InsideCounsel SuperConference

If the professional world were a zoo, Biglaw attorneys and in-house counsel would be kept in separate cages. They live in distinct environments and, according to a group of general counsel at the InsideCounsel SuperConference, have very different characteristics.

GCs from Kaplan Higher Education, Navistar, and Johnson Controls got together for a panel about building great in-house teams. It started with some general advice: Ask for writing samples from applicants, don’t hire applicants who use “I” during their interviews, and help to develop your workforce.

“Attorneys don’t tend to be precise and concise when they talk,” said Janice Block of Kaplan Higher Education. She has training sessions to help new hires improve their communication skills, so they can explain what they do for the company if they get stuck in the elevator with the CEO, for example.

Not surprisingly, companies are getting tons of applications for in-house positions these days. “In a market like now, we have lots and lots of people interested in joining the company,” said Jerry Okarma of Johnson Controls, a technology company based in Wisconsin. Attention, diverse candidates: “We have a hard time finding African–Americans in Milwaukee,” said Okarma.

People at the conference told me they’re seeing some amazing résumés cross their desks. People with 20 years of experience are applying for the lowest-level in-house jobs, said one in-houser.

But note well, law firm types: your experience might be a strike against you. The GCs in this session said they look at candidates with in-house experience first, and then to those with law-firm experience. One GC referred to law firms as the “outhouse.” The session included a fair amount of harping about how the animals are trained in the Biglaw outhouse…

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The modern workplace plays host to three generations: the baby boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y. A panel at the InsideCounsel SuperConference this week called the youngest of the bunch, Gen-Why?. The italics are likely meant to indicate a whiny tone, because this bunch, born from 1981 to 2001, are supposedly entitled and snotty. E.g., “You’re going to defer me for a year with a $60,000 stipend? Wah! I hate you!”

I attended the panel as did another legal blogger, Adrian Dayton. Check out his post on what’s wrong with Gen-Y. Despite their complaints about the young’uns, oldies tend to give in to their wishes, judging from the response one general counsel gave to a Gen-Yer who asked to head off to New Zealand for a year and have his job held until he got back.

A not-especially-snotty-or-entitled Gen-Yer was chosen for the panel: Jack Rossi, staff counsel at JetBlue, who scored an in-house offer directly out of law school. He admitted that some of the myths about his generation are true: he does like feedback and wants mentorship (and he’s gotten it in-house). An older baby boomer lawyer in the audience spoke up to say, “I wanted the same things as Jack, but I was not brave enough to ask for it… It was kind of ‘figure out for yourself.’ I think the fact that younger lawyers ask is actually a good thing.”

Honestly, there wasn’t a lot of tension in the room between Gen Y and Boomers, even when J.D. turned PhD panelist, Arin Reeves of The Athens Group, suggested Boomers were at fault for spoiling young folks given the wining-and-dining summer associate experience they created. “If you want to teach that work is the priority, take the events away,” said Reeves.

I think all of our Biglaw readers will agree with us in deeming that terrible advice.

In the room, greater tension seemed to exist between Gen X and Gen Y. “It sounds like we’re saying, ‘How are we going to accommodate an already spoiled generation?’” observed one Gen Xer.

Since I am Gen Y, and Elie is Gen X, we thought this would be an opportune time for a little ATL debate. I’ll let the old man go first…

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The last day of the InsideCounsel SuperConference started with a Supreme Court star, hot cars, drugs and, um, insurance. On Wednesday morning, superstar litigator Ted Olson interviewed three of the nation’s premier general counsel: David G. Leitch of Ford Motor Company, Deborah Platt Majoras of Procter & Gamble, and Michele Coleman Mayes of Allstate Insurance.

(The session also functioned as a kind of George W. Bush administration mini-reunion, given Olson’s service as Solicitor General, Majoras being the former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, and Leitch’s experience as White House deputy counsel.)

Olson asked the right questions, and these three gave candid answers. A partner at Gibson Dunn, Olson asked a question near and dear to many of our readers’ hearts: “What do you look for from outside counsel?” Olson asked them to talk about other factors than the oft-discussed “low rates and alternative fees.”

  • Good communication. “Tell us how we can help solve a problem and not exacerbate it. Tell us like it is. Too often, I feel like firms are managing me like a client. Firms never tell us, ‘I’m not as good at this – someone else might be better,’” said Mayes.
  • A point of view. “Give me the advice. Firms think they do this. But actually, firms want to explain the law, give some legal thoughts, and then let you decide. I want you to understand our business enough, that when you give me legal advice, and we discuss it – it’s not usually yes or no, if it were that simple, we’d do it ourselves – but I want you to have a point of view. Too often, outside lawyers don’t have that,” said Majoras.
  • Candor. “Just be candid about what we’re doing, what your limitations are, what your advice is,” said Leitch.
  • Appreciation for how their business operates. (Though this actually got into the forbidden topic of $$$.) Leitch knows he has a target on his back as a GC with a big litigation budget, but he’s cut his legal staff by 40% and is watching life-long Ford workers get laid off. “When I’m seeing people who have been at Ford for 40 years be laid off, and you’re going to call me that day and argue about whether your fee is $500 or $550, I just can’t deal with that,” said Leitch. “Know my business; know that our lawyers have gone without bonuses for the last two years.”

What if you don’t want to work for a GC, and you’d rather be one yourself?

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Tuesday, the InsideCounsel SuperConference kicked off with a presentation by Eric O’Neill, the former FBI agent whose spy-catching was immortalized in the Hollywood film, Breach (he’s Ryan Phillippe). O’Neill told spy stories that, while exciting, had questionable relevance for the gathered in-house crowd, beyond some advice for preventing corporate espionage. Watch what kind of information you give out at trade shows, for one.

The next panel was more directly applicable for those in attendance: a panel on corporate governance moderated by former Ambassador and current Nelson Mullins partner Philip Lader. With tan skin and a generous mane of white hair, he had the air of a cruise ship director and so it was not surprising that he did an excellent job steering his panel.

His panel — comprised of Marriott International’s EVP and General Counsel Edward Ryan; Delaware Supreme Court chief justice Myron Steele; Chicago business school dean Edward Snyder; and Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins — gave practical advice for in-house counsel on managing risk and dealing with outside counsel.

What’s one thing all corporate lawyers should be thinking about? Well, besides the implosion of the legal job market. Dean Snyder says left-tail risk should be on everyone’s minds…

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