Generalist

Here’s something that never crossed my mind before I moved in-house, but it affects both the nature of in-house legal jobs and outside counsel’s relationship with in-house lawyers.

ParentCo has three business units: Gadgets, Widgets, and Muppets.

ParentCo will have a general counsel. Beyond that, however, ParentCo’s Law Department could be set up in one of two ways: (1) there may be three lawyers, one of whom is the chief counsel for Gadgets, one for Widgets, and one for Muppets, or (2) ParentCo may have a litigation counsel, an M&A counsel, and a contracts counsel, each of whom support all three business units.

In the first situation, the lawyers for the business units are generalists, helping their specific business units with whatever legal matters arise. In the second situation, the lawyers are substantive experts, helping all three business units with matters that fall into the lawyers’ areas of expertise. An in-house lawyer’s work environment turns in part on which structure the corporation’s law department uses, and outside counsel can better serve clients if counsel know how a law department is organized….

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I wrote last week about how an in-house lawyer overwhelmed by volume should stop worrying and learn to love the ignorance. Talking about ignorance plays to my strength, so I’m choosing here to expand the discussion.

When you’re at a law firm, it’s likely that you sell in part substantive expertise. You’ve assembled a “deal list” to prove that you know more about technology licensing than any other person on earth, or your “case list” shows that you’re better able to handle 10b-5 class actions than all those other pretenders. You may be selling certain things beyond substantive expertise — experience, relationships, presence — but substantive knowledge is part of the package.

When you move in-house, you’re no longer selling anything, because your poor corporate client is doomed to work with you, no matter what your state of ignorance. You’ll no longer polish your deal or case lists, because no one cares anymore.

But it’s worse than that: You won’t simply stop polishing your deal and case lists. You’re actually likely to lose some chunk of your substantive expertise….

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Tom Wallerstein

This post is dedicated to William A. Rutter, who passed away last week. If you’re not a lawyer in California, you might not recognize the name. But at least in my world, Rutter is the guy who produced the invaluable and ubiquitous Rutter practice guides, covering a wide range of practice areas and procedures.

If you’re not from California, you might be more familiar with other Rutter creations, like the BAR/BRI prep course he founded, or his Gilbert Law Summaries for law students.

My firm, like most firms in California, has a series of Rutter guides on our shelves. And even though we run a virtually paperless office with Lexis, Westlaw, and other electronic research options, I still love my printed Rutter guides. We even have a joke about Rutter. Whenever a colleague questions their ability to handle a particular matter or solve a particular issue, we joke, “I’m sure there’s a Rutter Guide for that.”

The joke has a serious point, namely, that the basics of most practice areas can always be learned. And if it’s easy enough to learn a practice area, why shouldn’t a lawyer forming a solo practice or small firm become a true generalist, handling everything from family law, wills and trusts, civil, criminal, and essentially whatever walks in the door?

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