In-house

“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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Last week’s column caused a bit an uproar at my attempt to analyze the recent JP Morgan loss of funds from an in-house perspective. I later posted the following in the comments section, and since most of you don’t venture down there (wisely), I am reprinting it here:

“I will take the heat for a column that should have flowed better from factual assertions to analysis. I take the point that attorneys may not have been at fault, and I should have made that point with more clarity in the column. I also should have been more clear in laying out a linear argument from the facts reported in the media. The point I was going for, however inartfully, is that this trade was likely reviewed by someone in a legal capacity prior to approval, and that review should have caused someone pause. Dimon himself admitted that this was a strategy examined by him and management over a month before being executed. [I] [a]gree that the risk analysis was likely not performed by attorney(s), but it doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to presume that the legal technicality of whether this was a proprietary trade or a hedge appeared on some lawyer’s desk. And given the distrust of CDS after the recent malfeasance rife in the industry, is it so hard to believe that … lawyers were involved? Nope, I wasn’t there, and I made a poor attempt to examine a scenario which only magnified my lack of fluency in the subject matter. Mea Culpa.”

Now, on to today’s attempt to offer an in-house perspective….

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When I tell people that I really love my job, I get various responses. Most of them are something like, “Wow, that’s great,” or “I hate you.” Or sometimes, “That’s very nice, ma’am. May I take your order now, please?” When people ask why I love my job, my response is kind of lame. I tend to say it’s a lot of “fun” and then go on to describe a couple of types of matters I work on. Yeah, not all that insightful.

So for this week’s post, I decided to figure out more specifically (than “umm, so…the social media thing is interesting…”) why a lawyer may love her job. The reasons I came up with are mostly common sense and one reason actually has nothing to do with my job per se….

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As an in-house attorney, listening to Jamie Dimon’s Capitol Hill testimony this week caused me no shortage of agita. How in the world does a sophisticated shop like JPMorgan engage in trading that “it didn’t fully understand?” We’re not talking about tranches of junk mortgages; this appears to be basic hedging that went awry to the tune of two billion dollars. Oh, and after this occurred, Dimon was re-upped as the top gun at JPMorgan and given a nice raise. I am sure that there are a raft of attorneys in-house and otherwise advising JPMorgan on this situation — and how to deal with it — but I am more interested in how these trades came to be approved in the first place.

I presume, without knowing, that JPMorgan’s traders have a gauntlet of approval processes to run before implementing new initiatives, and one of those processes surely involved legal approval, or at least legal “go ahead.” Legal surely reviewed the initiative or trades, or whatever the proper term of art may be, before passing it up to the sales floors, and this is the most troubling aspect for me. Assuming that the public testimony is accurate, (and yes, I know what happens when I assume), then the folks responsible for actually trading did not understand what they were doing. Wow. Just wow….

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If you’re like me, you’re happily ensconced (hmm, where have I seen that before…?) in your company’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Your company may have a Diversity Committee in place and may have implemented diverse hiring and retention practices. They may hold trainings and events intended to promote awareness. Your legal department may even encourage outside counsel to staff minority and women attorneys on matters. All good stuff.

What else is there? Last week, I attended a day-long regional meeting for a fantastic nonprofit diversity organization. Although the fees to attend their conferences and meetings (which include CLE) are hundreds of dollars, in-house counsel get to attend them for free. You just need to pay a $59 shipping and handling fee. Wait, scratch that last part. (Been watching way too many infomercials lately.)

So, which organization was this, and what great tips did I leave with on how in-house counsel can further their companies’ diversity initiatives?

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One of the benefits of presenting to large groups of in-house lawyers is meeting large groups of in-house lawyers. I am happily ensconced here in my job, but I have never stopped networking. I never miss an opportunity to make a connection, or to make a friend. I try very hard not to burn bridges, and I always examine job opportunities when they come to me. You read that right. Look, things happen, things change, and things can go bad. If you haven’t kept up your networking simply because the economy sucks and the job market stinks, you’ve been doing yourself a huge disservice. I’ll say just two words: Kodak and Dewey. It sounds like a bad horror film ad but “no one is safe.”

When I started practicing law, the paradigm of one job for one career was already long gone. Most commercial lawyers today engage in a sort of pinball training, bouncing from one gig to the next, and picking up whatever knowledge they can before settling into a position with some semblance of permanence. I am very fortunate to have landed here, but even so, I am a much better in-house counsel now than when I started.

Let’s say that it takes a year to two to become fully capable of handling the job you have. If you have been practicing more than ten years, as I have, that’s around five or six years of hard core ability. I am not referencing simple knowledge of the rule against perpetuities, but the ability to use the RAP like Ginger Rogers — backwards and in heels. But, that’s the actual practice of law, and networking experience should only get better by the year. So, I have about twice as much experience networking as I do practicing. And so should you….

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I had mentioned a while ago in my very first ATL post that some of my work involves marketing. Well, some of that marketing involves social media. As the main social media lawyer for my business unit, I work with our strategic teams to figure out how to make the best use of social media technologies (e.g., Facebook, Youtube, blogs, smartphone apps, etc.). All within 140 characters at a time.

What’s it like? As lawyerly work goes, it’s fast-paced and feels kind of risky and cutting-edge. Kind of like Mission Impossible. You know, like if the movie had a lawyer character whose job it was to make sure that the Tom Cruise character signed a waiver every time he got a pack of explosive chewing gum. Really, even non-lawyers think this social media lawyering work is cool. Granted, the non-lawyers I’m talking about are sixty-year-old gamers who live at home with their mothers. But still!

There isn’t really a standalone body of “social media law,” so a lawyer who covers this area ends up being a sort of jack of few trades. Instead, law in social media involves work which falls into the following basic categories….

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If there was ever a place where your self-esteem could be crushed just by stepping into an airport, Los Angeles is it. Being a New Yorker, I had the high-minded misconception that New York was the mecca of beautiful people, especially in summer. Wrong. I’ll end this tangent with the statement that I saw more perfectly tanned, toned, muscular, and ridiculously in shape people in the 15 minutes it took me to walk to baggage claim in LAX, than I have in my entire time in the Big Apple.

I was in L.A. to present at ACC’s Corporate Counsel University (“CCU”). CCU is a two-day nuts to bolt immersion program for folks who are new to in-house positions. It’s relatively small compared with the Annual Meeting, 200 or so attendees, but I have enjoyed presenting at this conference more than any other, because I can so readily identify with being new to in-house and feeling overwhelmed about how much I did not know….

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I had a cup of coffee last week with an old friend who happens to be a legal recruiter.

“Are you going to try to pry me out of my job?” I asked. “That’ll be a pretty tough sell.”

“I couldn’t place you if I tried,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“You crossed that Rubicon two years ago. I do searches only for law firms, and they don’t hire in-house lawyers. You’re no good to me anymore.”

“Excuse me?”

“Law firms buy books of business. Not only that — they buy only past books of business. Nobody buys a story — a promise of future work — these days. Firms buy only your past successes. That’s often incredibly stupid, but it’s what they do.”

The guy had my attention: First, I’m no longer a hot commodity; somehow, that annoyed me, even though I’m not looking to sell myself these days. Second, law firms are stupid about lateral hiring; this was a blog post waiting to happen . . .

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At large law firms, unless you’re interviewing for a small practice group, nobody’s losing sleep over whether you’ll fit in. They’ll take you so long as you’re smart, willing to work crazy hours, and not obviously a jerk. (Although if you’re a rainmaker jerk, they can’t seem to roll out the red carpet to the corner office quickly enough.)

You’ll tend hear the concern about the “right fit” voiced more often for in-house than Biglaw job openings. When you interview for an in-house position, your technical and substantive abilities certainly need to pass the bar (every possible pun intended). But after that, there’s a broad and maddeningly vague analysis regarding how good a “fit” you are….

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