Inside Straight

We had the good fortune to have Patrick Fitzgerald — the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois who recently joined Skadden — speak to my company’s global compliance conference last month.

Let me prove that I’ve learned a little about this blogging business over the years: Before the jump, I’ll give you my personal thought or two about introducing prominent speakers. I’ll hold the good stuff — what Fitzgerald, the famous guy, said — until after the jump. (Watch this, Lat! They’ll be drawn through the jump like vultures to carrion!)

How do you introduce a prominent speaker? You can do it the usual way: He went to school, got a job, and did some fancy stuff, zzzzzzzz.

Or you can find something offbeat about the person. I chose to introduce Fitzgerald by saying that I was afraid that our speaker had peaked too young. He had been named one of the sexiest men alive by People magazine in 2005; how do you ever surpass that? And, also in 2005, he had received an award from Washingtonian magazine for “best performance without a script.” For most people, it’s all downhill from there.

Fortunately, our speaker managed to surpass his early achievements. And then I trotted through what must be the usual litany in a Fitzgerald introduction: Led the prosecutions of former Illinois Governors George Ryan (sentenced to five years) and Rod Blagojevich (14 years) and a bunch of others.

That was my contribution to the hour. But, you might ask, what did the famous guy have to say?

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The “talent management” folks are so different from lawyers.

Lawyers (at big firms, anyway) ask junior lawyers to do things and, ten years later, look to see who survived.

Talent management people couldn’t be different. They assess individuals and groups to try to find ways to improve performance. “O brave new world that has such people in’t!”

But when the talent management folks turn their sights on me, I realize that I have a split personality.

I (and everyone on my compliance team) recently took the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument. This puppy repeatedly asks which of two ways you would choose to resolve a conflict. After you make 30 of those choices, a computer spits out the “conflict-handling mode” that you prefer. The five conflict-handling modes are “competing,” “collaborating,” “compromising,” “avoiding,” and “accommodating.”

This test revealed my underlying split personality before I even learned the results. As to virtually every one of the 30 choices I was asked to make, my answer depends on the circumstances. When representing a party in litigation, I’m often a “compromiser”: He demands 100; I offer 10. He drops to 90; I go to 20. He wants six months to trial; I offer 24. On most subjects, litigants have equal power, and no one wants to be blamed for bothering the judge, so we compromise. According to Thomas-Kilman, I’m a “compromiser.”

But that’s just one of my many personalities. Suppose I’m not representing a party in litigation, but rather “negotiating” with one of my own clients. Goodbye “compromiser,” and hello….

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Let me regale you with two recent examples of lawyers disclosing client confidences. There’s a lesson tucked into each.

First: An acquaintance sent me the résumé of, and asked me to speak to, a young lawyer. The idea was to give some general career advice, rather than necessarily to hire the person.

I’m a pushover, so I agreed to have a cup of coffee with the relatively new lawyer. Over coffee, he (or she, but I’ll use the masculine) explained that what he liked least about the job he’d just left (which was identified on his résumé) was being asked to do unethical things. My curiosity piqued, I asked for an example. He explained that he’d been asked to draft a contract that committed his employer to violating the law as part of the contractual relationship. (Think along the lines of, “We will ship the illegal weapons to you in New York.”) My young acquaintance said that he’d gone to the general counsel, who had instructed him to draft whatever contract the business wanted. The earnest young lawyer had solved the ethical problem by drafting a contract that, when read carefully, would prohibit the illegal conduct. (Think: “Under no circumstance will any weapons of any type be shipped pursuant to this contract.”)

I’m afraid I won’t be recommending this person for any jobs. . . .

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I have to make a public confession:

Ten years ago, I co-authored a book that analyzed in all 50 states the existing analogues to the federal multidistrict litigation process. (Some states have analogues; some do not; some have procedures that serve the same purpose through very different mechanisms.)

Don’t scoff! That book served a public purpose, because the information was not then available anywhere else. And it served a business development purpose: If you work at a large firm, you don’t want to defend one-off product liability cases, because the fees won’t bear the big-firm freight. But you do want to defend those silly products cases the instant they transmogrify into mass torts. What’s the point at which the client knows that it is confronting a truly big and bad mass tort? When it’s defending not only a federal MDL, but statewide coordinated proceedings, too. Presto! Time to retain yours truly, the expert in that untrodden field!

Having written the book, my co-authors and I naturally publicized it. We published articles summarizing the substance of the book; explaining how to draft mini-MDL statutes; and, for publication in specific state bar journals, analyses of the mini-MDL processes available in certain populous states. Although I can’t find an online link to the piece, we wrote in a Ohio bar journal that Ohio was the most populous state not to have a formal procedure for coordinating related lawsuits filed in many counties.

Naturally, this triggered some thought in the Ohio bench and bar about whether the state should catch up with the rest of the world. In 2004, more or less, some judicial committee called to solicit my help (and that of my co-authors) in creating a mini-MDL procedure in Ohio.

That’s when I sinned . . .

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Some general counsel of public companies return to private practice involuntarily: The new CEO changes the management team, or your GC job becomes redundant after a bigger fish acquires your company.

But a relatively few voluntarily choose to leave the perceived comfort of being the top dog in an in-house law department to resume the battle of private practice.

That’s why I raised an eyebrow when a guy (or gal) who I’ve known for a couple of decades recently left his (or her) GC spot to return to big firm life.

Let me give the details needed to make the story worth telling, while concealing enough to protect my friend’s identity. This person had worked at firms small and large, became general counsel of a Fortune 1000 company within the last three to five years, and left within the last year to return to an Am Law 20 firm. When I heard that this person had returned to private practice, I could feel a blog post waiting to happen, so I naturally picked up the phone.

Here’s why my friend left the life of Riley to return to the big firm fray:

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I really like what Bruce MacEwen does over at Adam Smith, Esq. He thinks hard about the legal profession, and he says smart things that you won’t find elsewhere.

But he’s not perfect. He recently wrote that clients were partly responsible for the demise of Dewey (which may well be true) because clients had endorsed “the . . . toxic notion that you hire the lawyer, not the firm.” Here, I beg to differ.

Hiring “the lawyer, not the firm” is not a toxic notion; it is sanity.

Hiring the firm would be nuts, for at least two different reasons. First, the firm has many invidious institutional incentives: Let’s suppose you “hire the firm” by calling the managing partner (or head of litigation, or whoever) to say that you have a new case that you’d like the firm to handle. The managing partner naturally pokes around to see “who has time.” Presto! Your case would be staffed with the partner who has nothing else to do, because the firm can’t foist that guy off on any other sorry client. That inept partner would likely be assisted by a few associates who also “have time,” and you’d be wallowing in B-team city.

Not for me, thank you very much.

If you’re an intelligent client, you don’t want the lawyers who “have time;” you want the lawyers who “are good.” There’s no reason to think those two categories overlap, and plenty of reasons to think they do not.

And I’m just getting warmed up here . . .

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I’m a week late in reminiscing about 2012, but what can I say? I’m a step slow; you’ll just have to excuse me. These are some of the memorable things I heard during the last year.

First, an employment lawyer who recently moved from the United States to the United Kingdom:

“What’s the correct way to refer to black people over here?”

“Excuse me?”

“In the United States, we refer to black people as ‘African-Americans.’ But you must have a different word for black people over here in England. Those people aren’t Americans, so they can’t be African-Americans.”

“We call blacks ‘blacks.’”

Second, a senior partner who serves on the executive committee of his Am Law 20 firm:

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This post is both a request for information and a cry for reform.

Here’s the backstory: Back when God was young, I clerked for a federal appellate judge. I saw how things operated in my circuit, and my friends clerking elsewhere told me how things worked in other circuits. One operating procedure differed between circuits; the procedure affected litigants (without their knowledge), and one system was plainly better than the other.

My request for information is that recent clerks update my information: Does this operating procedure still vary among circuits today?

My cry for reform is that circuit judges discuss this issue internally to decide whether they’re convinced, as I am, that some circuits are hurting both themselves and litigants in the process by which the courts use bench memos….

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A decade ago, I sat in the midst of hundreds of lawyers at a firmwide partners meeting. The managing partner explained that most of our revenue came from our 25 largest clients, and we should focus on expanding those representations. He then noted the conflicts problems posed by tiny clients, for whom we did essentially no work. He urged us to get the tiny clients off the books. To illustrate his point, his PowerPoint slide showed the clients to whom we had sent the smallest bills in the previous year. The firm’s smallest client had been billed a total of $3.25.

The managing partner scoffed: “Three and a quarter? Three and a quarter? Can’t we at least be as selective as the neighborhood bar? Maybe we should set a $25 minimum.”

I’ve inhabited law firms both small (for five years) and large (for twenty). Business development efforts at those firms are similar in some respects — “get famous; make contact; get lucky; repeat” — but differ in other ways. I’m thinking today about the ways that business development efforts differ depending on whether you work at a big firm or a small one….

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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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