House Rules

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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As an in-house attorney, listening to Jamie Dimon’s Capitol Hill testimony this week caused me no shortage of agita. How in the world does a sophisticated shop like JPMorgan engage in trading that “it didn’t fully understand?” We’re not talking about tranches of junk mortgages; this appears to be basic hedging that went awry to the tune of two billion dollars. Oh, and after this occurred, Dimon was re-upped as the top gun at JPMorgan and given a nice raise. I am sure that there are a raft of attorneys in-house and otherwise advising JPMorgan on this situation — and how to deal with it — but I am more interested in how these trades came to be approved in the first place.

I presume, without knowing, that JPMorgan’s traders have a gauntlet of approval processes to run before implementing new initiatives, and one of those processes surely involved legal approval, or at least legal “go ahead.” Legal surely reviewed the initiative or trades, or whatever the proper term of art may be, before passing it up to the sales floors, and this is the most troubling aspect for me. Assuming that the public testimony is accurate, (and yes, I know what happens when I assume), then the folks responsible for actually trading did not understand what they were doing. Wow. Just wow….

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CHECK YOU public relations skills, bro.

Former Dewey and current Winston partner Adam Kaiser, in my opinion, needs lessons in public relations. I don’t even need to review with you who I am talking about. If you’re reading this on ATL, you already know Adam Kaiser. You also know what he is alleged to have done, and how he responded to a single comment posted on this site.

You and I know all of this information because of Adam Kaiser’s ill-timed attempts to quash the use of his name by an anonymous commenter. His poorly conceived, heat-of-the-moment demands that his name be removed from the site ultimately resulted in the reverse effect; everyone knows his name, and what he is alleged to have done. And his name, while removed from the single comment, has now been repeated over and over and over. Adam Kaiser.

The saying goes that any publicity is good publicity. I argue that unwanted publicity that could damage a career or a firm’s reputation is far from “good.” Even if Adam Kaiser thought he was doing the right thing by sticking up for himself against an anonymous comment, he effectively screwed the pooch.

What should he have done instead?

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One of the benefits of presenting to large groups of in-house lawyers is meeting large groups of in-house lawyers. I am happily ensconced here in my job, but I have never stopped networking. I never miss an opportunity to make a connection, or to make a friend. I try very hard not to burn bridges, and I always examine job opportunities when they come to me. You read that right. Look, things happen, things change, and things can go bad. If you haven’t kept up your networking simply because the economy sucks and the job market stinks, you’ve been doing yourself a huge disservice. I’ll say just two words: Kodak and Dewey. It sounds like a bad horror film ad but “no one is safe.”

When I started practicing law, the paradigm of one job for one career was already long gone. Most commercial lawyers today engage in a sort of pinball training, bouncing from one gig to the next, and picking up whatever knowledge they can before settling into a position with some semblance of permanence. I am very fortunate to have landed here, but even so, I am a much better in-house counsel now than when I started.

Let’s say that it takes a year to two to become fully capable of handling the job you have. If you have been practicing more than ten years, as I have, that’s around five or six years of hard core ability. I am not referencing simple knowledge of the rule against perpetuities, but the ability to use the RAP like Ginger Rogers — backwards and in heels. But, that’s the actual practice of law, and networking experience should only get better by the year. So, I have about twice as much experience networking as I do practicing. And so should you….

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If there was ever a place where your self-esteem could be crushed just by stepping into an airport, Los Angeles is it. Being a New Yorker, I had the high-minded misconception that New York was the mecca of beautiful people, especially in summer. Wrong. I’ll end this tangent with the statement that I saw more perfectly tanned, toned, muscular, and ridiculously in shape people in the 15 minutes it took me to walk to baggage claim in LAX, than I have in my entire time in the Big Apple.

I was in L.A. to present at ACC’s Corporate Counsel University (“CCU”). CCU is a two-day nuts to bolt immersion program for folks who are new to in-house positions. It’s relatively small compared with the Annual Meeting, 200 or so attendees, but I have enjoyed presenting at this conference more than any other, because I can so readily identify with being new to in-house and feeling overwhelmed about how much I did not know….

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I work in a highly competitive sales market. Underhanded deeds, though never perpetrated by my clients, are de rigeur in this field. There seems to be an ethical handbook for sales folks that has a theme of “ethics smethics –- close the deal at all costs.”

At quarter-end, or worse, year-end, this mantra can infect an attorney’s most rigid values. It is at these times when we must be on guard against the pressure to close. The pot at the end of the rainbow will look rather less shiny when tarnished by an ethics violation. None of this is news to most in-house folks.

With an economy on a slow crawl back to health, and internal pressures from all sides to cut costs and maximize revenue, shenanigans from sales people are rife in war story lore. But what of bad behavior by customers? I can tell you that after my years in-house, when I thought I’d already seen it all in private practice, I was quite wrong….

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I had my first biopsy yesterday. Now, I have to wait ten days to hear whether my life will change dramatically, or whether worrying for a week and a half was a waste of time. This is one time I surely won’t mind “negative” feedback.

As I have contemplated this situation, it struck me that fear is an unnecessary component of our work lives from the time we apply to law school. Fear can drive us to obtain top grades, or to over-study for the bar exam, even though we’ve been specifically advised by BAR/BRI — as well as countless other attorneys who’ve been there and who we trust — that you only need to follow the program and you’ll pass. Fear can cause us to take jobs we don’t want because we just need a job, and fear can implicate itself into our daily work routine, so much that we cover our asses out of fear.

The fact is, as attorneys, we’re “maximizers” — folks who know fairly quickly, and usually correctly, that there may be a perfectly good solution to a question, but we can’t stop the obsessive, “What if?!”

Those what-ifs can metastasize into an ungodly blob of fear that resides in the pits of our stomachs. Especially at smaller in-house shops where counsel are expected to know everything all at once. That type of pressure is a breeding ground for all kinds of fear. The best practice when you’re faced with a task of knowing it all is to admit defeat at the outset. You cannot possibly know everything required of you. Your duty is to the company, and to do the best job of which you are capable. Beyond that, have the wisdom to seek assistance, internally or from outside counsel, and to know when to put your foot down and say “enough”….

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The Dewey debacle is unfolding in real time on this and other sites. People’s lives are being shattered as a firm gets shuttered. It is not the first, and certainly not the last, time that a major law firm with thousands of employees will disappear into so much ether. I look back on my OCI days, and can rattle off several former NYC firms that have either merged into unrecognizability, or disappeared like Dewey is in the process of doing.

Likewise, not far from where I now sit, is the shell of Eastman Kodak — a company that built a large part of this town, and will likely become a shameful case study in the annals of business school textbooks. And yesterday, news went out that my own company is beginning another round of VRIF severance offers.

Regardless of whether you are sitting comfortably in-house, collecting pay from Biglaw, or wondering how in Hell you’re going to find a summer job, news like that mentioned above is disquieting. The main reason is that there isn’t anything that can be done. One day you’re employed, and then, well, you may not be. And there is really no place for schadenfreude in a “there but for the grace of God” economy. Careers can be dissolved as quickly as Dewey.

So, when you are forced to enter an applicant pool of thousands of other attorneys looking for a break in a seemingly unsolvable code of hiring, what can you do to set yourself apart? One possible strategy that has become a hot button issue in the past days is to claim minority status on your application. The obvious dilemma that you face as applicant number two thousand twenty-eight is whether to check such status if your lineage may or may not support the claim….

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I have spent this past week at our international software licensing council meeting. I have met many of our licensing experts from around the country and around the globe. Unfortunately, the meeting always takes place on one of our campuses 15 minutes from my home. It would be great if we could move the meeting to Canada or Latin America some years, but for now, I am home. And I am watching the last of the late spring snow melt off of my daughter’s snowman.

While a lot of the terms and technology discussed at the meetings soared far above my head, it has been fascinating to meet with people who are integral to the creation and drafting of our software licenses. On its face, our business sells manufactured products. Inherent in those products, however, are thousands of hard and soft components necessary to make the products run.

Technology has always been a core piece of our business. I have discussed before numerous areas where we have been at the forefront of particular technology advancement. Some technology remained salient to our core business, and some fell by the wayside, only to be successfully utilized by other companies. But meeting with folks who actually create some of the ingredients in our product stew opened my eyes to a world that for me, has thus far existed under the radar….

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My work life revolves around email. Because of the size of our company, and the geographical locations of my clients, I spend a majority of my day on email. Like many of you, I have a disclaimer below my signature stating that the correspondence is attorney-client privileged, and so on. But is it really? Many times, the answer is no. I know enough to use the disclaimer in an abundance of caution, but my clients often have no idea whether what they send across email is indeed privileged.

Like Susan Moon, I am often referred to as “council.” That’s fine, it doesn’t really bother me, and is rather innocuous. Sometimes however, a client will take it upon themselves to write in bold, ATTORNEY-CLIENT PRIVILEGED, within the subject line. And that does bother me. Folks with just enough legal knowledge to be dangerous, are often just that — dangerous. Now, the email may indeed be seeking my advice, or concern a legal matter within that client’s region, but the client should not assume that to be the case. The misunderstanding of the privilege could lead to problems in the future, say, in a discovery period….

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