Susan Moon

An in-house lawyer (let’s call her Athena) was recently offended by a statement made by a law firm attorney (let’s call him Hercules). Athena shared a conversation in which Hercules had told her that his firm would never stoop so low as to represent any companies in her industry (let’s say it’s the tobacco industry).

When Athena informed Hercules that, well, his firm actually did represent her company, he told her that she must be mistaken. She responded by bringing up a picture on her mobile phone of an attorney at his firm who was working on one of her tobacco cases, and Hercules replied, “I’ve never seen her before. She can’t be very important.” With a high and (al)mighty look, Hercules then went off to clear his head by having a few smokes.

As Athena complained about this incident, she was so upset that she had trouble blowing her usually perfectly-circular cigarette rings into the air. My initial reaction (knowing how Hercules can be a jovial kind of deity character) was that Hercules had been kidding (and probably had a bit too much ambrosia, as well), and that Athena should lighten up a bit and get a sense of humor, for gods’ sakes.

A couple of years ago, my thoughts about the matter would have ended there, and I would have forgotten the incident completely after returning to my humble, mortal abode. This time, I had some other takeaways….

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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….

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Are your in-house working hours recently rivaling the billable hours you thought you had permanently discarded? Is your workload getting way too heavy — i.e., it’s really getting difficult to watch Glee on a timely basis? Do you find yourself working on pretty much the same form of contract over and over and over and over and over and over and over, ad infinitum?

It may be time to take a break and evaluate the problem of Low-Value Work.

What’s Low-Value Work? It’s work that has three main characteristics….

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Last week was my company’s annual legal conference. This year, lawyers from around the world descended upon the cultural and historic haven called New Orleans. And we had lots of stuff planned. And I don’t mean just food. Although the week did feel kind of like this:

Food / Event / More Food / Event / AND More Food / Event / Full-on Food “Event”

We spent a part of the first day volunteering with a New Orleans-based organization called St. Bernard Project. SBP is an amazing non-profit that was formed 5 years ago by a lawyer (Zack Rosenburg) and a teacher (Liz McCartney). After a week’s visit to New Orleans, these two decided to give up their lives as they knew them and settle in New Orleans to help people whose homes and lives were devastated by Hurricane Katrina and the Oil Spill. SBP has several programs and about 60 of us worked in the effort to rebuild houses — painting, removing siding, installing insulation, et cetera. SBP is all about quality when it comes to rebuilding homes; so if the air bubble in the level you’re using is even just touching one of the vertical lines on either side, you can expect an earful from your supervisor who won’t care that your “real” job doesn’t involve the use of power tools. Unless it’s April Fool’s Day at the office. (More on that at another time.)

Our legal conference also included a couple of training sessions. One of them was held by Second City. Yes, Second City — you know, the famous comedy club/school that has trained (among other comedy elites) the entire original cast of Saturday Night Live?

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Does your company hold employee “social events”? These range from bigger events like town halls, summer picnics, and holiday parties, to smaller, more intimate socials like Friday afternoon ice cream sundae breaks, cubicle-decorating contests, and themed get-togethers. They all have the same goals — encourage a team atmosphere, help boost morale, and announce company information.

Do you think of these events as times for you to relax, stuff yourself with free food, and take a break from work? Do you have a tendency to blow off some of these events as fluffy wastes of time (obviously the lawyers who show up for these aren’t as busy as you are)? If so, that’s a big mistake.

My take is that these “social” events should generally be viewed as “work,” not breaks from work. They’re fantastic opportunities for you to advance your in-house legal career, so just relaxing and having fun at these events means you’re missing out on a lot. Also, let’s be serious here, they’re not really all that fun. I mean, Mardi Gras = fun. A night on the town with your best buddies = fun. Cocktail weenies in the lobby next to the copy room = meh.

So forget the fun, and get to work at the socials!

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A lot of people ask me how I ended up in this in-house gig. Oh fine, nobody has asked, but darnit, I’m gonna tell you anyway. And I’ll even include a couple of tips that I think helped me. I’ll assume you’re already familiar with a lot of basic interview tips, such as doing your research, preparing a great résumé, and not picking your nose in front of the receptionist, so I’ll avoid mentioning those.

I like to call the interview process I had for my current job the Shortest Interview Process Ever (SIPE, for short). If you’ve worked at a company before, you’ve probably noticed that companies absolutely love, love, love acronyms and use them all the time. Just FYI, your ability to learn acronym-speak is directly proportional to your success as an in-house lawyer, so feel free to start making up your own and using them on your BFFs!

At one point, after a few years in Biglaw, I called a recruiter I had used before and asked if there were any jobs out there. The recruiter was not happy to hear from me. But this was reasonable because, a few years earlier, he had helped to get me a job offer — that I didn’t take. At that time, I had four job offers (obviously, this wasn’t during the economic hellhole that we’re in right now) and decided to go with one other than his. So understandably, he wasn’t a happy camper to hear from me this time around….

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In Feeling the Kumbaya (Part I), we looked at how different the perspectives of business clients and in-house lawyers can be. Below are a few techniques that have helped me and my clients to feel the Kumbaya for each other (or at least have helped them to not think I’m only a total loser who has nothing better to do than change all of the commas in a list after a colon to semicolons).

Prioritize. I used to suspect that there was something about going in-house that made perfectly good law firm attorneys develop permanent amnesia when it came to good drafting. It was the strangest thing. Even my husband, a supposedly respectable corporate law firm attorney, after going in-house, suddenly started to let minor errors appear in his emails. My judgment of him was quick and deliberate. He would sometimes mistakenly use “there” instead of “their,” for God’s sakes! What lawyer does that?

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So you’ve moved in-house or are planning to go in-house sometime. Be ready to think less like a lawyer.

Business clients think differently. I know, crazy, right? But, seriously, one of the biggest transitions from working as a transactional lawyer at a law firm and moving over to a company is learning to understand the business client’s perspective.

At a law firm, your client is typically another lawyer, whether it’s a senior associate, a partner, or an in-house lawyer. Lawyers hold court at the top of the hierarchy and are assumed valuable until proven otherwise. Legal work reigns supreme.

At a company, your boss will probably be an attorney but, as a transactional in-house attorney, you will most likely consider non-lawyers — people in other areas of the company — to be your clients. Plus, you’ve probably shifted from your law firm throne to mingling as one of the middle-management masses. At a company, mention “legal work” and “supreme” in the same sentence and you’ll get laughed off your middle-management office chair. On the contrary, you may sometimes need to remind business people that you exist (this can be kind of awkward, really) and that you can, you know, maybe provide value once in a while….

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Ed. note: Welcome to the inaugural installment of Moonlighting, a column for in-house lawyers by our newest writer, Susan Moon. Susan’s column will appear on Fridays.

Come one, come all, to this paradise we call The In-house Wonderland. This is a magical place where all of your time-billing nightmares turn into hazy clouds of doing whatever the heck you want, when you want, and not keeping track of any of it. Where you hire outside firms to do all of the legwork while you sip your latté and email them to let them know that you actually need it a week earlier than you thought (so yeah, that would be in about two hours, kthxbai)! A Xanadu in which you’re never in fear of getting pushed up and out just because you can’t find ways to bring in millions (wait, is it billions now?) for the firm.

Yes, it is a dream…. Unfortunately, just a dream.

I’ve been in-house for the past several years at a travel and hospitality company. My work is varied and transactional, which means the general public has absolutely no idea what it is I do, since the only lawyers that they know exist are litigators from Law & Order, The Practice, Boston Legal… need I go on? Let’s face it, even most law students have no idea what corporate lawyers do either, since law schools seem to have signed a pact to pretend that transactional law doesn’t really exist. Sigh….

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