In-House Counsel

Ed. note: Welcome to the inaugural installment of Moonlighting, a column for in-house lawyers by our newest writer, Susan Moon. Susan’s column will appear on Fridays.

Come one, come all, to this paradise we call The In-house Wonderland. This is a magical place where all of your time-billing nightmares turn into hazy clouds of doing whatever the heck you want, when you want, and not keeping track of any of it. Where you hire outside firms to do all of the legwork while you sip your latté and email them to let them know that you actually need it a week earlier than you thought (so yeah, that would be in about two hours, kthxbai)! A Xanadu in which you’re never in fear of getting pushed up and out just because you can’t find ways to bring in millions (wait, is it billions now?) for the firm.

Yes, it is a dream…. Unfortunately, just a dream.

I’ve been in-house for the past several years at a travel and hospitality company. My work is varied and transactional, which means the general public has absolutely no idea what it is I do, since the only lawyers that they know exist are litigators from Law & Order, The Practice, Boston Legal… need I go on? Let’s face it, even most law students have no idea what corporate lawyers do either, since law schools seem to have signed a pact to pretend that transactional law doesn’t really exist. Sigh….

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Years ago, I saw a memo written by a law firm partner who was renowned for mistreating junior partners, associates, staff, and lost children who wandered in the front door looking for their parents. But this memo showed a whole different personality. The memo was directed to a practice leader who had solicited comments about how best to expand the practice. (In case you’re wondering, the memo was distributed widely by mistake. The practice leader told his assistant to gather in one document all of the comments about how to improve the practice, so the comments could be shared and everyone could discuss the ideas at an upcoming meeting. The assistant then took all of the unedited inbound memos and assembled them in a single packet that she distributed to the entire group. Voilà! There was the ogre’s memo, for all to read.)

The ogre’s memo was breathtakingly — what’s the right word here? — “solicitous” to the practice leader: “I’ll satisfy your request for suggestions about how to expand this practice area further, but we should first acknowledge what you’ve achieved to date. When you were appointed to lead this practice ten years ago, everyone thought you’d been sent on a fool’s errand. No one thought it was possible for our firm to compete in this space. We had no cases in the area and none of our lawyers had any expertise. But you’ve defied all the odds. You’ve made this practice one of the great success stories in the firm. You deserve endless praise for what you’ve done, and I want you to know how much we respect — indeed, admire — you.” And so on.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand the fine art of sucking up. (I’m not much good at it, but I understand it.) And I appreciate the wisdom of people like the ogre who try to do their sucking up in private. But I don’t understand folks who do these things publicly. Can’t we control at least the public manifestations of unequal treatment being accorded to people who matter to you and people who don’t?

What am I thinking of?

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At the Creating Pathways to Diversity Conference, sponsored by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), there was a great lunchtime discussion called “Her Stories: The Evolving Role of Women in Business and Law.” It featured a panel of heavy hitters: two women currently serving as general counsel to Fortune 500 companies, and a third who previously served as GC to no fewer than four Fortune 500 companies over her career.

What does their rise say about the changing role of women in the corporate legal world? How did they get to their lofty perches? And what advice would they offer to lawyers aspiring to such successful careers?

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Yesterday I participated in a panel at the Creating Pathways to Diversity Conference, sponsored by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), entitled “Attitudes & Opinions: Generation Y Speaks about their Workplace in 10 Years.” The spirited discussion covered a wide range of topics relating to Gen Y’s workplace attitudes.

I also attended a number of other interesting events. In the afternoon, I checked out “Special Considerations: The In-House Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Lawyer Experience.”

If you’re interested in LGBT issues or in-house diversity issues, keep reading to find out what the panelists had to say….

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I’m fast approaching the two-year anniversary of my move in-house, and I don’t often look back wistfully on my former life as a partner at one of the world’s largest law firms.

But last Tuesday was different. Please bear with me.

For 25 years, I practiced, and tried to develop new business, in the complex litigation space. I worked at a firm that wasn’t interested in defending companies in one-off pharmaceutical product liability or Automobile Dealers’ Day In Court Act cases. Those cases were frequently insured (and the carriers often wouldn’t agree to pay our rates) or otherwise too small to fry. But the moment one of those silly little cases morphed into something real — a mass tort or a Dealers’ Act class action — we were chomping at the bit to get retained.

It’s tricky to market into that niche: “I don’t want your ‘drug caused an injury’ case until you have 1,000 of them. Then, even though I spurned you before, I want you to hire me to displace (or, at a minimum, supplement) your existing counsel on the cases.” The existing lawyer already knows the facts and the law, and ignorant you, who showed no interest before, now wants to butt in. How do you pitch that?

I figured the answer was to develop a reputation at the point where small cases transmogrified into big ones: the filing of a class action, the filing of enough cases that a motion for multidistrict litigation became likely, and advising companies how to respond when “60 Minutes” or “20/20″ called for an interview. I thus spent an awful lot of time writing about those topics and speaking at any conference that would give me a lectern and a worthwhile audience.

Then I moved in-house and changed my focus entirely. Until last Tuesday . . .

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Two comments from folks who recently moved in-house prompt this post.

The first comment came from a guy who spent more than ten years with an Am Law 100 firm before moving in-house: “When I was reading the newspaper on Sunday, I realized something. Before I moved in-house, I never truly understood ‘Dilbert’ and the cubicle culture. Now, I do.”

The second comment came from a guy who spent more than 20 years with two different AmLaw 100 firms before moving in-house: “When I moved laterally between law firms, my new firm understood that my time had value. I arrived at 9 on the first day and was working on client matters before noon. My office was ready to go, and we held the bureaucratic stuff to a minimum.

“I moved in-house, and it took days before I could start working. I screwed around with immigration forms and health insurance; I needed computer passwords; when I arrived, my office didn’t have even a pen and pad of paper, let alone a telephone or a computer in it. You realize pretty quickly that you’re in a nonbillable world, and no one seems to care very much whether or not you actually do anything. I figure that, if they don’t care, why should I?”

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There’s one guy in your outfit who understands the need not to write stupid e-mails: That’s the guy who just spent all day in deposition being tortured with the stupid e-mails that he wrote three years ago.

That guy will control himself. He’ll write fewer and more carefully phrased e-mails for the next couple of weeks. Then he’ll go back to writing stupid stuff again, just like everyone else.

You can’t win this game; no matter what you say, people will revert to informality and write troublesome e-mails. But you’re not allowed to give up. What’s an in-house lawyer to do?

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Your company was just named in a new complaint, and there’s no obvious choice of counsel to defend you. What do you do?

You ask around internally to see whether any of our lawyers has worked with good counsel in the jurisdiction. Perhaps you ask a trusted outside lawyer or two for recommendations. You narrow the choices down to two or three candidates, and you decide to interview the top three firms.

This brings us to the subject of this post: What do you ask at the interviews?

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During my 25 years litigating at law firms, I fretted about two words: “winning” and “losing.” (As one old-timer put it: “They don’t pay you twelve dollars a minute to lose.”)

Now I’m in-house, and I’m still fretting about two words: “probable” and “estimable.”

What happened?

The accounting rules require corporations to take a reserve (which causes an immediate hit to revenue) when a “loss contingency” (which is accountant-speak for lawsuits, among other things) becomes probable and estimable. If it’s likely that you’re going to lose, and if you can estimate the amount (or, at least, the lower bound of the amount) of the loss, then it’s time to take a reserve.

This can make in-house life odd….

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While at the Legal Technology Leadership Summit, I attended the panel entitled “Legal Process Outsourcing and Insourcing.” As I mentioned on Twitter, when I go to conferences I enjoy attending the panels that are most likely to cause pain and suffering among junior attorneys. It’s kind of my thing.

Usually, anything involving outsourcing is a good bet to make junior attorneys scream expletives at God before drinking themselves into a stupor. But this panel was surprisingly positive about the future of Biglaw attorneys in a outsourced world — and not just the career associate types. The panelists saw a future for regular partner-track associates with dreams of a better tomorrow.

Of course, even under the rosiest of scenarios, Biglaw firms will lose money as more companies outsource, but corporate GCs don’t so much care about that….

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