In-House Counsel

Ambrose Bierce once said: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.

Ambrose Bierce, Esq., would have said: “‘Business-friendly legal advice’ means telling the client that it can do illegal stuff.”

Bierce, Esq., would have been funny, but wrong.

It’s important for lawyers to give useful advice. But many lawyers, both in-house and out, don’t seem to understand this. I’ve recently seen (or heard about from others) senior folks in businesses or in-house law departments ask not to receive advice from certain lawyers: “Don’t go to her! She’ll just tell me that everything is illegal!”

Or: “Don’t go to that firm! They’ll give us some theoretical answer that we can’t possibly use, and we’ll end up having to figure out a solution for ourselves anyway.”

Those reactions (and those words) make sense to business people and in-house lawyers; clients need real advice, not self-defensive crap. But some lawyers — typically at firms, but occasionally in-house, too — don’t understand this. To help those folks, here are illustrations of what “business-friendly” (or the opposite; shall we call it “business-hostile”?) advice sounds like . . . .

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It’s great to be an in-house lawyer these days. The jobs enjoy greater prestige than they did in the past. Depending on which company you work for, the compensation can outstrip Biglaw, big time.

And let’s not forget: the work can be very, very interesting. For example, imagine being the general counsel or another in-house lawyer at Apple — a company involved in two of the most high-profile litigation battles currently raging….

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I’ve come under criticism recently, either expressly or implicitly.

I tell new lawyers to write in short sentences.

Very short.

My preferred writing style is “Modern American Snowplow.”

Others insist that I’m too strident. Mark Osbeck, who teaches legal writing at The University of Michigan Law School, has published a law review article (it’s the fourth one down) criticizing The Curmudgeon’s Guide To Practicing Law because my book over-emphasizes the need for short sentences.

I have two reactions. First, thank you! Let’s debate these issues in public! And, so long as you spell my name right, you’re doing us both a favor!

Second, I’m right, and you’re wrong! Why? Because I’ve never in my life reviewed the work of a new lawyer and thought: “This draft would be pretty good if only it used a bunch of longer sentences. The cure to what ails this brief is to add some complexity to it.” If you were honest with yourself, Professor Osbeck, you’d admit that you’ve never seen that, either. On the other hand, both you and I frequently see sentences that desperately need to buy a period. So what should we teach — the rule or the exception?

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En garde, esquires of the Biglaw realm!

* Partners from Patton Boggs and Squire Sanders may vote on their merger sometime this week. Get ready to say hello to Squire Patton, House of Boggs, Hodorific of Its Name. [Reuters]

* “[E]xcuse me, sir, you may not be here in five years.” Biglaw firms are becoming more “egalitarian” about office space because attorneys have expiration dates. [National Law Journal]

* After a flat year in 2013, and much to Biglaw’s chagrin, “[i]t is going to be harder to sustain year-over-year profitability gains.” Oh joy, time to power up the layoff machine. [Philadelphia Inquirer]

* Tech giants Apple and Google have called a ceasefire in their dueling patent suits in a quest to reform patent law — and so Apple can concentrate all of its efforts on suing the sh*t out of Samsung. [Bloomberg]

* GM’s in-house legal department is being heavily scrutinized in the wake of the car maker’s ignition switch lawsuit extravaganza. You see, friends, people die when lawyers don’t even bother to lie. [New York Times]

* Donald Sterling found a lawyer willing to represent him, an antitrust maven who thinks the NBA should take its ball and go home because “no punishment was warranted” in his client’s case. [WSJ Law Blog]

In-house legal jobs are growing in prestige. As our very own Mark Herrmann recently noted, in-house lawyers were once viewed as “the folks who couldn’t succeed at real jobs,” namely, jobs at firms. But that’s no longer true today, Herrmann argued, citing the trend of Biglaw partners leaving their firms for gigs as corporate counsel.

What is behind the growing allure of in-house jobs? Sure, the work is interesting and exciting, and yes, bossing around outside counsel is fun. But improving pay packages also play a role. As you can see from the rankings of America’s best-paid general counsel, GCs at top companies can take home millions.

And those rankings, by Corporate Counsel, focus on cash compensation. In-house lawyers can make many multiples of their cash comp through stock.

Take Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s general counsel. She became GC less than a year ago, but she already owns tens of millions in TWTR shares, as revealed in recent reporting about the end of Twitter’s IPO lockup period….

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Ever since I wrote on ATL about going in-house through the compliance route, I’ve been getting emails with questions — almost every month and often several times a month. It seems that everyone and their sister is interested in compliance, from law school grubs to seasoned attorneys. I even get emails about this from people who aren’t in law at all. It almost makes me wonder whether I should be checking out some of those job posts myself!

And why not? According to Reuters, it’s Wall Street’s “hot trade.” And the Wall Street Journal considers whether compliance is a “dream career.” Salaries have been rising and demand for compliance professionals is high and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. So it’s no wonder that inquiring minds want to know. Many inquiring minds.

A lot of the questions I’ve been getting are pretty similar. And while I understand that sometimes one needs to respond to the same questions over and over and over and over again (those of you who are parents can sympathize), I figured it would be a much better use of my time more efficient situation for everyone to instead address some of those commonly asked questions in a blog post.

And for good measure, I reached out to a couple of compliance recruiters to get their expertise. So here goes…

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In 1983, when I graduated from law school, essentially no one wanted in-house legal jobs, and people who worked in-house weren’t held in very high regard.

To the contrary: With few exceptions, in-house lawyers were viewed as failures. These were the folks who couldn’t succeed at real jobs. People went in-house because law firms wouldn’t have them; jobs with short hours, low pay, no challenging assignments, and no stress were the only available alternative.

That was not simply my narrow-minded perspective. It was the widely shared belief of generations of lawyers who came of age in the law before about 1990. I recently had a drink with the general counsel of a Fortune 250 company, and he (or she, but I’ll use the masculine) told me that he could never be a success in his father’s eyes: “My father was a partner at a major law firm. He was pleased with me when I clerked for a federal appellate judge, took a fancy government job, and later became a partner at a big firm. But then I went in-house, and he lost all respect for me. He wanted me to ‘succeed’ in the law — to try high-profile cases and argue important appeals. When I went in-house, he quickly decided that I was a failure, and there was never any chance that he’d change his mind.”

Although that’s a sad story, I’m pleased to report that, at least in the context of in-house legal jobs, Bob Dylan had it right: “The times they are a-changin’ . . .

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Last week, the American Lawyer announced its eagerly anticipated Am Law 100 rankings, reflecting the financial performance of major law firms in 2013. On the whole, the news wasn’t bad. The elite firms did great, and most other firms eked out “modest, hard-won gains.” Am Law suggested that the big vereins underperformed, but that indictment might have been too harsh.

The Am Law data focuses on last year. What about last quarter? How are law firms doing in 2014 so far?

A new report from Citi Private Bank, a leading provider of financial services to leading law firms, has some answers….

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Last week, I addressed how technological advances and freer access to information can help ex-Biglaw partners like myself transition to a boutique practice without disruption — from the standpoint of being able to conduct a litigation practice in much the same way it was conducted while in Biglaw. As I said, it has become much easier to gain access to the litigation work product of Biglaw firms, for example, reducing Biglaw’s edge in knowledge management over a start-up firm like ours.

Of course, how best to exploit that work product requires training and skill, and to some extent a Biglaw-caliber background to begin with. In other words, the information may be more accessible, but it does not come with an instruction manual. At least when it comes to patent litigation, everyone needs to learn the trade the hard way.

But there is another important area where Biglaw’s edge is eroding….

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First, two plugs; then, crystal-ball-gazing about a certain breed of law firm. Plug one: Please take a look at “How To Write Articles That Don’t Generate Business.” I amused myself writing it; perhaps you’ll be amused reading it.

Plug two: I’ll be back in the States for a few weeks in June, and I’m taking advantage of that opportunity to give my “book talk” about The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law at three “Vault 50” firms. So long as I’ve dusted off the notes to give those three talks, I might as well speak at your firm, too, Please let me know if you’re interested.

Finally, some crystal-ball-gazing: I’ve been picking for years on the fictitious law firm of Bigg & Mediocre. For good reason: To my eye, a fair number of firms have decided that adding more offices and lawyers is the cure to all that ails them and that relentlessly focusing on quality is a failed strategy of the past.

Recent empirical evidence now suggests that I may actually have a point. The Am Law profitability ratings for last year show that the super-rich firms are getting richer, and the run-of-the-mill big firms are doing okay. But one group is getting crushed, seeing substantial decreases in both revenue per lawyer and profits per partner: what Am Law calls “the giant alternatives” or the “vereins.”

My mental category of “big and mediocre” doesn’t match Am Law’s “giant verein” group. To my eye, a few of the global giants have managed to pursue both size and quality. But several have not. (I can’t say publicly which firms I would place in which category, because my employer is the world’s leading insurance broker for law firms, and I can’t go around offending the clients and potential clients. Let me just say that your firm is great. Not just great — stupendous! But the other guy’s firm? Not so much.)

So “big and mediocre” got its clock cleaned last year. I’m predicting that big and mediocre will get its clock increasingly cleaned over time, and within a couple of decades, will suffer the fate of the sundial.

Why?

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