Litigators

Whenever a person passes away while they are literally at their desk, we feel compelled to mention it. When these kinds of things happen, it affects a much wider circle of people than the family and friends of the deceased. It’s almost impossible not to think of your own mortality — and what you are doing with the limited time you have — when confronted with a person who passed away while diligently working and serving his clients.

For many people, working in Biglaw until the day they die would sound like a nightmare. The nature of the profession is that the high salaries and high status attract a number of people to the field who have no desire to actually practice law or service clients over the long term. There are so many people in Biglaw who are there to make enough money so they can do other things with their life. There are so many who are trying to get out before they end up there forever.

But there are others who are in Biglaw because they like it. There are those who honestly love the work, people who get so much intellectual and even emotional satisfaction from the work that their salary and status are non-concerns.

From all indications, Mark P. Edwards, a partner at Morgan Lewis & Bockius who died at his desk on Friday, was one of those people. His friends and family will mourn that his life was too short, but hopefully they will feel that he died doing what he wanted to do….

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Here’s proof that I view my readers at ATL as family: In this post, I’m going to share with you the results of my recently concluded 360-degree performance review and tell you how I plan to improve my personal job performance. (That may not be quite as sexy as pictures of naked judges, but you must admit that I’m making terribly personal information awfully public.)

I’d never been through a 360-degree review before. As part of the process, I completed a self-evaluation, so we could see whether my self-perception matched how the world perceives me. In addition to my self-rating, I received anonymous feedback from (1) the person to whom I report (who was classified as a “peer,” so that his responses would remain anonymous), (2) five other “peers,” or people who hold jobs equivalent to mine in the company and who work with me occasionally, and (3) seven “direct reports,” or folks who report up to me through the ranks. The human resources guy who discussed the review with me did a very nice job; he knows a fair amount about performance evaluations. (Aon is not just the world’s leading provider of insurance and reinsurance brokerage, but also the leading provider of human capital consulting. This means that (1) at long last, Aon finally just got some free publicity out of my having written this column for almost a year, and (2) we have many colleagues at Aon who do human resources consulting for a living, so they’re slightly better at delivering the results of reviews than the kid down the block or the head of your practice group at your law firm.)

What did I learn from the results of my 360-degree review?

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I posted last week about the idea of providing training intended to give lawyers wings — to teach lawyers the skills, and give them the experiences, they need to leave their firm or corporation and move forward on a career path elsewhere. If you thought that was a good idea — if you thought that your firm or corporation might benefit by being known as the place that trained people to become great lawyers — how would your firm pursue that goal?

I actually saw this happen once: I saw a lawyer design a training program to permit him to perform adequately in another job. But the situation was a bit unusual. A heavy-hitting litigation partner at my former firm accepted a job as the general counsel of a large corporation. That guy realized that a litigator’s training has gaps; litigators know the rules of procedure and the substantive law governing cases that they’ve handled, but litigators may be ill-equipped to become general counsel. A litigator is likely to know very little about preparing securities filings, negotiating M&A transactions, advising boards of directors about non-litigation matters, and the like.

My former partner created for himself what I’ll call “General Counsel University.” He asked a bunch of our partners to set aside a half day each to give him a primer about their areas of expertise. He spent time chatting with an employment lawyer about the basics of executive compensation. He spent a half day with a public company securities lawyer, trying to learn the nuts and bolts of securities filings. He talked to M&A lawyers, spent a few minutes with the corporate tax folks, and so on. (Why was he able to do this, you ask? First, he was a heavy-hitter; people were willing to make time for him. Second, he was about to become the general counsel of what could be a very significant client; it made sense to be nice to the guy.)

Could a law firm (or the law department of a corporation) replicate this process for its lawyers generally?

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At age five, when I was driving him to kindergarten one morning:

“Dad, you’re a lawyer, right?”

“Yes, Jere.”

“So you’ve read all the laws?”

“Oh, no, Jeremy. No one could ever read all the laws. There are way too many laws for anyone to read them all.”

Pause.

“Hey, Dad: How are you supposed to obey all the laws if you haven’t read them all?”

Longer pause.

“That’s a good question, son. When you get home tonight, ask your mother.”

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We recently had to hire a new lawyer to help with our litigation in the United States. Not surprisingly, that got me to thinking: What are we actually looking for in lawyers that we hire?

Some companies litigate their own cases in-house, writing their own briefs, taking depositions, and trying cases. If that’s your company’s model, then you’ll need to hire lawyers with a certain skill set.

My joint operated that way at times in the past, but now uses in-house lawyers to manage litigation. We hire outside counsel to represent us, and the in-house lawyers typically supervise the work being done by outside lawyers. In that environment, who’s the right person to hire?

Even in that more restricted world, the answer isn’t immediately clear….

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In 25 years working at law firms, I never offered this to a client. In two years working in-house, no outside law firm ever before offered this to me. But I heard it moments ago, and I couldn’t believe how foolish I’ve been. I smiled, shook my head, hung up the phone, and popped open the blogging software for your benefit.

“When we’re handling a major case that is so terribly expensive to defend,” says my outside counsel, “we like to have an ‘all-hands’ meeting with the client once a quarter. Our entire team will fly to your headquarters for the event. We’d like you to invite not just any appropriate in-house lawyers, but also relevant people from the business unit and any senior managers who might either be concerned about the cost of the litigation or have ideas to offer. We find that people who aren’t directly involved in the litigation often suggest great ideas.

“We won’t charge you anything for these quarterly meetings. We’ll write off our time, and our firm will pay the travel expenses. We just think it’s a good idea to have these meetings regularly in cases as important as this one.”

Brilliant!

I personally had nibbled around the edges of this idea when I was in private practice: “We’d like you to schedule a two-day educational conference about the product involved in the litigation,” I had said in the past. “Have each of your folks who helped to design the product, know its regulatory history, and so on, speak for an hour. We want to educate our entire team and to meet the key players in person. Naturally, we won’t charge you for our time or travel expense.”

That’s okay. It’s a nice offer; it serves an important function; and it causes a bunch of your lawyers to meet a bunch of client representatives. But the offer I just heard is much better. It achieves so much more. Why?

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Hiring of attorneys by corporate legal departments has picked up in recent months. As companies became more cost-conscious during the recession, they began reducing legal expenditures by keeping more legal work in-house and relying less on outside counsel with their high billing rates. This has resulted in an increased workload, and thus a need for more legal staff for manyin-house legal departments.

So if you’ve been thinking about looking for an in-house job, now may be the best time to make a move. In today’s Career Center Tips Series, Lateral Link’s recruiters discuss which practice areas are in the highest demand for the in-house job market. However, since practice area activity can be very region-specific, the following are general trends observed in the in-house legal sector nationwide….

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I’m begging for help here: If you have global responsibilities and are routinely dealing with documents created in languages that you don’t speak, how do you assess outside counsel’s skill at communicating?

As any regular reader of this column knows, I’m a realist at heart. I know in my bones that most lawyers write poorly. I learned this lesson early. When I popped open the first brief that crossed my desk as a clerk in the Ninth Circuit, I exclaimed to one of my co-clerks, “This is great!”

“What’s great?” she asked. “The brief?”

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We enjoy giving our readers the occasional peek behind the Biglaw curtain. Last month, for example, we shared with you the internal interview manual that Sullivan & Cromwell provides to its attorneys who conduct on-campus interviews at law schools.

Today, in a similar spirit, we take an inside look at the annual review process for attorneys at Skadden Arps. We’re into the fourth quarter of 2011, so these reviews are not far away.

In this special report, we’ll provide general observations on the Skadden review process, highlight noteworthy comments from leaked attorney evaluations, and show you a few reviews in their entirety (redacted to remove lawyer and client names). This information should interest Biglaw associates who want to know what partners look for junior lawyers, and it should also appeal to partners at other firms who want ideas on how to structure annual reviews.

If you’re interested in learning more about performance reviews at one of the world’s biggest and best law firms, please keep reading….

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I received a fair amount of mail this past week asking about transitioning to in-house positions from firm life. I tried to offer useful responses when time permitted. I certainly appreciated all the kind words, and I feel for those enduring the struggle of a job search, especially in this economy. Many folks share in the struggle, and many folks have struggled before you — myself included. It doesn’t make it easier, but it will get better. The words “going in-house” presuppose that you have a choice: to go. For most people these days, the choice is to go where you’ll be able to cover your budget. And that doesn’t always translate to getting the job you want.

I do not view this column as a place to preach, I view it as one side of a dialogue. If you feel moved to write to me and ask for advice or ideas, I will certainly do my best to respond to your email. I knew going in to this that by publishing my real name I was setting myself up for abusive comments from a small group of people. It’s all good; I have been a long time reader of Above the Law. But I also knew that, far more importantly, folks who really wanted or needed to discuss topics that I write about might contact me. To that end, let’s talk about choosing the right person for the job….

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