In-house

Here’s something that never crossed my mind before I moved in-house, but it affects both the nature of in-house legal jobs and outside counsel’s relationship with in-house lawyers.

ParentCo has three business units: Gadgets, Widgets, and Muppets.

ParentCo will have a general counsel. Beyond that, however, ParentCo’s Law Department could be set up in one of two ways: (1) there may be three lawyers, one of whom is the chief counsel for Gadgets, one for Widgets, and one for Muppets, or (2) ParentCo may have a litigation counsel, an M&A counsel, and a contracts counsel, each of whom support all three business units.

In the first situation, the lawyers for the business units are generalists, helping their specific business units with whatever legal matters arise. In the second situation, the lawyers are substantive experts, helping all three business units with matters that fall into the lawyers’ areas of expertise. An in-house lawyer’s work environment turns in part on which structure the corporation’s law department uses, and outside counsel can better serve clients if counsel know how a law department is organized….

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My mother used to tell me: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Recently, I had an experience with a UK law firm that could have used a conversation with Mom.

The law firm provided legal advice. Moments later, the firm violated its own advice. I’m sure this happens all the time, but rarely is the offense so vivid.

The substantive advice arises out of the new UK Bribery Act, which UK law firms have been trumpeting as a threat to every corporation everywhere (naturally compelling all corporations to hire outside UK counsel). In the words of one law firm’s brochure: “[I]f a Dutch company has a UK branch and engages in bribery in an Asian or African country, the Dutch company will be criminally liable in the UK under the new law and can be prosecuted in the UK.”

Does that get your attention? It sure got mine . . .

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What the hell happened to the ding letter? When I was coming up, you would interview for a position, and maybe get a callback (inclusive of a nice lunch). If the firm was interested, you’d get an offer, if not, a thin envelope with a “ding” letter. I collected mine like badges of some sort. Some bar in Manhattan used to give you a free drink for every ding letter.

Eventually, I grew up a bit and threw them away. I had no need for them, and they were simply letters of rejection.

Over the years, something happened to the common ding letter: it disappeared. Now, you’re lucky if a company informs you that they received your application packet. Some go all in and state that they’ll keep your information on file and if someone finds you attractive enough, they will give a call, but don’t hold your breath. After talking to many applicants and folks in the job market, my real question is this: “what the hell happened to common decency?”

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Here’s a management technique for you to consider for legal (or any) projects: Specify the person whose head will roll if the project is not accomplished.

If you’re on a committee of twelve people assigned to a project, the project won’t get done. No one will read the background materials before the committee meets; no one will think hard about how to move the project forward; no one will particularly care if the project concludes. If, months or years later, someone asks why the committee didn’t meet its goals, each member of the committee will point to the others and say, “It wasn’t my responsibility to do anything. We had a committee, and I figured the other guys would do it.”

To avoid this problem, identify the single individual who is responsible for accomplishing each specific task. If everyone knows whose head will roll if the project isn’t finished, then the designated person will take control, move the project forward, and preserve his or her head.

The “whose head will roll” theory of management applies to projects big and small, for lawyers both in-house and outside….

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Elevator speeches aren’t just for elevators anymore. I mean, when’s the last time you’ve actually used one in an elevator? And not afterwards gotten a look that said, “Please, can’t you see that I’m pretending to be really interested in what’s on that teeny tiny news screen up there?”

It’s rare to hear a good elevator speech these days, even if it’s just the two of you in that little box with no TV screen available for refuge. (Thank goodness for iPhones.) Here are some of the typical speeches I hear: “I do commercial litigation at Biglaw firm.” “I work at a mid-sized hedge fund in New York.” “I’m interning at Attorney General’s office this summer at the division of civil rights.”

These are just the short versions. The longer versions aren’t much better. They’re just longer (guess whose this one is…): “I work at a travel and hospitality company doing general transactional work, such as commercial contracts, M&A, business development, and advertising and social media.” Yawn….

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The title of today’s column comes from an e-mail I recently saw. The e-mail read, in its entirety: “Thanks for providing a copy of the statute. Do you have any advice?”

That cracked me up. (I crack up easily.) Doesn’t this e-mail exemplify a recurring problem among lawyers asked for advice? Someone asks a question; the lawyer locates the relevant statute; and the lawyer then sends along the text of the statute as though that answers the question. The lawyer may have provided information, but he almost surely did not actually help the client (which was probably the goal).

I’m not sure whether it’s laziness, cowardice, or incompetence, but something causes many lawyers routinely to transmit information without supplying legal advice.

Here’s another example (which also cracks me up):

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For some people, the thought that their LSAT score will follow them around for years and years is really terrifying. For other people, they had parents who emphasized the importance of doing well on standardized tests.

A better LSAT scores gets you access to better law schools that give their graduates better opportunities to have successful and lucrative careers. That’s just a fact. It doesn’t mean those people are smarter. It doesn’t mean that people with bad LSAT scores can’t go on to be every bit as successful as people with great scores. It’s just that people who score very highly on standardized tests can coast on that for a long ass time. It’s always easier to sail with the wind.

It’s all a question of opportunity. Having a good score opens more opportunities, and having a poor score will close some doors that you’ll have to find some other way of kicking down.

Of course, there are some doors that people will low LSAT scores won’t be able to pry open with a crowbar. LSAT scores for June are out today, and if you want to work at a well respected hedge fund years from now, you better make sure your score is up to standards….

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I had lunch recently with a guy who’s looking for an in-house job. He was complaining about how tough this is: “Recruiters don’t do you any good. They’re focused almost entirely on moving lawyers between law firms; they don’t know about in-house jobs. The recruiters who get retained to do job searches for corporations are working for the corporation, not you. If you don’t match the criteria the corporation laid out, they don’t want to talk to you. How the heck does one land an in-house job?”

Surprisingly, I’d never thought about this issue. (I wasn’t looking for an in-house job — or, indeed, any job at all — when I landed in my current position.) Because I’d never considered how one obtains an in-house job, I had no idea what the answer was. So — always thinking of you (and searching for blog fodder) — I picked the brain of a headhunter-friend.

How, I asked the headhunter, should a lawyer go about looking for an in-house job?

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Companies don’t typically hire law students. The greatest concern that companies have about hiring law school graduates is training. In-house legal departments don’t want to have train new lawyers, and prefer that law firms take the effort to pass on the needed skills before we go ahead and pinch some of their best associates.

That said, there are certainly several examples of companies that have successfully decided that it’s a good thing to hire counsel who know virtually nothing about practicing law. In this post, I’ll examine some of the pros and cons of hiring newbie lawyers versus law firm trained, not-so-newbies for entry-level in-house positions.

For the first issue at hand, what is this magical “training” that law firms are so good at providing…?

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“Could be a brooch, a pterodactyl…”

The line above is from Airplane, a 1980 comedy that is regularly included in all-time top ten movie comedy lists.*

“Johnny” is the character who utters this and many more scene-stealing lines; he owned each scene in which he appeared, and was played by the late Stephen Stucker.

Each time he was on screen, and there were far too few appearances, you were drawn to watch him just to see what he would say. He nailed every line, and the audience loved him. My friends and I would regularly quote the movie in our younger years, as it signaled a paradigm shift in movie comedies –- riotous farces that contained foul language, sexual innuendo, and brief nudity. Among this genre, and ground breaking at the time were Caddyshack, The Blues Brothers, Stripes, and Porky’s.

These movies helped American movies evolve from the mid-’70s “cinema” into the early ’80s “blockbuster.” While these films broke boundaries and changed the rules, and even seem quaint by today’s standards, they’re still funny. But, back to Mr. Stucker.

While it is difficult at best to steal scenes in Biglaw, and be the person that folks remember (for the right reasons of course), it is even more difficult in-house. When you first transition, you are usually entering a company with policies and procedures, uncharted politics and a set hierarchy of power. You find your place soon enough and begin to learn from those that came before.

It is hard to stand out….

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