In-House Counsel

I posted last week about the idea of providing training intended to give lawyers wings — to teach lawyers the skills, and give them the experiences, they need to leave their firm or corporation and move forward on a career path elsewhere. If you thought that was a good idea — if you thought that your firm or corporation might benefit by being known as the place that trained people to become great lawyers — how would your firm pursue that goal?

I actually saw this happen once: I saw a lawyer design a training program to permit him to perform adequately in another job. But the situation was a bit unusual. A heavy-hitting litigation partner at my former firm accepted a job as the general counsel of a large corporation. That guy realized that a litigator’s training has gaps; litigators know the rules of procedure and the substantive law governing cases that they’ve handled, but litigators may be ill-equipped to become general counsel. A litigator is likely to know very little about preparing securities filings, negotiating M&A transactions, advising boards of directors about non-litigation matters, and the like.

My former partner created for himself what I’ll call “General Counsel University.” He asked a bunch of our partners to set aside a half day each to give him a primer about their areas of expertise. He spent time chatting with an employment lawyer about the basics of executive compensation. He spent a half day with a public company securities lawyer, trying to learn the nuts and bolts of securities filings. He talked to M&A lawyers, spent a few minutes with the corporate tax folks, and so on. (Why was he able to do this, you ask? First, he was a heavy-hitter; people were willing to make time for him. Second, he was about to become the general counsel of what could be a very significant client; it made sense to be nice to the guy.)

Could a law firm (or the law department of a corporation) replicate this process for its lawyers generally?

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Now what?

You’re sitting in your new office, with a blank stare out the window, and like Redford in “The Candidate” you say: “Now what?”

Your next move largely depends on the size of your in-house department. Departments with six or fewer attorneys make up approximately 60% of in-house legal offices. Most in-house lawyers therefore have vastly more legal issues on their plate than I, where we have almost 200 attorneys. I am specialized in my company, and am required to focus on closing deals. We have a patent department, litigation department, labor and employment department, and on and on.

Attorneys in my company are also expected to become subject matter experts in a relevant topic, and mine happens to be software licensing. This level of specialization is nowhere to be found for most in-house counsel. Most are expected to be at least somewhat knowledgeable on a vast array of topics: compliance, securities, mergers and acquisitions, et cetera. I am always humbled when I speak to groups of in-house attorneys, because I know that most of them are expected to handle a huge number of topics in order to represent their clients well.

So, you may be asking, now what?

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It’s been a bad few days for the Church of England. First, it gets slammed for siding with the bankers, rather than the protesters, after its flagship venue, St Paul’s Cathedral, finds itself at the heart of Occupy London. Second, a change to the U.K.’s ancient royal succession laws strikes a blow for its great rival, Rome, as a ban on royal family members who marry Catholics taking the throne is lifted.

Beginning with the Occupy London controversy: the protesters’ original plan was to occupy St Paul’s neighbour, the London Stock Exchange, which nestles alongside the U.K. branch of O’Melveny & Myers on an adjoining square. But they were blocked by the police, forcing them instead to set up camp on the forecourt of the great cathedral (built from the ashes of the Great Fire of London in 1666). At first this seemed like a defeat, as the Church of England played victim, shutting the doors of St Paul’s to visitors for the first time since the Second World War on what it claimed were health and safety grounds.

Here’s what the encampment looked like:

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Four months ago, you revised your company’s policy on employees’ use of social media. The policy said all the right things: When employees use social media, they should respect the rights of others and treat people with dignity; obey the company’s code of business conduct; maintain corporate confidences; and so on.

Unbelievably, some recent communications from the National Labor Relations Board suggest that each of those provisions (except for the “and so on”) could actually cause your company some labor pains. Why?

Here’s the easy part: The National Labor Relations Act protects employees who engage in “concerted activities” for the employees’ “mutual aid or protection.” Those words apply across the workforce and are not limited to unionized employees. An employee acting solely on his or her own behalf is not engaging in “concerted activities.” On the other hand, consider an individual employee who is working with (or on the authority of) other employees, or is trying to induce a group of employees to act, or is bringing group complaints to the attention of management. The NLRA may protect all of those activities, and an employer may violate the NLRA if it maintains a rule that could reasonably “chill employees in the exercise of their” rights.

What does that mean for the three examples suggested in the opening paragraph of this post?

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Willkie Farr is getting raided.

But it’s not an entirely bad thing. Instead of losing talent to a rival law firm, Willkie is losing talent to a top client. Bloomberg LP has decided to beef up its in-house presence, and it’s doing it with a boatload of Willkie attorneys.

Is this a good thing for Willkie? The firm will remain Bloomberg’s outside counsel, but there could be much less work coming from the client.

And Willkie did feel the need to send an email to all their people to make sure nobody freaked out….

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Does your company hold employee “social events”? These range from bigger events like town halls, summer picnics, and holiday parties, to smaller, more intimate socials like Friday afternoon ice cream sundae breaks, cubicle-decorating contests, and themed get-togethers. They all have the same goals — encourage a team atmosphere, help boost morale, and announce company information.

Do you think of these events as times for you to relax, stuff yourself with free food, and take a break from work? Do you have a tendency to blow off some of these events as fluffy wastes of time (obviously the lawyers who show up for these aren’t as busy as you are)? If so, that’s a big mistake.

My take is that these “social” events should generally be viewed as “work,” not breaks from work. They’re fantastic opportunities for you to advance your in-house legal career, so just relaxing and having fun at these events means you’re missing out on a lot. Also, let’s be serious here, they’re not really all that fun. I mean, Mardi Gras = fun. A night on the town with your best buddies = fun. Cocktail weenies in the lobby next to the copy room = meh.

So forget the fun, and get to work at the socials!

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At age five, when I was driving him to kindergarten one morning:

“Dad, you’re a lawyer, right?”

“Yes, Jere.”

“So you’ve read all the laws?”

“Oh, no, Jeremy. No one could ever read all the laws. There are way too many laws for anyone to read them all.”

Pause.

“Hey, Dad: How are you supposed to obey all the laws if you haven’t read them all?”

Longer pause.

“That’s a good question, son. When you get home tonight, ask your mother.”

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So you’ve decided to take the plunge in-house. You have likely had to accept a pay cut. Not the worst thing to have happen, given that you’re about to get your life back. But most in-house counsel do not make the mid-six figure salaries of senior associates, or junior partners.

You can over time, but in general, your salary’s going to drop in exchange for the sanity of a schedule. A “what,” you say? That’s right, a set schedule. In my position, I am aware that quarter end, and especially year end, are going to be extremely hectic times, but the luxury of being able to plan for them is worth every minute. Over the past few years, I have: had dinner with my family most evenings; coached various sports teams for my children; scheduled, and taken, full vacations (sans Blackberry); and enjoyed the holidays, save for New Year’s Eve.

Do I miss firm life? No, I do not.

Do I wish I was making more money?

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It’s hard to create career paths for in-house lawyers.

It’s easy to describe the career path for a junior lawyer at a law firm (even though the path may be illusory for many): Work hard and well and become a partner; work harder and better and become a richer and more powerful partner. Retire. Die.

So long as law firms are growing, that path appears to be available to some percentage of junior lawyers, and all can strive to follow it.

Corporations are different. There’s one general counsel, who probably has six or eight people reporting to her. Unless the general counsel moves on, retires, or dies, none of the lieutenants is moving up. The lieutenants in turn all have six or eight people reporting to them. Unless a lieutenant moves on, retires, or dies, none of the sub-lieutenants is moving up.

What can you do to create a career path for someone who reports to you in a corporation (other than eating poorly and exercising little, which might create an unexpected opening in the ranks)?

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La vengeance se mange très-bien froide. Or as a Klingon might say, “revenge is a dish best served cold.”

I’m pretty sure that the administrators at Loyola Law School of Los Angeles didn’t think they were walking into a smackdown when they sent out an email to alumni asking them to update their employment statuses. But smacked they were, down on their heads, as one student’s epic, slightly rambling response to the innocent request just tore up the school for its behavior towards recent graduates.

And this comes from a student who seems to be doing well, despite the challenging economy. You want to know the best way to “get back” at your law school, if you so desire? Send them an email that says: “I am going to be very wealthy here, and I will not be giving a dime to Loyola.”

Time for the cold revenge of living well?

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