In-house counseling

This begins my third year of writing for ATL. I am thrilled that our relationship has flourished, and I look forward to continuing this column for some time. When I read over some of my past columns, I realized that vindication of some of my points of view (poor vetting by JPMorgan, the market falling with the continuing shutdown) feels quite a bit better than having to offer mea culpas. Making mistakes is part of life. Making mistakes in a large and public forum is a good argument for not writing. I closed my comments section fairly recently as I believed that the comments had devolved from intellectual snark to a level above scat humor. Maybe it was the summer that brought out the “challenged.” All I know is that it is good to have a cast of regulars back in the fold, and my comments have been re-opened for weeks.

In the coming year, I am going to be doing more interviewing about in-house life…

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I am watching the goings-on in Washington with a sense that the Republicans have simply given up. No matter that they have no sensible argument to shut down the government, no matter who it might hurt in the process, no matter that they are basically conceding the 2014 cycle — it appears that the GOP is imploding. They can natter on and on about how Obama “refuses to negotiate,” the simple fact is that there is nothing to negotiate. There was a bill, on Capitol Hill, it went to the White House and became a law (apologies to Saturday mornings) — and beyond that, the law was upheld as constitutional by one of the more intelligent and well-thought out Supreme Court opinions in my lifetime. There is nothing to debate. Game over. Oh, they can remind me incessantly of the unfairness of universal healthcare, and how ensuring that everyone has access to healthcare is a very bad thing, but just like that time that Gore beat Bush, and the Supremes ruled in a way that changed the outcome, you have to live with this.

But what we don’t have to live with is an irresponsible act by a relative few that impacts the lives of so many. Retribution and punitive measures may not be swift or severe enough, but how I wish we had implemented the act of “caning” in this country.

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In-house counsel react to new business plan.

I am now officially on the downside of my 40s. Not a big deal really, but I am definitely not a “kid” anymore. My first official duty in middle age was to mow the grass. As I was going along, minding my business, I rolled over a hive of ground hornets. Eight stings later, and after ibuprofen, a stiff drink and some rest, the trauma ended. I sort of felt the same way about the reaction to last week’s column. For the record, I am not a depressed individual with nothing good to say about the profession. My message was basically an observation of the mess in which we currently find ourselves. And yes, I would advise someone with a choice, not to go to law school right now. If you are enrolled, graduated, employed, working in law, etc., it is what it is. But for those of you contemplating — I am telling you, you’ll work just as hard in a bank, and your paycheck may actually reflect the skills and intelligence required for the job. Oh, and you’ll get to tell lawyers what to do — always fun.

Today I would like to discuss an aspect of in-house life that can be alternately exciting and annoying as all get out: the ever-changing target of a business plan….

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The legal profession in happier times.

A few pending anniversaries to mention: the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks; my 45th birthday tomorrow; I have been practicing law for 14 years; and my second year of writing this column for Above the Law is fast approaching.

Really, the only date of any import is 9/11. A “first world problem” for me is that my birthday is forever the “day after” — but at least I have a day after. So many families were destroyed that day, and so many of us will forever duck a little bit when airplanes fly past our buildings. I cannot imagine working in downtown San Diego, where the approach from the East is so close to so many skyscrapers.

I won’t dwell too much on lower Manhattan today, as by now I think everyone remembers in their own way, but I will always cherish my thirtieth birthday, a surprise party held at Windows on the World, surrounded by friends and a swing band in the background. I found a picture from that party — I am hugging some buddies, and was a young buck associate at Coudert Brothers, a 150+ year old firm driven to ruin by poor cash management. Anyway, today will forever be bittersweet as I prepare to look to the future tomorrow, and will always remember that awful day 12 years ago….

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The placidity of the lake outside my early morning window is calming. The middle child plays something in the background called “Minecraft,” which I don’t mind because of its New Age music, and the other two are still asleep — the oldest, exhausted from JV soccer practice, and the youngest, well, because she’s four. I can hear the crickets and early morning birds, and I think that life is pretty good. Actually, very good. We have chosen a vacation home near enough to our town that we can shuttle the oldest back and forth to workouts, and still spend our afternoons on the lake. At twelve, he doesn’t realize that we have sacrificed a true “vacation” for him, but that is fine — he caught six fish yesterday, and we were happy.

Some of us have a memory that vacations are about piling the kids into a station wagon (deathtraps that we “olds” used to ride in, sans seatbelts, as our parents smoked themselves to death in the front seats, and we rode in the rear-facing bench seat giving the universal “honk your horn” sign to truckers) and riding for hours only to find that “Wallyworld” was closed for repairs. Today’s vacations for attorneys are usually getaways that may put you in a different locale, but with a Blackberry that still demands your attention. You can try to turn it off and leave it on the bed stand, but you know that the brief will still be due or the closing date still looms. First World troubles, I know…

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I went through my first 360-degree review — where those above, beside, and beneath you in the organization all anonymously evaluate your performance — two years ago. Never one to shy away from abject public self-humiliation, I shared the result of that review in this column. I revealed that my biggest “blind spot” two years ago was in the area of celebrating the accomplishments of folks on my team: I thought I was pretty good on that score; those who worked under my supervision begged to differ.

I told you that I would fix that problem, and I did. During this year’s 360-degree review, my score for celebrating our accomplishments was a solid 4.0 — 0.9 better than two years ago, and precisely how I’d graded myself this time around. It had actually been pretty easy to solve this problem: I distributed emails celebrating our victories more often and to wider audiences; I stopped by folks’ desks to congratulate them on wins; and I was otherwise more sensitive to letting the world know when my merry gang of litigators did nice work.

Now that I’ve solved one management problem, however, another one naturally reared its ugly head during this year’s 360-degree review . . . .

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I am supposedly on vacation this week. However, most of us know that “vacation” is a relative term, and that it is highly rare that one actually unplugs from work 100%. Yesterday morning I was listening to talk radio (ugh!) and the host went on a rant about the unimportance of lawyers, and the “racket” that we have set up for ourselves by allowing only a select few (admitted attorneys) to practice law. He was referring to the 15 months in jail that a small town judge received by appearing in Family Court without a current license. The issue of whether her punishment is deserved or not is perhaps for another column. But, the radio blatherer’s take offended me. I would argue that lawyers are a societal necessity, and the lay public would suffer greatly without the expertise that attorneys provide. Just watch a pro se litigant go up against a seasoned litigator.

To the outside observer of courtroom proceedings, it all may seem so easy — you appear, you give your name and you argue. Just like callers to talk radio programs. But it is the minutiae that lawyers are trained to expose that makes the difference. The term of art is “attention to detail” at which we are expert. We are supposed to be able to find the holes in written documents to exploit them for our client’s advantage. We are expected to write with perfection — without a single mistake. We are pressured to win at all costs within the bounds of the law and ethics. Lay people who think we have it easy, are sorely misinformed…

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I am not sure what I agreed to, or what button I selected, but yesterday Linkedin sent network invitations to seemingly everyone on the planet with whom I have ever corresponded by email. For the past two days I have received numerous invite acceptances; my once small network is now seemingly unmanageable in scope. However, some really great news has accompanied many emails. Several people with whom I have spoken over the years have written to update me on their job hunting – and the news has been universally good. I have always held the identities of those who have written in confidence, and I will continue that practice. But, I can comfortably report that jobs have been attained in government work, private practice, and in-house. The economy is tough, and hiring prospects are not back to mid-90s levels, but there are positions to be had, and to the most tenacious go the spoils.

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Yeah, yeah: That title caught your eye.

I thought about titling this column “Litigation Aphorisms,” but who the heck would have read it?

So I went instead with the first of three critical things you should know about litigation, all of which I learned from Neil Falconer when I practiced at the 20-lawyer firm of Steinhart & Falconer in San Francisco back in the 1980s. (I also dedicated The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Neil. He wasn’t a “mentor”; he just accidentally taught young lawyers by osmosis what it meant to be a lawyer.)

Neil’s first aphorism was this: “Never tell a small child not to stick peanuts up his nose.”

Why does that matter?

Or maybe I should start with a more basic question: What the heck does that mean?

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Meh. So, I closed commenting for my column.

But much bigger things happened this past week. Like getting my GA tickets to share in the groove on October 22. The boys are playing with a fervor not seen in many years, and I am very excited that the circus is coming to town. It also did nothing to stanch the flow of correspondence to my Gmail account regarding the switch from litigation in a firm to in-house work. I write today’s column with three specific people in mind….

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