Inside Straight

A few months ago, I attended a hearing on a motion for a temporary restraining order.

The judge came out on the bench and berated one side’s lawyers: “You filed these papers at midnight last night. Your brief is more than 70 pages long and has a foot of exhibits attached to it. I arrived at court at 9 this morning, and you’re now arguing this at 9:30. Do you really think I had a chance to read this stuff?”

How does this happen? How can lawyers be so silly?

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Some tasks are meant to be delegated; others are not.

Sometimes, whether the task is meant to be delegated depends on what the supervisor has in mind.

Let’s think about three examples…

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I came of age in the law in the late 1980s. At the time, arbitration was viewed as a big deal and a possible threat to the judicial system. Many corporations were adding arbitration clauses to their contracts; companies were agreeing to arbitrate, rather than litigate, disputes; and pundits feared that the judicial system would suffer.

What were the perceived benefits of arbitration?

It’s private. Companies wouldn’t have to share their dirty corporate laundry with the world.

You get to pick your own decision-maker. If you fear generalist judges, you can select an industry specialist as your arbitrator.

Arbitration is cheaper. Limited (or no) document production; no depositions; no silly, time-consuming motion practice. No serious appellate review, and thus relatively few time-consuming appeals.

This was perceived as being not just good, but great! Parties could design their own processes to have private judges resolve disputes quickly and efficiently, and corporations would spare themselves the expense and indignity of appearing in court.

Indeed, a couple of decades ago pundits feared that arbitration would soon threaten the judicial system. Parties with means would plainly prefer arbitration to litigation, so there would be ample demand for arbitrators’ services. Arbitrators are often paid at the rate of private practice lawyers, rather than public servants, so good judges would leave the bench in droves to accept more lucrative jobs as private arbitrators. The quality of judges would decline, and America would be left with a two-tiered system of justice: High-quality, private arbitration for the rich, and low-quality, public courts for the poor.

Or that was what the pundits said….

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Do I look like “Dear Abby”?

Somehow, because I’m working in-house and writing this column, I’ve become the adviser to the disaffected. A correspondent now asks: “I’ve worked at a Biglaw firm for several years, am at the end of my rope, and am interviewing for an in-house job next week. How will an interview for an in-house job differ from a Biglaw interview?”

I have three reactions: First, the interview may not be different at all. The in-house lawyers who are interviewing you may be veterans of Biglaw, and they may not have changed their interview styles when they changed jobs. Being qualified and pleasant may be plenty to land the job, as it is at many large law firms that are hiring new associates wholesale.

But the interview may be different in two ways that you should consider….

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I’ve received a couple of e-mails from associates at large firms saying that these folks sit at their desks dreaming about having in-house jobs: One client instead of many competing for your time. More manageable workload. A broader range of work. Less stress. An opportunity to think strategically instead of wallowing in minutiae. No more billable hours. No more time sheets. Bliss!

Please, these correspondents ask, write a column explaining the tribulations of in-house counsel.

This is tricky. First, the in-house life is pretty good. I wouldn’t want to understate the advantages. Second, I don’t hide behind a cloak of anonymity when I publish these columns. If I faced any tribulations (and I don’t, of course), this wouldn’t be a wise forum in which to let loose. Third, my own personal experience doesn’t prove very much generally, and I hear a wide range of varied reactions from others who work in-house.

But I’ll give it a shot….

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I recently heard a panel of judges speak about e-discovery issues. Their opinions on several subjects varied, but on one subject they agreed unanimously: Clawback provisions under Federal Rule of Evidence 502 are valuable tools in most significant litigation, but they remain rarely used.

This piqued my interest, so I asked several in-house litigators (not necessarily at the place where I work) whether they routinely seek FRE 502 clawback provisions in their cases. The in-house lawyers do not. And I asked whether outside counsel routinely recommend seeking those provisions. Not surprisingly (because the in-house folks aren’t using them), outside counsel do not.

The judges think clawback provisions are a good idea; in most situations, it strikes me that the judges are right. So what are FRE 502 clawback provisions, and why are inside and outside counsel routinely missing this trick?

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Success — at a law firm, in-house, or in any professional services environment — requires a certain mindset. The mindset is this: “My job is not to take an order from my client (or boss) and fill that order, but rather to achieve things.” Or, to put it differently, strive to execute projects, not simply to perform tasks.

Let’s start with a silly example: You ask someone to call the plumber to get the sink fixed.

Three days later, you realize that you haven’t heard back on this subject, so you ask, “Did you call the plumber?”

You hear back, “Oh, yes. I did.”

“And?”

“The plumber hasn’t returned my call.”

Do you feel as though you received intelligent help with this project? Of course not — because the project was to get the sink fixed. You didn’t really care whether your helper called the plumber, or e-mailed the plumber, or attracted the plumber’s attention with smoke signals. So long as the sink got fixed, the project was completed.

But your helper chose not to think about the project and instead focused only on the task — making a phone call, whether or not anything came of it. Your helper completed the task and ignored the actual project.

Undertaking tasks, rather than executing projects, is exactly the way to fail in a professional services environment. Here’s an example, from the legal world….

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Egad! The General Counsel just announced that your target for next year will be to handle 20 percent of all outside legal spend on an alternative fee basis! What do you do?

You can’t just do flat fee agreements! What happens if you agree to pay too much, and you’ve given away your client’s money? And success-based fees are a great idea, but they’re impossible to calculate! How does anyone know at the start of a piece of (non-routine) litigation what the case is worth? Since you don’t know the value of the matter, you can’t set the target from which you’ll judge success.

What’s an in-house lawyer to do?

Calm down. Here’s a way to ease into alternative fee agreements that will put neither you nor your outside firms at risk, will educate you slowly over time, and will meet your internal objectives….

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It’s not just the federal government that’s desperate for money. The states are, too.

One way that states are looking to fill their coffers is by auditing unclaimed property on companies’ books — so-called “escheat audits.” This isn’t the world’s sexiest topic, but an in-house lawyer might serve a valuable purpose by double-checking corporate escheat policies.

In the financial services industry, many companies must deal with unclaimed deposits and securities. But even outside that sector, most companies find themselves holding unclaimed property, in the form of uncashed vendor or payroll checks, undistributed benefits payments, or the like. Complying with escheat laws may pose a challenge.

States are now doing two things related to escheat laws to increase their revenue. First, they’re shortening the amount of time that a holder can retain unclaimed funds before turning those funds over to the state. Second, states are accelerating their use of “escheat audits” — auditing corporate books to see whether companies have complied with the applicable laws.

This has recently become big business — with implications for in-house counsel….

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Several readers have sent e-mails asking for advice on how to deliver bad news to clients.

Here’s proof that, if ye shall ask, ye may receive.

Think first about the “bad news” that you’re delivering. You’re not a physician, so you’re not looking a person in the eye and explaining that he or she has just six months to live. That’s really bad news, and that’s hard to deliver. Your job is easy.

Even in the universe of bad news delivered by lawyers, if you’re working with a corporate client, you’re probably getting off easy. You’re not reporting to the client that “the Supreme Court just rejected the application for a stay of your execution” or “the appellate court just affirmed the conviction, so you’ll be doing the time.” The bad news that civil litigators are delivering to corporate clients just isn’t that significant. So calm down.

I’m also ruling out other bad news that folks deliver to, or receive from, in-house counsel. I’m not thinking about telling employees that they’ve been laid off or fired or delivering unhappy performance reviews. I’m not thinking about how you deliver bad news to your own law firm or to a court. And I’m ruling out situations where the bad news results from your own error, rather than an adverse decision by a court. (It’s much harder to tell a client, for example, “I blew the statute of limitations, and your claim is now time-barred,” than it is to tell a client, say, “The court denied our motion for summary judgment.”) So maybe I’m cheating here, by limiting the discussion, but the optimal way to deliver bad news will vary with the situation.

So what’s the best way to deliver news of an adverse judicial decision to a corporate client?

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