Advice

I recently heard a horror story from an in-house lawyer at another corporation. This may not sound like a horror story to someone who works at a law firm, but if you reflect for a minute, you’ll see the birds gathering on the monkey bars in the background.

Three people — one from finance; one from a business unit; and our hero, the lawyer — were speaking on a panel to a couple hundred people in a business unit. The business-unit panelist said something outrageous and brazenly illegal to the assembled group. Assume it was something like, “As you know, we simply ignore that law,” or, “It’s easier to raise prices if we just conspire with the competition.” You get my drift.

Our hero, the lawyer, involuntarily gasped into his (or her) microphone, “My God, Smith, you can’t say that! How many times do I have to tell you?”

Smith looked over, thought for a minute, and said to the assembled crowd: “That’s just Legal.”

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When does permissible “flattery” become impermissible “lies”?

I’ll use three real-life hypos — situations that I’ve lived — to explore the question.

First: I was a partner at a law firm. The client had just hired a new, junior in-house lawyer to oversee (among other things) the set of cases we were defending. The client called an all-hands meeting. Four or five of us from the firm attended, as did the general counsel of the company, a couple of deputy general counsel, the global head of litigation, and the month-old, new in-house guy, who we didn’t yet know from Adam.

My senior partner spoke first: “Before we get started, I just want to say that [the new, junior in-house guy] is a great addition to your law department. It’s not often that you work with someone for just a few weeks and immediately know that you’ll be able to do better work, more efficiently, with the new person on board. But you did just that with this hire. Congratulations! What a great lawyer!”

The junior in-house guy was beaming ear-to-ear. Later, in private, your senior partner says to you: “That’s how you cement a client relationship.”

So, what do you say: Permissible (intelligent, praiseworthy) flattery? Or unethical lies?

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How do you keep a client (or a boss) happy? Be “light.”

Everyone has worked with people who are heavy, and everyone has worked with people who are light. Light is better.

You ask a heavy to do a job, and he says that he will. But you’re not at all sure that the job will actually get done. You call two weeks later to ask for a status report, and you receive back an ambiguous response about what’s happening. As the deadline passes, you ask for the finished product. It finally arrives, a couple of days late.

That’s a heavy load for you, the supervisor, to bear. Multiply that by eight direct reports (in a corporate law department) or 20 associates (working under your supervision at a law firm), and the burden is unbearable. All that heaviness crushes you, and, next time around, you go in search of light people.

What does it mean to be light?

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I have two memos sitting unread in my inbox.

One of the memos is great; the other one is terrible. I know which is which. And, as I said, I haven’t yet read either one of them.

Isn’t trust terribly unfair?

Think about the many ways that establishing trust permeates a business relationship. Once the superior (whether that be partner, client, boss, or whomever) trusts the underling, the underling can do no wrong. And once the superior mistrusts the underling, the underling can do no right.

Which of the two unread memos in my inbox is great? The one from the guy I trust. All of his earlier memos have been great. They’re crisp, incisive, intelligent, and lucid; the one that I haven’t yet read is surely a thing of beauty, too. Which memo stinks? The one from the guy I don’t trust. All of his earlier memos have left me gripping my head in agony, trying to figure out what in God’s name this clown was trying to communicate and why anyone would think it was worth trying to communicate that drivel.

Trust permeates everything; it’s terribly unfair. Trust infuses more than just the memos I haven’t yet read. Trust permeates silence, too. How can trust permeate silence?

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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, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist, is available on Amazon, as is his previous book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy (affiliate links).

A law student client — already an MBA — said she needed convincing to drop out of her third-tier school.

I told her to calculate the return on investment for the final three semesters.

She crunched the numbers.

“Debit-wise, I’ve burned $80k in savings and I’m looking at another $100k of borrowed money. On the credit side, I might find a low-salary doc review gig.” She pretended to scratch notes. “So… big loans, interest payments, inadequate cash flow…opportunity cost of 18 more wasted months learning legal mumbo-jumbo followed by the bar exam…”

“In other words…” I egged her on.

“I’d be totally screwed.” She affixed the cap on her pen. “Thanks. I’m convinced.”

I posed the question we were dancing around: “Why are we having this conversation?”

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Professor William Birdthistle

Welcome to the latest installment of Lawyers & Economics, our occasional video series on financial topics by Professor William Birdthistle of Chicago-Kent College of Law. He’s joined in some of these videos by an acting professional: Johnny Kastl, television actor turned 2L at Iowa Law, better known to some of you as Dr. Doug Murphy of “Scrubs.”

In the last video, Birdthistle and Kastl tackled the Greek debt crisis. Sadly enough, that problem remains unsolved, to the detriment of the world’s financial markets.

Today’s topic isn’t going away anytime soon either. If you have — or are thinking of taking on — student loans, keep reading….

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This week’s column was initially going to be about setting fees, but then two lawyers pissed me off so I’m now writing about why technology sucks and needs to be controlled like a screaming 2-year-old on an airplane.

I took Friday off to chaperone a field trip with one of my kids to the Everglades. I promise if I ever get a Pinterest account I’ll post all the pictures of the alligators. On Thursday, I did everything but wear a shirt that said, “I WILL NOT BE IN THE OFFICE OR AVAILABLE FRIDAY.” I also emailed some annoying people that haven’t been out of their office, ever.

That day, one lawyer I emailed responded something to the effect of, “I know you’re going to be out tomorrow but,” and then asked me to do some work on our matter. The other lawyer called Friday morning, was told I was out and said, “Can you have him call me to discuss a case even though he’s out?”

Yeah, we all have smart phones, we’re all getting email in real time, and regardless of what we’re doing, the other side can’t comprehend that we are either really not available, or just don’t want to be available. Maybe we’re looking at alligators with our kids while our phone is back on the bus.

Being out of the office (and for those that don’t have an office, “being out of the office” is a concept, not a physical geographical location issue) is something lawyers need to do to avoid hating the practice of law, but it is becoming more and more looked down upon….

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I won’t say whether I actually heard these conversations or I just dreamt them.

First: The head of the business unit confronted with a new litigation matter:

“This is an outrage! How could they have accused us of this? We want to fight! Fight! Fight!”

“The defense costs will be charged to your business unit, which will reduce your bonus pool.”

“Settle!”

Second: One partner at a law firm — who wants to visit a client, make a presentation, and take the client to dinner — to a second partner — who is the relationship lawyer for the client:

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Okay, I confess: I made the headline intentionally provocative. You shouldn’t lie at all, and you should absolutely forbid witnesses from lying under oath. (If we, the lawyers, don’t obey the law, who will?)

I’m thinking today about a person who is not under oath and will be sorely tempted to tell an obvious lie. Don’t do that yourself, and advise others that it’s not great idea, too.

When are people tempted to tell obvious lies?

In the corporate context, a quarterly earnings announcement might boldly proclaim that the company earned $1 per share this quarter. The Street expected only 90 cents, so this appears to be great news. But there’s something else tucked into the earnings report that disappoints the analysts: revenue declined; margins compressed; organic revenue growth stalled; whatever. Thus, despite the happy headline, the stock price drops two bucks on the day of the earnings announcement.

The next week, you, or the head of your department, or the head of a business unit, or whoever, has to brief an internal audience about the quarterly results. The speaker will be sorely tempted to tell an obvious lie: He’ll pull excerpts from the slide deck used for the earnings announcement, emphasize that the company beat the Street’s consensus estimate by ten cents a share, and tell the gang that we had a great quarter.

Meanwhile, everyone in the room is thinking: “If we had such a great quarter, why did the stock price crater on the news? Do you think I’m an idiot? Why are you lying to me, and do you lie often?”

I’m no expert in corporate communications, but it strikes me that it’s a bad idea to tell obvious lies. How do you avoid telling obvious lies?

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Chris Christie has an idea for Warren Buffett.

* How can you tout your achievements in a cover letter without sounding like a tool? Here are some pointers from Professor Eugene Volokh. [Volokh Conspiracy]

* The “unbundling” of legal services is a big buzzword when talking about the direction of the profession. But Jordan Furlong has a question: should lawyers and law firms start thinking about “rebundling”? [Law21.ca]

* Benchslap of the day earlier this month: the Fourth Circuit smacks around some saucy AUSAs. [Legal Blog Watch]

* “[P]ublic drunkenness is not illegal in NYC.” (Elie will be glad to hear this.) [Gothamist]

* How will SCOTUS rule on the Stolen Valor Act? Mike Sacks reads the oral argument tea leaves. [Huffington Post]

* Chris Christie to Warren Buffett: if you want to pay more in taxes, “just write a check and shut up.” [Dealbreaker]

* A Harvard Law School student, Matthew Schoenfeld, stands up for a good cause. [Harvard Law School News]

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