Advice

Don’t read this post again! It would be unbearable.

I’m unabashedly doing two things with this post:

First, I’m serving my purpose: My new book has been published! Here’s a link to the ABA Web Store’s page for Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Can Provide.

Second, I’m serving David Lat’s purpose: Above the Law becomes more valuable when readers click through links and read multiple pages of text. I’ve therefore hidden the information about Cravath’s summer bonuses (if any) behind this link…

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“Could be a brooch, a pterodactyl…”

The line above is from Airplane, a 1980 comedy that is regularly included in all-time top ten movie comedy lists.*

“Johnny” is the character who utters this and many more scene-stealing lines; he owned each scene in which he appeared, and was played by the late Stephen Stucker.

Each time he was on screen, and there were far too few appearances, you were drawn to watch him just to see what he would say. He nailed every line, and the audience loved him. My friends and I would regularly quote the movie in our younger years, as it signaled a paradigm shift in movie comedies –- riotous farces that contained foul language, sexual innuendo, and brief nudity. Among this genre, and ground breaking at the time were Caddyshack, The Blues Brothers, Stripes, and Porky’s.

These movies helped American movies evolve from the mid-’70s “cinema” into the early ’80s “blockbuster.” While these films broke boundaries and changed the rules, and even seem quaint by today’s standards, they’re still funny. But, back to Mr. Stucker.

While it is difficult at best to steal scenes in Biglaw, and be the person that folks remember (for the right reasons of course), it is even more difficult in-house. When you first transition, you are usually entering a company with policies and procedures, uncharted politics and a set hierarchy of power. You find your place soon enough and begin to learn from those that came before.

It is hard to stand out….

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Yeah, you read the headline right. We’re talking about the class of 2011. The class that Jim Leipold of NALP thinks probably faces the very bottom of the legal job market. You could make a movie — a horror movie, a goddamn snuff film — about the struggles of the class of 2011.

But there are people in the class of 2011 who did not crash and burn. It’s a struggle, it’s a war, and there’s nothing that anyone’s giving. But… at the end of the day, there are some people who are making it.

Apparently, success is so rare for the class of ’11 that some of them don’t even know how to handle it. Yesterday, the wife of an idiot 3L asked us how to stop her husband from making a huge mistake. Today we’re giving advice to a different person — a woman who has worked hard and come out of the muck and now finds herself in a position of strength.

Most people in the class of 2011 are just taking whatever they can get. Let’s see if we can help this lady with her distinctly “first world problem.” I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s gonna get weird. She has two offers

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Two years ago, my company had to hire a lawyer to serve as our head of litigation for EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa). We weren’t using a recruiter, so we had to locate candidates the old-fashioned way — by putting the word out. I called one of my former partners (a 60-ish corporate partner, who did a lot of work with European clients) and asked if he could spread the word in Europe that we had a position open. He startled me:

“You don’t have to do a job search. I’ll do that job for you.”

“Excuse me,” I stammered. “You do M&A work. You speak only English. You’ve never litigated in a common law country, let alone a civil law one. How could that job possibly make any sense for you?”

“Managing litigation isn’t very hard. It’s really a matter of knowing how to handle the outside lawyers. And given all the time I’ve spent doing deals in Europe, I have that skill down cold. Let me be your head of litigation for EMEA.”

I had forgotten entirely about that conversation until I had lunch last week with a 40-ish litigator at a different Vault 20 firm. He, too, didn’t understand that corporations are different from law firms; at corporations, the specifics of your work experience matter . . .

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As regular readers of this column know, my son, Jeremy, took a pass on law school: “I really love you, Dad. But basically you help big companies that did it get off the hook.”

Now, if I mention to physician-friends that my son’s in medical school, those friends often react the same way: “God love him; I hope he enjoys it. But I’d never go to medical school these days. Between the insurance companies, the hospital administrators, and the government, there’s no longer any joy in practicing medicine. It’s hard to treat your patients, and it’s hard to make a living. I suspect that things will only get worse over time. I loved being a doctor, but I sure wouldn’t want to be coming out of medical school today.”

I guess that means that today’s college graduates should think hard before deciding to go to medical school. Cross medicine off the list of desirable career choices.

And everyone in the legal profession knows the story about law . . .

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Last week’s column caused a bit an uproar at my attempt to analyze the recent JP Morgan loss of funds from an in-house perspective. I later posted the following in the comments section, and since most of you don’t venture down there (wisely), I am reprinting it here:

“I will take the heat for a column that should have flowed better from factual assertions to analysis. I take the point that attorneys may not have been at fault, and I should have made that point with more clarity in the column. I also should have been more clear in laying out a linear argument from the facts reported in the media. The point I was going for, however inartfully, is that this trade was likely reviewed by someone in a legal capacity prior to approval, and that review should have caused someone pause. Dimon himself admitted that this was a strategy examined by him and management over a month before being executed. [I] [a]gree that the risk analysis was likely not performed by attorney(s), but it doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to presume that the legal technicality of whether this was a proprietary trade or a hedge appeared on some lawyer’s desk. And given the distrust of CDS after the recent malfeasance rife in the industry, is it so hard to believe that … lawyers were involved? Nope, I wasn’t there, and I made a poor attempt to examine a scenario which only magnified my lack of fluency in the subject matter. Mea Culpa.”

Now, on to today’s attempt to offer an in-house perspective….

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This scale might not be just, but it's usually truthful.

Recently, I decided I wanted to lose some weight. Not a lot of weight — that would require an entire lifestyle change and result in me eating a lawn or a salad or something. I just wanted to take off the weight I gained from quitting smoking. I asked erstwhile advice columnist Marin what to do, and she simply suggested that I stop drinking soft drinks. I probably go through five Cokes a workday, and that doesn’t include however much I pour into my rum at night. And I don’t drink Diet Coke because it doesn’t taste like Coke so much as it tastes like carbonated liquid s**t.

I ignored Marin and went online. There I found a true cacophony of the dumbest advice ever collected. Searching for porn on the internet results in a more grounded reality than searching for weight loss advice. From magic pills to magic frozen foods and magic workout tapes that can allegedly turn you into an elite kickboxer on steroids in 20 minutes a day, the internet is replete with products that do not work and faulty advice. If I had some venture capital, I’d design an app that comes out of the computer screen and smacks the food out of your mouth every time you search for “weight loss” on Google. It would work.

Not surprisingly, weight loss advice tailored for “professionals” or “lawyers” is equally dumb and unhelpful. Lawyers, especially Biglaw lawyers, have some unique challenges when battling to stay physically respectable. One of those challenges is being too smart for stupid weight loss tips….

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According to George Will, “Pessimism has its pleasures. Ninety percent of the time you’re right, and ten percent of the time you’re delighted to be wrong.”

That’s how I go through life.

What made me a pessimist? Nature or nurture, perhaps? (Should I blame my parents’ genes or their parenting skills?) Decades defending litigation, which forced me perpetually into a defensive crouch? (If that’s the reason, then plaintiffs’ lawyers must be optimists.) Or my preferred explanation: Keen observation of reality, coupled with endless experience, naturally breeds pessimism.

As an outside lawyer, my pessimism meant that I presumptively expected the worst (or, at a minimum, the least) from colleagues, opposing counsel, clients, and courts. Those folks generally performed precisely to my expectation, reinforcing my pessimism.

As an in-house lawyer, how does pessimism infuse life?

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I’ve recently heard two seemingly related thoughts: (1) lawyers’ legal skills deteriorate when they go in-house and (2) this makes it harder to move back to a law firm.

I doubt that the difficulty in moving from an in-house job to a law firm (if that difficulty exists at all) has anything to do with one’s skills having deteriorated. Although one headhunter recently told me that it’s hard to go back to a firm after you cross the in-house Rubicon, he insisted that was because most in-house lawyers won’t naturally bring a book of business to the firm that hires them. (I stuck the qualifier “most” in there intentionally. Some in-house lawyers move to a firm, bring the corporation’s legal work with them, and do quite well. But that’s not the typical situation.) It’s no surprise that lawyers who bring clients with them find jobs more easily than lawyers who do not. In-house lawyers often can’t guarantee that business will travel with them, so it’s possible that in-house lawyers are less attractive candidates for firms.

But that’s not my main point today. I also don’t agree that moving in-house automatically causes a lawyer’s skills to deteriorate. How going in-house will affect your skills depends on the nature of your in-house position, how your corporation works, and what skills you’re thinking about . . .

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Breaking news to lawyers at firms: In-house, we have these things called “business plans.”

Our business units prepare those plans at least annually. The plans typically contain both general objectives (such as achieving a specified level of organic growth, or margin, or whatever) and concrete steps that the business will take to achieve those objectives (such as introducing new products, controlling specified expenses, or whatever).

In-house law departments may create those plans, too. We commit to implement controls, or improve response times, or give a specified number of training sessions to a specified number of people, or the like. Depending on the corporation, a lawyer may be paid less than his target bonus if he doesn’t achieve his objectives and perform according to plan. A system like that is pretty good at grabbing folks’ attention and causing things to be done.

Do law firms (or individual lawyers at firms) prepare business plans?

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