matter management

For every matter that we handle, we need one “unifying mind.” We need one person at the helm; that person must either personally know everything that’s happening in the matter or, at a minimum, know where the knowledge lies. (Extraordinary cases may be beyond the capacity of a single unifying mind and may require two or more. But those situations are exceptional, and they pose challenges beyond what I’m thinking about today.)

The unifying mind might be found anywhere in the hierarchy, depending on the type of matter involved. At a law firm, the unifying mind can be a partner, if the matter is large and the partner a hands-on type. Or the unifying mind can be an associate charged with monitoring and tracking all events. But everyone on the team should know who’s at the helm, so everyone knows the person who should receive copies of correspondence, alerts about upcoming events, and reports about how things are going.

At an in-house law department, we, too, must have a unifying mind for every matter. In the litigation world, a corporation may have several line lawyers whose job is to supervise cases on a day-to-day basis. The line lawyer primarily responsible for overseeing a particular case should typically serve as the unifying mind for that matter. Outside counsel should communicate with that person, and everyone in-house should know that’s the lawyer to call if they need detailed information about a lawsuit.

That’s all fine in theory, but two things often screw this up in practice. What two things?

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When you work as a litigator at a law firm, you know your cases. You know who said what to whom when. You know the recipients and dates of the critical emails. You know the precise terms of the contracts. You know what the opposing expert said at his deposition and how you’re going to attack him at trial.

In short, you know stuff.

When you move in-house — or, at a minimum, to certain in-house positions — those days may vanish. You may never know — really know — anything again.

The little cases may become barely a rumor: The employee was entitled to five weeks severance; he hired a lawyer and filed a lawsuit; we want authority to settle for ten weeks severance. You may kick the tires on the case for a few minutes, but that’s it. If you crave to know who said what to whom when, then you’re in the wrong job.

I feel a bit irresponsible having written those words, because they imply — indeed, they say — that folks in positions such as mine are doing their jobs without full knowledge. To many lawyers, that’s the ultimate sin. Yet in-house lawyers consistently say that a big piece of the transition from a firm to a corporation is learning to make decisions and take actions based on incomplete facts. (One of my colleagues recently said that he suffers from “in-house ADD.”)

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I have two memos sitting unread in my inbox.

One of the memos is great; the other one is terrible. I know which is which. And, as I said, I haven’t yet read either one of them.

Isn’t trust terribly unfair?

Think about the many ways that establishing trust permeates a business relationship. Once the superior (whether that be partner, client, boss, or whomever) trusts the underling, the underling can do no wrong. And once the superior mistrusts the underling, the underling can do no right.

Which of the two unread memos in my inbox is great? The one from the guy I trust. All of his earlier memos have been great. They’re crisp, incisive, intelligent, and lucid; the one that I haven’t yet read is surely a thing of beauty, too. Which memo stinks? The one from the guy I don’t trust. All of his earlier memos have left me gripping my head in agony, trying to figure out what in God’s name this clown was trying to communicate and why anyone would think it was worth trying to communicate that drivel.

Trust permeates everything; it’s terribly unfair. Trust infuses more than just the memos I haven’t yet read. Trust permeates silence, too. How can trust permeate silence?

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Can't we all just get along?

As everyone knows, IT professionals and lawyers often want to stab each other’s faces with butter knives have a little trouble seeing eye-to-eye. Practitioners of both the law and computer sorcery tend to be headstrong and preternaturally assured that they are correct 100 percent of the time.

It only makes sense then, that several of Wednesday’s panels at the Legal Technology Leadership Summit dealt with the crucial and interdependent relationship between law dogs and mysterious IT folks. Throughout the day, discussion leaders from both sides of the aisle discussed ways to avoid (or at least mitigate) data breaches and to use technological tools to ease billing nightmares. One session was dedicated to lamenting the top ways IT staff and attorneys drive each other nuts.

For reasons why your boss isn’t thrilled about your sweet new 128 gigabyte flash drive and some classic ha-ha-lawyers-don’t-understand-technology anecdotes, keep on reading….

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