House Rules

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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Disclaimer: I know this is usually an in-house column with tips and tidbits about being a corporate attorney, but there have already been numerous columns about how to network (or not) through the holidays, how to prepare for the next billable year, and how to act at a party. I’m using today’s column to very briefly examine some of the real world negatives and positives going into the end of the year 2011. So, if you want in-house perspective, stop reading now, because that stuff will resume next week. Comments will, however, remain open.

Christmas is in a few days, and all I have on my mind are some heinous local crimes this week. A grown man raped a 9-month-old — yeah, read that again and try to forget it — and an adopted son tried to burn his family to death (succeeding in killing his father and two brothers). A man is being sentenced today for killing his girlfriend and their child on Father’s Day, and a man convicted of murder may go free because some jurors are now saying that they voted guilty in order to get home for the weekend. The local Occupy folks are freezing in their tents, and now just seem even more small and pitiful. Oh, and there is no snow, there has been no snow, and there might not be snow for a while — and this in a place that averages 160 inches of the stuff per year….

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Admittedly, I take on some large issues in this column. But this is neither a treatise on contract law, nor the forum to attempt one. I am simply attempting to give some pointers for negotiating commercial contracts. I do very much appreciate the emails that I receive that suggest where I missed some salient information, or that offer critiques to some of my strategies. I’ve even used some of them and credited the authors, to the extent they’d allow. Funny thing about this site, most people don’t want to be identified. It’s almost end of year, so here goes:

Let’s say you’re in the heat of a commercial lease negotiation and the customer says to you: “What are these payments in the event of default? Why should I be penalized if your product doesn’t work as it should? Are you telling me that I have no remedies? Don’t you stand behind your products?”

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I wrote about these contractual issues the week before Thanksgiving. I received so many emails that I thought it best to flesh these topics out a bit more. Also, some of these headings are from the anonymous “comments” section on this site, so I can’t attribute them (and I’ve also edited them for language).

1) “Real life example: Company A hired to refurbish shipping vessel owned by Company B. Contract obligated Company B to indemnify Company A fully, worded broadly enough and specifically enough to require indemnification for Company A’s own fault. Company A sets the boat on fire through clearly negligent actions and then tries to put it out with a garden hose. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals tells Company B that yes, Company A was at fault; yes, you are out quite a bit for the value of the boat and the lost income, but you must eat it as you have to indemnify Company A for your own claim.”

Why on Earth someone would agree to indemnify a Customer for their own negligence is beyond me. I have been through this scenario many times, and I always inquire as to how I am expected to indemnify my Customer for its own negligence. In the B2B arena, indemnity should be limited (if possible) to third party claims against the potential indemnitee, at which point the indemnitor would take on the payment.

This raises another point: even if I indemnify you, who is going to defend you?

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Caveat: I did not write the following dialogue. It is from the “comments” section of one of my columns where I mentioned I’d be writing about HIPAA and GLBA. Unfortunately, I cannot attribute the comments to the persons who wrote them, as they are anonymous; however they are quite apropos of today’s subject:

1) “I wish vendors would get it into their heads that indemnity for being sued on a confidentiality basis doesn’t cut it for financial institutions and other customers/clients that have affirmative obligations without being sued in the event of a breach of confidentiality.”

2) “I wish financial institution customers would get it into their heads that the ‘customer information’ they’re obligated to protect is not the sort of thing they would ever disclose to the vast majority of their vendors, and stop using their ‘affirmative obligations’ as a tool to cram unnecessarily restrictive confidentiality terms down the throats of vendors.”

Perfect. Those two comments capture the schism between vendors and customers when dealing with private financial or personal confidential information….

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