Mark Herrmann

Which GC took home the most cash in 2010? For the first time, the winner was a woman.

Corporate Counsel just released its annual list of the highest-paid general counsel in the land. On the whole, the news is good: “If last year’s GC Compensation Survey showed the aftereffects… of the deepest trough of the recession, this year’s results show that chief legal officers made steady gains and recovered some momentum.”

This year there was at least one surprise: a winning woman. For the first time since the inception of the survey in 1994, the highest-paid general counsel on the list was a female attorney.

Who topped the list, and how much did she make? Let’s take a look….

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Career paths are easy at big law firms: As an associate, stay fully occupied doing great work, and become a partner. As a junior partner, stay fully occupied doing great work, and become a powerful partner. As a senior partner, generate enough business to keep you and others fully occupied, and become an even richer and more powerful partner.

These things may or may not be attainable, but everyone understands the career path.

Things are much trickier in-house. Corporations tend to have fewer lawyers than big law firms do, and in-house law departments tend to be flatter. Turnover tends to be less common. Six or eight people often report up to a single supervisor. In that environment, staying fully occupied and doing great work may not move you up the ranks. You can be fully occupied doing great work, but your boss is competent, happy in her job, not close to retirement age, and in good health. She’s going nowhere, so you have nowhere to go in the corporation.

The corporation can actually be very good to its lawyers — investing in leadership and management training, using incentive or equity compensation, and employing other tools for recognizing achievements — but still fall short in actually creating career paths that make sense.

How do corporations create career paths for their in-house lawyers?

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I’m thinking again, as I did on Monday, about why lawyers go insane over time.

Years ago (long before MapQuest was even a gleam in its inventor’s eye), an older lawyer sent me directions for driving to his home. It was pretty easy to get from my apartment to his house; I had to make only three or four turns. But the directions were several typed pages long. Why?

Because this guy had been driven insane by mistakes in the past. He had told someone to turn east on a road, and the person had turned west. So now the directions eliminated that possible mistake: “Turn east (that is, turn right as you are proceeding northbound on route 1) at the light.” Someone else had missed the turn. So now the directions eliminated that possible mistake: “If you see a shopping mall followed by a McDonald’s on the right side of the road, then you have gone too far. Turn around, go back to the light, and turn east (that is, left as you are now proceeding southbound on route 1) at the light.” Having experienced all of these mistakes, the older lawyer felt compelled to help me avoid them, which made his driving directions nearly incomprehensible.

What does this have to do with being a lawyer?

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There’s a reason why people get crotchety when they get old. People forget about things that went right in their professional lives; that’s like water off a duck. But people remember things that got screwed up; that’s what sticks in their craws.

You personally are not necessarily incompetent. But you’re tarred by the ghosts of incompetents past. When your elder — a partner, a boss, a client, whoever — asks you to do something, the boss assumes that you won’t do it. The boss doesn’t assume this because she knows that you’re irresponsible; she assumes it because the clown she asked to do something six months ago was irresponsible, and she has to hedge against you being an irresponsible clown, too.

How do you prove that you’re not irresponsible?

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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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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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