In-house counseling

Years ago, I was a barrel of laughs. (Well, more of a barrel of laughs then than I am now, anyway.)

When I was defending antidepressant-suicide cases, I barely resisted the urge to send in-house counsel an e-mail containing a political cartoon: The little lab rat was dangling (with his tongue hanging out) from a noose in the cage, having plainly just kicked the little stool out from under himself. One of the two researchers in white coats was saying to the other: “We have some bad news on the new antidepressant.”

Herrmann, you idiot! You can photocopy the thing and show it to the in-house lawyer the next time you see him, but the company just can’t have that in its e-mail system! Can you imagine that as Exhibit 1 at trial?

But I didn’t always censor myself. I’d share (funny) on-line humor with colleagues and clients, figuring that they’d appreciate it, and it was a painless way of letting clients know that I was thinking of them. I may well have been violating some firm policy by using the computer system for “non-business” purposes, but who cares, really?

When you start speaking to big audiences, you become more cautious. I wrote in Monday’s Inside Straight column, for example, that something had happened years ago, “when God was young.” I thought long and hard before I pressed the “publish” icon: Who will I offend? Orthodox Jews who never speak or write the name of Gxd? Devout Christians offended by the use of the Lord’s name in vain? Anyone else? Is it worth the risk of giving offense for the small benefit of making one column slightly more interesting?

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Bull and S***. If you’re not slaving away trying to get last minute billing hours, you’re slaving away trying to support a crazed population of folks trying to meet year-end sales numbers. It has been a difficult year, at best, for business. Heck, even Apple was downgraded to neutral yesterday. So, here comes the push.

The push is to close every deal possible, no matter the amount, no matter the risk, by 11:59 p.m. on December 31. But our job is to stanch the flow of craziness, is it not? Stay with me here — I am not allowed to collect commission due to a conflict of interest, yet every dollar that boosts our revenue, and thus our numbers for Q4, goes toward the bonus pool from which I directly benefit. If our end of year numbers are strong enough, the analysts punch our ticket into the new year and my options’ value rises. I may be dense (just ask my wife), but I fail to understand the difference from a commission-based return, and a bonus- or option-based return. The end result is the same, is it not? A benefit is conferred upon me based in part on my participation in the process of my sales-side corporation. But I am expected to “push” back.

I cannot, for real reasons, as well as flippancy, express some of the nuttiness that goes on at this time of year. Risks are taken akin to jumping from the high dive toward a half-empty deep end in the hopes that the water will be there in time. And it always ends happily with a splash. But, the troubling aspect to me is this incongruent fallacy of ethics. I am ethically bound to zealously represent my corporation, and at the same time, I am representing people whose very careers are at stake. I am well aware of the order of precedence there, but practically speaking, that line becomes blurred at this time of year, and frankly, I find it to be unsettling to be forced to live a legal fiction….

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You know that there are a lot of holiday parties going on when planning to hang at another one starts to feel like a burden. Even if there’s karaoke involved. This is what happens when bar associations seem to have forgotten that there is now newfangled technology such as email and phones that can be used to avoid scheduling their holiday parties all during the same one week in December. Yes, I’m looking at you, NY/NJ minority bars.

Networking in festive environments is kind of like opening a nicely-wrapped holiday gift. It’s out of the ordinary and there’s a bit of surprise involved. But as with gifts, you don’t find out until after you’ve engaged someone new in conversation whether it’s just what you were hoping for or kind of… meh.

As with many things in life, preparation is key. Preparing for cocktail schmoozefests is easy. Look your best — clothes, hair, teeth — looking fabulous will help you to feel more confident as well. Have an interesting elevator speech ready and bring lots of business cards.

And please avoid these networking blunders….

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I often tell the story of my first assignment as a summer associate, to draft a one-page complaint. Two hours later, the assigning partner checked on me and saw that I was still stuck trying to get the index box to align. Shaking his head, he showed me the magic of the firm document library, and the “secret” of cutting and pasting necessary language. Chastened beyond belief, I vowed to avoid reinventing the well-worn wheels of documents. However, once in a while, reinvention becomes a necessity, as the “same old same old” becomes vestigial, and if you cannot coherently answer “why” you are utilizing some form or other, maybe it is time to examine the wheel treads for wear.

Look at the following indemnity clause and decide for yourself how many changes you might make:

[***] at its expense, will defend indemnify, and hold harmless Customer, its parent, subsidiaries, affiliates and their respective members, partners, shareholders, employees, officers, directors, managers, agents and representatives against any and all claims, damages, liabilities, losses, actions, government proceedings and costs and expenses, including reasonable attorneys’ fees and disbursements and court costs (collectively, “Losses”) arising out of, resulting from or relating to [***].

I would remove “hold harmless” and “shareholders,” and limit “any and all claims” to “any and all third party claims”; let me tell you why….

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After much reflection and consideration, I am pleased to report that I have decide to leave this miserable in-house gig and return to glorious law firm life. I’ve recently accepted an offer to slave away work at the Big City office of the prestigious Biglaw, Biggerlaw & Biggestlaw LLP.

Why leave in-house life? Here are some reasons…

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Some years ago, information technology and research firms realized that they could thrive only by attracting and retaining employees with two very different skill sets. These firms needed both great scientists and great managers.

Great scientists, however, were being undervalued, while great managers were being given too much dignity. In many corporations, the more people under your supervision, the more authority, respect and, often, pay you command. How could IT firms keep pure scientists — who loved thinking great thoughts and creating great inventions, but loathed managing people — happy? Wouldn’t those folks become frustrated as they saw their peers — less able scientists, but great managers — move ahead in the ranks?

Those firms pioneered the idea of creating dual career paths. One path was the standard route to success: Manage people; control a P&L center; prosper.

But the second path was the innovative one: Lead specified projects; work with key clients; generate new ideas; prosper equally!

After the IT firms blazed that trail, sales organizations soon followed suit. Those outfits needed both great sales people and great administrators. So they created dual career paths, offering routes for advancement (and power, and riches, and corner offices, and all the rest) to both types of people.

Isn’t an analogous dual-career-path model worth considering, both at law firms and in-house law departments?

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It is that time of year when the treacle runs thick. Nostalgia can lead to the blues that can lead to a bout at P.J. Clarke’s that leads to a pounding head in the morning. Conversely, some of you are full bore into booking hours for end of year bonuses and have no time for such shenanigans. Then there are the lucky among us who are given money simply for having jobs — starting with Cravathians and the imitator firms. If you are one of those, good on you; there is no bitterness here — envy, perhaps — but not bitterness.

As I began to outline this week’s column I was alerted to some truly distressing news: Dave Brubeck has died at 91. If you had the pleasure, as I did, of hearing Mr. Brubeck in person, you were touched by the presence of an American treasure and true musical genius. Even if you’re not familiar with Brubeck’s music, his signature piece, “Take Five,” would likely be instantly recognizable. Brubeck was an inspiration for his artistry, yet was a self-effacing and quiet individual. When I was fortunate enough to see him perform, he ambled ever so slowly to the microphone to say a few words. One was concerned the man would topple over given the frail nature of his shuffling. After saying a few words, he’d shuffle back to his piano stool and the power of some greater being would generate through his fingers. He seemed like a man that you would wish for in a grandfather. Of course, news broke today that Charles Schulz had an ongoing affair, but I digress.

The point is that there are some folks who just exist on a different plane from the rest of us, and whom, for better or worse, we treat as heroes. The same can be said of several attorneys in my career. I am certain that each reader could submit their own list of attorneys who have mentored, assisted, helped up, or just been there for us as young bucks as we made our way through the profession….

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Ahh, on the cusp of December. A month that brings another full year to a close with annoyingly cheery carols overtaking radio stations, multi-colored lights and decorations dredged up from years past, and an excuse to fill up on a week’s worth of heavy food in one sitting because, after all… it’s family time.

As December settles into the workplace, law firm associates and their non-equity partner peers are scrambling to confirm that they’ll meet their billable hour targets for the year. And partners are scrambling to get all of their outstanding receivables paid up by the end of the month. After all, the more money they can get into the firm’s accounts by year’s end, the better their bonuses will be in the spring. All of the lawyers are hoping that they’ll get an end of year break with little work to do over the holiday week. ‘Tis the season for hope.

And of course, associates are anxiously awaiting news — any news — about firms’ bonuses. How did lawyers ever manage in the dark days without ATL’s Bonus Watch?

For the in-house lawyer, December is also a month like none other….

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You really don’t want to be sued in a corrupt, backwater swamp.

No, no! I don’t mean Louisiana! I mean a truly corrupt backwater swamp like, say, Sudan.

(I pick Sudan because it’s subject to sanctions by most first-world countries, so I don’t have to worry about someday being dragged before a Sudanese judge who isn’t tickled by my having called his country a “corrupt, backwater swamp.” I may well pay a price for having tarred Louisiana with that label, but my opening two sentences just wouldn’t have been funny if I hadn’t named a specific state. I’ll have to hope that judges in Louisiana have a sense of humor.)

You get sued in Sudan. You hire Sudanese counsel. You probe him about Sudanese substantive law, Sudanese procedure, and whether the Sudanese judicial system can be trusted. He answers your questions about corruption with vague assurances about how he’s a pretty well-connected lawyer, and most judges aren’t too bad, and corruption isn’t quite as rampant as outsiders seem to think. Then he goes on to explaining how he’ll defend your lawsuit.

That advice may be okay as far as it goes, but it’s missing the global perspective. Here’s one place where in-house lawyers — and sophisticated outside counsel — can add real value in litigation….

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It is that time of year when “A Christmas Story” begins to play on the endless loop left vacant by the old WPIX yule log. The scene I refer to is when Scut Farkus tortures Flick by turning his arm behind his back and forcing him to say “uncle” until Scut and his yellow eyes have had enough. Then he and his toady, Grover Dill, retreat back under the rocks from whence they came.

The Scut Farkuses of the in-house world are thankfully very few and even farther between. Usually, there is at least a façade of collegiality between different counsels representing their respective companies. Sometimes, this collegiality becomes real, and drinks are shared as deals are closed. But, yes, Virginia, there is a Scut Farkus Society.

They are the barely competent; just enough to be dangerous, and they usually somehow hit the lottery and work at uber-corporations whose money we as a company desire. As a vendor attorney, there is always a bit of kowtowing to the purchaser. Sometimes it’s a cultural necessity, but more often than not, it is a factor of needing the business. But everyone has a breaking point, yes, even me….

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