David Mowry

This is the second part of a series on getting yourself in the door to an in-house position. If it’s not up your alley, read no further. Based on the feedback I received from last week’s entry, this is helpful to some folks out there. Don’t worry, my tell-all book is in the works, and when I’m ready to retire, I’ll regale you with stories of love triangles and hexagons that will make your head spin. Until then, let’s work on getting you that gig in-house.

It is presumed that you worked hard on your resumes and cover letters in law school, vetted them through the career office, and had at least two or more folks review them before sending them out for OCI and beyond. If you’ve been practicing for a while, and are now looking to jump in-house, you’ve likely dusted off your resume and edited it to include the substantive work you’ve done, your many court appearances, and your list of mega deals that you’ve brought to completion. Or not. The reality may be that you don’t have all that much “sexy” work to list on your updated resume.

This may not be a problem…

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Once you’ve decided — either on your own, or with the help of your law firm review — to make the move in-house, what do you do next? The first thing to decide upon is a method to your madness. Disclaimer: If you’ve been engaged in a search for some time, or you are happily ensconced in a position that you love (which is impressive!), my next few columns are not for you. They will be lacking in gossip, or inside baseball stories of life in-house. Because the majority of mail I receive is in regard to the jump to in-house life, I have decided to devote a few columns to the nuts and bolts of making the leap.

There are so many companies of all sizes that looking for an in-house job can make looking for a law firm job seem like child’s play. There are public companies, privately-held entities, government contractors, non-profits, and so on. Start your search by considering company specialty — what the company does needs to match something in your career background. You wouldn’t seek a transactional securities position without any knowledge of the securities laws. It also helps to have at least touched upon the area of law in your private practice. However, it may not preclude you from a position if you’ve not written the latest securities treatise. If the company is a small entity with zero to five current counsel, your general legal knowledge will get you noticed far more than knowledge in a discrete area of law.

Companies of all sizes can be funny animals when looking for legal advisors. The most sought after trait is sound business judgment — something that is rarely discernible in the interview process. It may surprise you, but a less valued item, at least in the business world, is the rank of your law school according to the U.S. News survey….

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Last week there appeared a column on this site that denigrated clerkships in the middle of the country. I could not decide if the author was attempting satire, but it seemed to be a straight piece. I would like to offer a counterpoint.

I began my career at Biglaw in New York City. The firm began to have troubles, and I saw the writing on the wall as my class dwindled from 40 to 30 to 20. I then heard from a family friend that a federal judge in Oklahoma City was looking for a clerk to assist with some topics with which I was familiar. I scored an interview, we hit it off, and I moved my wife and new baby to OKC for a year.

Full disclosure: I went to 15 schools before graduating high school, and OKC was the place I called “home.” Many decisions about this move were simple: it allowed us to live near family for a year, which was great support for the baby; my wife was working on her dissertation, so she had time to write; and I had a circle of friends from high school with whom I could reconnect.

Further simplifying the issue was that the government payscale is based solely on experience. How much did I earn, as a law firm associate turned law clerk?

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When I was a kid, before many of you were born, there were ads during Saturday morning cartoons for a program called “RIF” -– an acronym for “Reading is Fundamental.” Started in 1966 in Washington, D.C., it is supposedly one of the oldest non-profit educational programs in existence. I mentioned RIFs in my last column, and trust me, in the corporate world, RIFs are not altruistic attempts to get at-risk youth to read.

RIF stands for “reduction in force” — i.e., layoffs, terminations, downsizing, etc. A RIF can take various forms. For example, a V-RIF, or “voluntary reduction in force,” is when a company offers early retirement or severance packages to certain employees. These are usually offered as a first attempt to reduce work force numbers, and they are the cleanest way to lower the population. At the other end of the spectrum is the I–RIF, or “involuntary reduction in force.” The term is self-defining.

I stated before that I have witnessed an I-RIF period, and that it was awful. By “awful,” I meant that seeing people let go from their jobs was uncomfortable for me, having come from private practice where such reductions were not (at the time) as publicized as they are today. My company handled the situation with as much grace as could be expected, and I honestly believed our then-CEO when she stated that the dignity of our people was at the forefront of how the reduction would take place….

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February 1, 2012 is a singularly important day to Rush geeks (like me). 2112, get it? I’ve been drumming for over 30 years, and was brought up on trying to play along with Mr. Peart. While I succeeded somewhat in gaining enough chops to play Moving Pictures, Side 1 (back when they had albums, which had sides), and I am proud to say I’ve played some legendary clubs in the Village, the drums never became my end all and be all. Neither did acting, which I tried when I was in my 20s.

When they learn of my distant past, people always ask if I was in anything they’d know — and the answer is that I auditioned for several things they’d know, but since I’m “happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company,” which is impressive, it obviously never panned out. So, as I gaze out my 20th floor window over the lack of snow in upstate New York, my thoughts turn to where I am and where I may be going. Obama gets to give a speech every year on the state of the country, so why can’t I muse about a much smaller universe — the state of the union between me, and others, and the law?

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This column will be published the day our year-end numbers are made public. Word on the street (and the Street) is that we should beat expectations. If true, that would be a very good thing. This isn’t inside information; it’s been opined and published in several national media outlets, and in any event, I am not on the side of the house that has access to that information. I get the comuniques at the same time as everyone else. Luckily, I’ve been here in times of growth. That said, I have colleagues across town experiencing a very different situation.

The downfall of Eastman Kodak can be attributed to many things, and the failure to exploit its own invention of digital photography is chief among them. However, this isn’t a piece pointing the finger of vision opacity just at Kodak. The statement above this column is attributed to Steve Jobs after he viewed a mock-up graphic user interface (“GUI”) invented in Rochester, New York. The company that invented the prototype failed to capitalize on the invention, and the story goes that Jobs stole/borrowed/utilized the idea. We all know where that led. That same company also invented the computer mouse, and again didn’t capitalize on the invention. Stories like these are legend in the field of technological advancement.

What is it that causes companies, which are often on the cutting edge of technology, to miss opportunities that, in hindsight, seem so obvious?

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I very much appreciate reader feedback on my columns, whether received via email or in the comments. Here’s one of the better critiques from the comments section last week, from “Guesty”:

“David — you need to decide what you’re trying to accomplish with this column rather than just describing negotiating a form contract with a customer in vague terms. Every corporate attorney negotiates contracts; you aren’t telling us anything interesting when you say you consider the risks to your client in each provision. For example, if you explained the degree of autonomy you have in negotiating (and why), that might be interesting (you might also describe your level within the legal group and who you’re answering to when you make a legal decision). Are you just playing CYA games within your company or do you really need the input of lots of different specialists? You imply it’s all a BS CYA game to make auditing happy — if that’s true, it’s kind of a depressing way to make a living.”

There are some worthwhile points made by this commenter. Let me try and address some of them….

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I’m writing this wearing my new bifocals. They take some getting used to after years of regular glasses and contacts. But, after watching me examine small print like I was Mr. Magoo, my wife convinced me that it was time to take a symbolic plunge toward middle age. I admit to no small amount of trepidation at the prospect of wearing “old folks” glasses. But the risk of not seeing properly finally outweighed my vanity, and a change had to be made.

And so it goes with some legal decisions in-house. When faced with a dilemma, you weigh the risks versus rewards, and pull the trigger on what you hope is the right decision.

In a company the size of mine, people have performed risk/reward analyses on legal issues for years, down to the proper placement of semicolons in contract clauses. To borrow from the iPhone ads, yep, there’s a committee for that. We have Lean Six Sigma belts of all colors who are subject matter experts in every facet of our business. There are folks with many years of experience, who own any number of policies from which I am to draw when making decisions. It sounds on paper like filling in the blanks will get you where you need to go, but that is far from reality.

In a perfect world, for my job anyway, a Customer would receive a proposed agreement, see the inherent fairness in the document (and the work that went into carefully crafting all those clauses and semicolons), and sign on the dotted line. But sadly, life isn’t perfect, and I have yet to receive a contract back without so much as a redline….

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2012. How many times will some DJ play “(It’s the) End of the World” by R.E.M over the course of the next year? I’d wager about as many times as I was told ad nauseam (pun intended) that a proper Christmas gift is a Lexus (read: upscale Toyota) over the course of the Christmas break. Anyway, it’s back to work for most of us, as some of you never had a break.

I have written before about the shock of becoming a “lowly” cost center as opposed to a private practice revenue center. Also, unlike private practice, there may be a much smaller chance for advancement in a larger law department. Funny enough, folks tend to stay in jobs where they are comfortable and where they are treated well. I am fortunate to work for a company where I enjoy both, but so do the lawyers in peer groups more senior to mine. One of the selling points of my current position is the longevity of the attorneys here. People tend to come and stay — for a long time.

Thus, that sense of security also comes with layers of more senior attorneys, which makes it difficult to advance in the department. There are opportunities to switch to the business side, but if legal is where you want to be, you must attempt to distinguish yourself from a host of very good attorneys. So, today, I am offering some suggestions on how to make yourself more valuable to the department. In future columns, I will address some ideas to assist your general counsel with bringing some revenue back into the company in order to help offset your costs, and to assist you politically….

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Fiscal year end for us is officially this coming Saturday. Until then we’re expected to be on call 24/7. While it might seem draconian, we’re a sales-based technology company, and the push is on for the “Field” to get their year-end orders completed. I readily admit that being “on-call” just four times per year (three quarter ends and one year end), rather than “all year all the time,” is not a bad deal.

When I was in private practice, you were expected to respond top clients ASAP, if not sooner. It didn’t matter where you were or what you were doing, you had to respond. I brought that attitude with me when joining my current employer. This not only took many of my clients by surprise, but by putting myself out there as a go to attorney 24/7, I find that very few clients actually take advantage of that proposal. Truth be told, I am able to “disconnect” on vacation weeks, and I have forewarned anyone tempted to call me at home that if it isn’t a true emergency, I’ll just put my two-year-old on the phone and let them discuss the latest happenings in rugrat world….

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