In-house

Some time ago there was an attorney up for United States Attorney General, I believe, and she got stung for having hired illegal aliens as nanny and chauffeur for which she paid no taxes. She had to withdraw from consideration and was fairly embarrassed by the whole fiasco. So was the Clinton Administration. Then, a federal judicial nominee was hit with the same charges – though her employment of the nanny in question was legal at the time it occurred, the court of public opinion ruled the day. I bring up these two examples of ethical dilemmas that lawyers can find themselves in and how relatively easy they are to avoid…

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If you work as a corporate lawyer at a law firm, you aren’t usually making distinctions between legal issues and business issues. There are just issues. You spot all of the potential ones that you can come up with (hoping to God that those are most of the ones out there), share them with your client, and your client decides how to proceed from there.

If you work as corporate lawyer at a company, you need to keep these two types of issues straight for a couple of reasons. First, the type of issue you’re dealing with will determine how much authority you have on the matter. Your authority on a legal issue? A respectable amount. Your authority on a business issue? Diddly squat. If even that much.

Second, it’s important that you know the difference because, a lot of the time, your business people won’t have a clue. Especially some of the more junior-level people. And it’s your pleasant duty to inform them…

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Holiday season is in full blast now, so what better time to discuss traditional end-of-year topics like performance reviews, gifting at the office, and what it’s like to advise business clients. Okay, so maybe that last one’s not quite the merrily common topic at around this time. But I’m already getting weary of all this have a happy holiday however it is you celebrate, and here are also some brand-spanking new year wishes thing, so bah. This is what we’re talking about today.

How companies expect their lawyers to advise them differs among companies. If you’re lucky, you work among people who appreciate and value lawyers for both their legal advice and their business sensibilities. (And if you’re really lucky, among people who are strangely okay with you blogging on an occasionally gossipy legal news site.) Business people who listen to your legal and business advice may respect that you work across several business units and get to see stuff that the individual groups don’t. Or they may just blindly trust you. That works too (for you).

At other companies, business people just want the in-house lawyer to stay focused on talking about legal issues and only legal issues, and don’t want to hear about any of the non-legal perspectives the lawyer may have to offer. And of course, there are other business people who don’t even really care for listening to any of the legal stuff (this may pose a bit of a problem if lawsuits or jail are some of the things they are interested in avoiding).

To be fair, the level of appreciation that business people have for their counsel’s advice, whether legal or non-legal, depends a lot on the individual lawyer’s capabilities….

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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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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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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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