In-House Counsel

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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‘Tis the season to puzzle over holiday gift etiquette at the office. Every year, a few questions come up about this topic — what’s appropriate, how much, whether they really have to, etc. No really, one year, a colleague complained, “Well, I’m not getting much of a bonus this year, so why should I give a gift to my secretary?” What you’d call a true, selfless, holiday spirit.

Obviously, this was back during law firm days, when bonus announcements are made early, unlike at companies, where the grand reveal isn’t usually for another couple of months after wilting trees have been cleared from the driveways. Not gifting your admin wasn’t exactly unheard of at a law firm, though, and I think it evidences a difference between the impact of gift-giving at a large law firm versus in-house.

At a law firm, you could give gifts to every employee at the office (or not) and, while your colleagues would be appreciative (or not), this act (or lack thereof) really wouldn’t make much of a difference in your career. Do you still have zero clients? Okay, still not making partner. Still have boatloads of clients? Continue with deity status.

At a company, on the other hand, you need to find out the unwritten rules for gifting….

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A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the difference between résumé-based interviews and behavioral interviews. (In a nutshell, résumé-based interviews ask applicants for opinions about their personal histories; behavioral interviews ask for factual descriptions of how applicants handled certain situations in their lives.)

I really didn’t expect that to be a controversial topic, but I received messages by the e-mailbag full. Two folks recommended entirely revamping the way we interview candidates for legal jobs, and I’m sharing those two thoughts here — revealing the less controversial suggestion before the jump and the more controversial one after, just to leave you hanging.

My first correspondent, from a large West Coast law firm, said that he liked the idea of doing behavioral interviews, but he didn’t think interviews should be a game of “gotcha.” Thus, we should not surprise applicants at their interviews by asking an applicant to, say, identify a situation in which the applicant was forced to lead a group, what the applicant did, and how the applicant assessed the results. Instead, my correspondent suggested, firms should send to applicants in advance a set of behavioral interview questions that might be asked during the interviews, so the applicants would have a chance to think about their pasts, identify responsive situations, and give considered answers when later asked the questions.

I think that’s a fine idea, but I don’t think it’s a novel one. I recently saw several business school applications, and many B-school essay questions read strikingly like behavioral interview questions: Identify a certain type of situation in your past, and explain how you dealt with it. If business schools think that carefully crafted written answers to those questions yield meaningful insight into whether to admit an applicant into school, then there’s no reason why law firms shouldn’t ask similar questions and give applicants plenty of time to frame their answers.

But my second correspondent was even more radical . . .

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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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By virtue of writing this column, I’ve seemingly become the shoulder upon which the disaffected cry.

I hear from recent law school graduates who can’t find jobs. (I can’t help.) I hear from law firm associates looking to move to relatively junior in-house jobs. (I can’t help.) And I hear from partners with decades of experience who’d like to replicate my relatively recent move and jump from a big-firm partnership to a relatively senior in-house job. (I can’t help there, either.)

I’m devoting this column to thinking about the third of those three groups: disaffected partners.

The plight of the recent graduate is easy to understand: You’re massively in debt, looking for work, and can’t find a job. I get it. The plight of the associate is also easy to understand: You’re working too hard, not enjoying much of what you do, and have only an uncertain future. I get it.

But the plight of the big firm partner is different: You succeeded at law school, succeeded at your law firm, have hot and cold running associates at your disposal, are being paid the riches of Croesus every year, and are perceived by the world as being wonderfully successful. What the heck are you complaining about?

Remarkably, it seems as though you’re all complaining about essentially the same thing . . .

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Well, last Friday was interesting. When I decided to close the comments for last week’s installment of Moonlighting, Lat responded, “I’m glad at least someone is willing to try deactivation.” As expected, undeterred from the fact that they couldn’t comment directly on my post, the usual group of ATL commenters uniformly hijacked Kashmir Hill’s “revenge porn” post which followed mine on ATL to provide me with their usual thoughtful and highly encouraging feedback.

Later, an anonymous 2L tweeted as follows: And @susanmoon has the dubious distinction of being the first @atlblog writer to close off comments. When I joked to the 2L that my feelings get hurt every week, the 2L (taking me seriously, I presume) told me that instead of hiding, I should “rise above it” because even a SCOTUS justice would get flamed on ATL. This invited Brian Tannebaum (an ATL small-firm columnist) and some others to rush to my defense. What ensued was a flurry of debate on Twitter — infused with an abundance of insults — mainly between Brian and the 2L. I’m actually not quite sure why Brian got so involved, as I’m not even sure he likes me (that’s the real reason I cry every week). I think he just likes to pick on poor souls every once in a while (read: several times a day) for his own sadistic pleasure.

In any case, in addition to the entertainment value that the Brian v. 2L debates offered on Twitterverse Legal last weekend, there were definitely some interesting points made on both sides about the value of anonymous feedback….

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Years ago, I handled a pro bono case for a client unable to afford legal services. (I actually handled a fair number of pro bono cases, but I’m choosing to describe just one here.) The client was a very nice guy, and he desperately needed legal services. But he had no idea how to use a lawyer cost-effectively and, because he wasn’t paying for my services, he had no incentive to restrain himself. The guy called incessantly, asked endless questions, and was always trying to schedule meetings with me. I mentioned the situation to one of my senior colleagues, and the colleague’s reaction was immediate: “What that client needs is a bill.”

During the decades when I served as outside counsel representing clients, I noticed that some of my clients permitted me to do their work efficiently and others affirmatively obstructed that effort. Now that I’m an in-house lawyer, I’m thinking about the other side of that coin: What should I, in my role as client, do to permit outside counsel to represent me efficiently?

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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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A story I often tell is about the first time I took a deposition. I got there early, and I thought that the most important thing was to control the witness. I didn’t realize the first time around that the way you control somebody is not by intimidating them. But I adjusted the chair that I was sitting on so that I’d be really tall, and could look down imposingly on the witness. But I raised it so high that as soon as I sat down, I toppled over and fell backward.

Amy Schulman, executive vice president and general counsel of Pfizer, in a New York Times interview about her leadership style.

(Additional excerpts and discussion, after the jump.)

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How do you build a practice for a law firm?

Everyone has a theory; I’ll provide a case study.

In 1997, Congress was about to pass a law that would have been great for America, but horrific for business at the law firm at which I then worked. The firm thus (intelligently) created several committees to try to create new practices that could keep lawyers busy if the promised bill became law. I was asked to chair the “drug and device product liability business development committee.”

At the time, my firm did essentially no pharmaceutical product liability work. I’d helped to defend a set of medical device cases, which was about as close as anyone had come to actual experience in the pharmaceutical products field, so I was the natural choice to lead this effort. When given that assignment, what do you do? How do you build a practice essentially from scratch?

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