees to go forth unto the web, and those folks go forth and write embarrassing or crazy stuff, which they inevitably will?

In fact, even if you don’t encourage folks to participate in online discussions, they’ll do it anyway. So social media policies have necessarily become the next rage: How do law firms and corporations protect their institutional interests without unduly interfering with their employees’ right to express themselves online?

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

Law firms, and in-house law departments, should be outer-directed.

I realize that I just invented the word “outer-directed,” and sensible people might choose to call this concept being “client-focused.” But “outer-directedness” is broader than mere client focus — and I invented the word, so it’ll mean what I want it to mean.

At a firm, lawyers should naturally be client-focused, in the sense that client work comes first and most internal matters come second. “Outer-directedness” implies not just client focus, but a more general external focus — devoting efforts to impressing the world, rather than to impressing others within the firm.

We should naturally spend our professional time serving our clients. And, in a law firm setting, we should spend our semi-professional time gazing out through our office windows, not peering inwardly down our own corridors. If a case just settled and you have some free time, spend that time impressing the world, not your colleagues. Join a non-profit board, work for a bar or trade association, write an article, give a talk. Raise both your personal and your firm’s profile. That benefits the world and serves institutional purposes. Don’t spend your spare time impressing your colleagues.

We should of course be nice to each other, but that’s civility, not having an undue inner focus. I’m opposed only to the stuff that goes beyond civility, which I’ll delicately call “office politics”….

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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).

I was kidding around with some of the guys at my gym, tossing around the question – would you fight Mike Tyson for $3 million?

One of them joked – I think he heard this on Howard Stern – that he’d fellate Mike Tyson for $3 million. He could spend the first $1 million on mouthwash and retire on the rest.

Then another guy spoke up, a sometime professional heavyweight boxer. (I’m not making this up, he really has boxed, for big money, not too long ago – and has plans to do so again.)

“It’s not worth it. Mike would destroy you. There would be no retirement.”

He went on to explain what he meant. He knew from experience – this guy had been in the ring. You’d have more than bruises – you’d have concussions, brain injuries, damaged bones and joints. You’d never be the same – and it wouldn’t be worth it. You’re better off not having $3 million but appreciating the finer things, like being able to walk and talk and think.

I saw his point.

Biglaw is also not worth it, even for big money. That’s because it, too, destroys you – just like Iron Mike…

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

The Harvard Law School career services office recently asked me to record a podcast on the subject of “managing up.” This got me to thinking: What the heck is “managing up”?

Fortunately, the woman from career services explained. She was interested in discussing how, as a junior lawyer, you manage the senior lawyer who’s supervising your work.

That’s not anything I’d thought about before, but (as readers of this column well know) that hasn’t stopped me yet, so I said I’d be happy to help with the podcast. Now I’m thinking about what I might actually say.

I’ve tentatively decided that the key to managing up is exactly the same as the key to managing down. In fact, it’s the key to basically every interpersonal relationship you’ll ever have: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Think about it: How should you manage down? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Do not have me, the father of two young kids at the time, fly to Cincinnati for what should be a five-minute meeting set for 11 a.m. on October 31, and then postpone the meeting for an hour, and then postpone it for another couple of hours, and then postpone it again, and then, after everyone else has headed home or to the airport to take their kids trick-or-treating that night, finally tell me at 6:30 that we’ll have to reschedule our meeting. If that ever happened, I might still remember the incident, with lingering resentment, eighteen years later….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

Managing people at big law firms is easy: You don’t!

First, you don’t have anyone to manage. As an associate, you have a secretary. That’s it. And you share your secretary with other people, so you have only limited responsibility for giving annual reviews.

As a typical partner, you also don’t have to manage anyone. You still have a shared secretary. And you’re asked to complete associate evaluation forms once every year, which you dutifully do. Some other poor clown is stuck with the job of reading to associates the results of the review forms and saying, “I can’t really answer your follow-up questions, because none of these comments are mine.” Unless you’re responsible for some unusual duty — evaluating contract attorneys, or legal assistants, or some such thing — a partner at a law firm doesn’t manage people at all. (Chatting with an associate about an upcoming meeting or event, or discussing the contents of a brief, constitutes either doing work or being human. It doesn’t count as personnel management.)

Second, “career paths” at law firms are no secret. The “career path” (such as it is) for a secretary at a law firm is fairly obvious, so your secretary won’t ask much about it. And the career paths for lawyers are obvious, too. If you’re an associate, work hard and do good work, and you’ll be a partner some day. (I’m not passing judgment on whether this path is realistic or not; I’m saying only that, to the extent that it exists, everyone knows what the path is.) If you’re a partner, your career path is equally obvious: Work harder, and do better work, and bring in clients, and you’ll be even richer and more important some day.

Nothing to it. Everyone knows the game, so managing people is a no-brainer. No muss, no fuss, and (if you’re like me) you don’t even notice that you’re not managing people. You might even deceive yourself into thinking that you are.

Would that it were so easy in-house….

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