Ben Heineman

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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Long ago, my law firm won an appeal, and we were thinking of publicizing the victory for the benefit of both the client and our firm.

“It’ll be good to get some attention,” I said to the senior partner.

“It’s easy to get attention,” said he. “Just run naked down Market Street at high noon. We don’t want attention. We want good attention.”

The same could be said of corporate law departments: It’s easy to get attention. It’s harder to get attention for simply doing a good job.

Suppose you wanted your corporation’s law department to be the darling of the press and be nominated for “law department of the year” honors. What would you do?

It’s easy: Make the type of big, public announcements that draw attention: “Our law department is announcing three major initiatives. First, we’re announcing a pro bono initiative. All of our in-house lawyers will devote at least 500 hours per year to pro bono matters. Second, we’re implementing a diversity initiative. [Insert details here.] Third, we’re completely eliminating reliance on the billable hour. Henceforth, all of our law firms will work on flat-fee or other alternative billing arrangements.” (There are surely other items that one could add to this list, too, that are escaping my feeble imagination.)

Gin ‘em up. Send out a press release. Presto! Your law department would be the toast of the town. People would be beating down your doors seeking interviews. But what would you have accomplished?

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