According to George Will, “Pessimism has its pleasures. Ninety percent of the time you’re right, and ten percent of the time you’re delighted to be wrong.”
That’s how I go through life.
What made me a pessimist? Nature or nurture, perhaps? (Should I blame my parents’ genes or their parenting skills?) Decades defending litigation, which forced me perpetually into a defensive crouch? (If that’s the reason, then plaintiffs’ lawyers must be optimists.) Or my preferred explanation: Keen observation of reality, coupled with endless experience, naturally breeds pessimism.
As an outside lawyer, my pessimism meant that I presumptively expected the worst (or, at a minimum, the least) from colleagues, opposing counsel, clients, and courts. Those folks generally performed precisely to my expectation, reinforcing my pessimism.
As an in-house lawyer, how does pessimism infuse life?
I recently got a lift to the airport from a lawyer at a mid-sized firm who I’d met only earlier in the day. “It must be a pleasure to work for you,” he said.
On the one hand, that seemed strange, since I work so hard to establish a public persona that I’m a pain in the neck. (Frankly, that’s not much of a charade.) On the other hand, this seemed not at all strange, since I’ve now grown accustomed to lawyers at firms sucking up to me.
But I figured I’d play along: “Why would it be a pleasure to work for me?” I asked, innocently. “I’m pretty tough on our outside counsel.”
“Because you can tell good from bad. You worked in private practice for 25 years, and you’ve labored in my field. I suspect that, back when you were playing the game, you could write a pretty good brief. When an outside lawyer sends a bad brief to you, you may criticize it, but at least when a lawyer sends a good brief to you, you’ll recognize that it’s good. I work with an awful lot of clients who can’t distinguish good work from bad.”
Ha! Here’s an issue that I’d noticed when I was in private practice, but never really thought about. And it’s an issue that arises frequently in-house, because an in-house lawyer’s clients typically are not lawyers. My chauffeur may have thought that he was currying my favor by flattering me, but in fact he was doing something much, much better — he’d given me fodder for a blog post.
What should lawyers do when their clients can’t tell good legal work from bad?
One of the benefits of presenting to large groups of in-house lawyers is meeting large groups of in-house lawyers. I am happily ensconced here in my job, but I have never stopped networking. I never miss an opportunity to make a connection, or to make a friend. I try very hard not to burn bridges, and I always examine job opportunities when they come to me. You read that right. Look, things happen, things change, and things can go bad. If you haven’t kept up your networking simply because the economy sucks and the job market stinks, you’ve been doing yourself a huge disservice. I’ll say just two words: Kodak and Dewey. It sounds like a bad horror film ad but “no one is safe.”
When I started practicing law, the paradigm of one job for one career was already long gone. Most commercial lawyers today engage in a sort of pinball training, bouncing from one gig to the next, and picking up whatever knowledge they can before settling into a position with some semblance of permanence. I am very fortunate to have landed here, but even so, I am a much better in-house counsel now than when I started.
Let’s say that it takes a year to two to become fully capable of handling the job you have. If you have been practicing more than ten years, as I have, that’s around five or six years of hard core ability. I am not referencing simple knowledge of the rule against perpetuities, but the ability to use the RAP like Ginger Rogers — backwards and in heels. But, that’s the actual practice of law, and networking experience should only get better by the year. So, I have about twice as much experience networking as I do practicing. And so should you….
Years ago, I handled a pro bono case for a client unable to afford legal services. (I actually handled a fair number of pro bono cases, but I’m choosing to describe just one here.) The client was a very nice guy, and he desperately needed legal services. But he had no idea how to use a lawyer cost-effectively and, because he wasn’t paying for my services, he had no incentive to restrain himself. The guy called incessantly, asked endless questions, and was always trying to schedule meetings with me. I mentioned the situation to one of my senior colleagues, and the colleague’s reaction was immediate: “What that client needs is a bill.”
During the decades when I served as outside counsel representing clients, I noticed that some of my clients permitted me to do their work efficiently and others affirmatively obstructed that effort. Now that I’m an in-house lawyer, I’m thinking about the other side of that coin: What should I, in my role as client, do to permit outside counsel to represent me efficiently?
Specialty bar associations can be great opportunities for in-house lawyers to grow their network and develop their careers. Unlike some mega bar associations, they tend to feel more intimate and collegial, even if their membership numbers are pretty large, because the members share a common interest.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the NAPABA (National Asian Pacific American Bar Association) convention in Atlanta. This organization represents the interests of over 40,000 attorneys and about 65 local bar associations. And let me tell you, they had a lot going on at their annual gathering. And I don’t just mean the after-hours partying….
Suppose your firm has one incompetent partner, and our joint has the misfortune to be working with that person.
This guy consistently misses important issues. He sends us briefs that read (as did one draft I recently received): “In response to ALR’s motion to dismiss the OC, [plaintiff] added an allegation in the FAC that . . . .” We comment, over and over again (as we did recently), that briefs on our behalf must be written in English, not gibberish. Even if you’ve set up short forms, no reader sees “OC” and “FAC” and thinks “Original Complaint” and “First Amended Complaint.” Use words, not alphabet soup.
To no avail.
We suggest that the partner include on the litigation team a gifted writer (because we’re too nice to suggest that the partner include on the litigation team “a lawyer who’s worth a damn”). But nothing ever changes; the partner never hears us. Confronted with an avalanche of criticism and suggestions, no law firm partner has ever said to us, “Why, thank you. Now that you mention it, I realize that I am in fact inept. To better serve your legal needs, I’ll replace myself with a real lawyer.”
No, no, no. Instead, the partner continues to send us bad briefs, making the same mistakes over and over, but seemingly thinking that we may not care the next time around. It’s Einstein’s definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Up to that point, the fault is the partner’s. But then I personally make two mistakes….
When we write briefs, we show — we don’t tell — the reader that we win. Thus, we do not tell the reader: “This case is barred by the statute of limitations,” which is mere assertion. Instead, we show the reader why we win: “The accident in which plaintiff was hurt occurred on June 1, 2008. The two-year statute of limitations therefore expired on June 1, 2010. Plaintiff did not file his complaint, however, until August 15, 2011. This lawsuit is time-barred.”
At trial, it’s the same routine: We do not simply assert in an opening statement or closing argument: “My client should win.” (Nor do we beg: “Please, please. My client should win.”) Instead, we present the facts, and we let the jury conclude from the facts that our client should win. Show; don’t tell. It’s more persuasive.
What’s the equivalent for demonstrating legal expertise? What should law firms write (and say) on résumés and in responses to RFPs to show, not tell, their competence? And, as in-house counsel, what questions should we ask to investigate whether a firm is blowing hot air (which is what “telling” permits) or may actually be competent (which is what “showing” may suggest)?
I received a fair amount of mail this past week asking about transitioning to in-house positions from firm life. I tried to offer useful responses when time permitted. I certainly appreciated all the kind words, and I feel for those enduring the struggle of a job search, especially in this economy. Many folks share in the struggle, and many folks have struggled before you — myself included. It doesn’t make it easier, but it will get better. The words “going in-house” presuppose that you have a choice: to go. For most people these days, the choice is to go where you’ll be able to cover your budget. And that doesn’t always translate to getting the job you want.
I do not view this column as a place to preach, I view it as one side of a dialogue. If you feel moved to write to me and ask for advice or ideas, I will certainly do my best to respond to your email. I knew going in to this that by publishing my real name I was setting myself up for abusive comments from a small group of people. It’s all good; I have been a long time reader of Above the Law. But I also knew that, far more importantly, folks who really wanted or needed to discuss topics that I write about might contact me. To that end, let’s talk about choosing the right person for the job….
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We currently have a number of active openings for associate roles at US and UK firms in HK / China, Singapore and two new in-house openings. As always, please feel free to reach out to us at email@example.com in order to get details of current openings in Asia, as well as to discuss the Asia markets in general and what we expect for openings later this year. Our Evan Jowers and Robert Kinney will be in Beijing the week of March 25 and Evan Jowers will be in Hong Kong the week of April 1, if you would like to meet them in person.
The US associate openings we have in law firms are in the usual areas of M&A, cap markets, FCPA / white collar litigation, finance, and project finance. The most urgent of our top tier (top 15 US or magic circle) law firm openings in Asia (among many other firm openings that we have in Asia) are as follows:
• 2nd to 5th year mandarin fluent M&A associates needed in Beijing and Hong Kong at several firms;
• Korean fluent 2nd to 4th year cap markets associate needed in Hong Kong;
• 2nd to 5th year Japanese fluent M&A associates needed in Tokyo;
• 4th to 6th year mandarin fluent cap markets associate needed in Hong Kong;
• 2nd to 4th year M&A / cap markets mix associate needed in Singapore.
The last time I flapped my wings your way, I tried to make at least enough noise about your mobile phone to make you more than a little bit uncomfortable. I hope I did. If enough of us become anxious enough about the known and unknown unknowns and knowns in our mobile phones, then we can start making wise decisions about how to manage that information and its resultant investigations.
Today, I’d like to put a finer point on the last installment’s topic by asking a question that seemed to catch most attendees off-guard at a conference panel that I moderated last week: is there discoverable personal information in a mobile app? Our panelists’ answer was a uniform “yes” with one stating that, if he had to choose only one type of data that he could discover from a mobile phone, he’d choose app data. Why? Because there’s simply so much of it and because almost all of it is objective – not just user-created like an email – but machine-tracked like GPS, usage duration, log in and log out times, browsed web addresses, browsed actual addresses. Also, most of us seem to have the idea that data doesn’t actually “stick” to our mobile devices the way it “sticks” to our hard drives. Maybe there’s a disconnect based on the fact that our phones are mobile so we assume the data is mobile to?
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