In-House Counsel

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).

Two guys from my high school. One year apart.

Hipster… and Lawyer.

Hipster plays in jazz band with Lawyer. They have the same academic advisor, and fall into a casual friendship.

Hipster has trouble in school. He plays drums and guitar, but struggles to maintain the grades. It’s nothing to do with behavior – everyone likes him. The academic advisor does his best, but after failing a few courses, Hipster’s expelled. He ends up bouncing from school to school, and manages to graduate, then heads to a halfway-decent state university known for partying. He spends most of his year there jamming with his buddies and soon drops out. They start a rock band, smoke dope, wear tie-dye, collect Grateful Dead tapes and call each other “dude.”

Lawyer thinks it’s a shame Hipster got kicked out of school. His own grades are A’s. He wins academic prizes, a scholarship to study in England, and advanced placement at Harvard, where he graduates magna cum laude. He heads to a first-tier law school, and places near the top of his class. An offer arrives from a white-shoe law firm.

Stop the tape…

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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.

Lawyers in private practice collect things.

The lawyers use those collections to adorn professional biographies that appear on firm web pages. The garnitures generally include (1) experiences (which are trumpeted in the form of “deal lists” or “representative engagements”), (2) publications, and (3) speaking engagements. After you pick off a case in the Second Circuit, or publish an article in the National Law Journal, or give a talk to an industry group, you go home and polish your online image; you update your bio.

When you’re in private practice, it makes sense to do this. You are, after all, trying to attract business, so your online bio is essentially your calling card. Strangers may visit the website and see your bio; you may send a link to potential clients; you may print the bio and hand it out during a beauty contest.

In an odd way, for many people, assembling these collections marks the passage of time. (“2005? I was up to my eyeballs in MDL 1150.” “1997? That was when we tried the Doe case.”) You’re nuts, of course, if those professional moments even begin to approach the significance of truly important stuff — marriage, the birth of a child, a death in the family — but those events mark time, in the same way that changing seasons do.

Ultimately, who’s to say that collecting stuff is wrong? People collect stamps, and coins, and books, and they take some pleasure there. Maybe collecting experiences, or achievements, fills the same psychic need. Or maybe the need to achieve, and to prove your achievements to the world, is hard-wired into many people who spent their early years in college, law school, and law firms, pursuing a succession of brass rings….

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In the first four parts of the Career Center “Tip of the Day” series, focused on how junior associates can become more indispensable to their law firms, we covered the importance of taking ownership of your work, becoming an expert in your field, developing effective management strategies, and the knowing the local rules of court and the judge’s chambers rules.

Today’s final tip focuses on developing relationships with clients….

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(Part 5)”

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

Diversity matters. It matters for reasons of social justice. It matters because folks are tracking it, and it can be important to look good on those scales. It matters for reasons of trial strategy, because our defense team should look at least slightly like our jurors. In particular types of cases, diversity may be a terribly important consideration. Employers may, for example, want an African-American to defend a race discrimination case. (Or, in my old product liability life, we may have wanted women to defend breast implant or hormone replacement therapy cases. Or we may have looked for female expert witnesses for those cases. Pandering, thy name is litigator!)

Law firms know this, and those that are able now stress their commitment to diversity. Which brings me to today’s story.

A female colleague and I recently had lunch with folks from a firm that was looking for our business. (You’d be surprised how good I’m getting at those lunches. Whether or not I remember your name the next day is another matter, but I’m becoming a pro at eating.)

The outside lawyers pitched the diversity point fairly aggressively, telling us about their many highly compensated female partners and paying particular attention to my colleague when they did so.

When we left the lunch, my colleague said, “Well, that’s exactly the wrong way to sell diversity.”

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My tenure at Sullivan & Cromwell ended – along with my legal career – in a smoking crater. Picture scorched earth. Nuclear armageddon. The fat lady sang.

That said, I actually got off to a pretty good start. At least for the first couple weeks.

I was assigned to a rather jolly partner, fresh back from running an office in Asia. He didn’t seem a bad sort, and I was feeling on top of the world, commencing my career after a month’s vacation. Off I scrambled to the library to write a memo on a detail of securities law. The topic was complex, but I kept my cool, summarized what I found – with a touch of wit – and called it a day.

Things went swimmingly. The partner loved the memo. He deemed it clever and refreshing and pretty close to accurate. Apparently, I’d managed to lighten the mood at a key moment in a tough deal. I decided I loved him…

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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.

I was always offended by cronyism.

The new managing partner, or CEO, or whoever, comes on board, and he throws out the old guard and brings in his new guys — blatant cronyism. This always bothered me.

I was wrong. I’ve recently become a big believer in cronyism.

But perhaps that’s because I’ve recently changed my perspective.

I’ve now lived a fairly long legal life, and I’ve seen an awful lot of lawyers in action. Let’s say that, over the course of a few decades, I’ve worked sufficiently closely with 1,000 lawyers to be able to assess intelligently which of the thousand are good and which ones aren’t.

Of the thousand lawyers, 200 suck. They’re just abysmal, and you wouldn’t use them for anything….

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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.

All this perfection crap.

One reader wrote to me to complain. Surely, he said, there’s room in the world for a law firm that does work that’s “good enough for the occasion at a fair price.” Isn’t perfectionism the enemy of the reasonable bill?

That reader is undeniably correct.

Small matters, whether transactional or litigation, may not bear the freight of comprehensive factual or legal research. And lawyers who don’t recognize this — whether they work in-house or at firms — won’t last very long. For many matters, “good enough” is good enough.

But I’m not going to spend much time fretting about this, for three reasons.

First, there’s plenty of mediocrity in the world. Although it may engender outrage to type these words, the average lawyer is . . . well . . . average. You don’t have to search very far to find people who produce average work….

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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.

I asked a client how things were going at work – or not-going. She’s a junior at a big firm where it’s been dead slow for the whole year she’s been there and partners are starting to flee.

“Not horrible,” she said.

That’s a not-uncommon sentiment from to people in her position. As a junior, you’re asking for not-much. You’ve realized law school was a mistake – and the thought of your loans makes you queasy. If you get through the day without being criticized or given some god-awful assignment, you can go home and try to sleep. That’s a good day.

Not-horrible means not-unbearable, even if you hate what you’re doing, see no way out and cry alone in your office.

Not-horrible is not-unemployed. Better to not-complain.

One junior associate client has a corporate headhunter friend, who asked him to write something down and commit it to memory:

“There. Are. No. Jobs.”

Okay. Got it?

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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.

I spoke on a panel with two other in-house lawyers at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law a little while ago, and I learned two interesting things about lateral mobility. I’m not one to keep secrets (other than client confidences, of course), so I figure I’ll share.

The first item came from a question a law student asked of Steve Beard, who’s the general counsel of Heidrick & Struggles, a recruiting firm. The student asked when the best times are during your legal career to make a lateral move. I didn’t have a clue, and Beard works for a headhunter, so I figured it was time to listen.

Beard said that headhunters will call you most aggressively at three times in your life. First, you’ll get calls when you’re roughly a third-year associate. At that point, the market perceives that you’ve been trained in the fundamentals of being a lawyer. If someone is looking for a competent person still early in a legal career, that’s more or less the time.

You’ll then apparently have to endure a few years of relative silence. The phone won’t start to ring regularly again until you’re six or seven years out of law school. The market will then perceive you as having become a fully formed lawyer, capable of performing most of the tasks in your niche. Corporations figure that they can hire a sixth-year associate, train the candidate about a particular business, and fit the person easily into a corporate structure….

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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.

I need your help here.

I occasionally give “book talks” about my silly little ditty, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law. During those talks, I explain that my book is written in the voice of a jaded old coot who rants at young lawyers about how to do their jobs. I explain that I would have liked to include in the book a chapter called, “How To Be A Crappy Partner.” That chapter would have been written in the voice of a young lawyer ranting at an older one about the ways the old guy messes up his job. I didn’t include that chapter because it would have required changing the authorial voice from an old coot to a young one, and I couldn’t figure out how to execute the switch.

(Why are there so many great words for nasty old men, but none for nasty young ones? We have “curmudgeon,” “coot,” “crank,” “grouch,” and probably a bunch of others for the old guy. But there are so few (that you can type in public) for the younger version of that character. I propose to add “snark” to the lexicon, meaning a nasty young coot.)

If I’d been able to include the missing chapter, I would have included many examples of how to be a crappy partner. For example….

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