Lawyers, including in-house lawyers, have a well-deserved reputation for over-complicating things. Don’t worry, this isn’t a sermon. I am standing in the dock next to you, guilty as hell! Still, I have spent time over the course of a long career in the law trying to figure out why this is. Why is it that lawyers make things so hard on themselves and their clients? I think it comes down to this: lawyers hate to be wrong. No, they fear being wrong, coupled with a belief that if you throw enough time, money, and words at a legal problem you can get to the answer or solve the problem. This explains why lawyers write in a way that no mere mortal understands. We have developed an uber-complex grammar structure that mystifies all but those foolhardy enough to plunge into the ocean of words, clauses, commas, “notwithstandings,” triple negatives, subparts, subparts to the subparts, and so on that make up modern-day contracts. Or why our litigation process (in the US) is now largely an exercise in trying to get documents from the other side and prevent the other side from getting your documents and working overtime to get the court to sanction the other side for not giving you documents or for trying to unfairly get your documents, or… well, you get the point.
If you spend any time thinking about it, you begin to see why business leaders appreciate practical lawyers – lawyers who can get things done quickly and who can communicate in ways the business can understand. The issue for in-house lawyers is that both demands tend to cut against all of our training and instincts, i.e., it’s hard! Building “Rube Goldberg” machines is in our DNA. Fortunately, it is possible to learn to be practical. And, while not a hard and fast rule, my experience is that in-house lawyers who are practical in their approach and advice tend to thrive at companies and become sought-after partners to the business. Those who are not, tend to be treated like lepers – feared and shunned. This edition of “Ten Things” brings the cure and discusses how to be a practical in-house lawyer:
Last month, my good friend, Jane McBride, and I presented a CLE to the Texas Bar in-house counsel section on how to “take advantage of opportunity.” I, of course, had my list of ten things and Jane (as an in-house lawyer and ace career coach) brought her usual great ideas to the table as well. The mixture of our ideas was a killer combination and made for an excellent presentation. But, in the back of my mind, I kept coming back to my original list of ten and thinking that list would make a good “Ten Things” blog. Not because there was anything wrong with the combined list, but because my original ten told the story of how I was able to advance my career as an in-house lawyer – from that first day on the job at American Airlines to my last day as general counsel of Marketo (my third time in the general counsel chair). My own personal experience is generally what I like to share with you in this blog. While this post is aimed at those new to or a few years into the in-house counsel life, I think most of the lessons below apply to pretty much anyone at any point in their in-house career. So, let’s get started. This edition of “Ten Things” discusses how in-house lawyers can best take advantage of opportunities to advance their career:
Throughout my legal career, I have been pretty fortunate when it comes to good health, both physically and mentally. I have a knack for managing deadlines and have always been able to crank out work pretty much as needed. Still, like everyone, there are times when I feel overwhelmed by the weight of what is on my plate. And, the higher up you are on the food chain, the more pressing the weight becomes as more and more people rely on you to come through (e.g., your team, fellow employees/clients, senior management, the board of directors, shareholders). It can be a lot of pressure, which is just another word for stress. For me, stress usually manifested itself in clenching my jaw (which required that I wear a splint) or migraine headaches. The latter I can say without hesitation truly suck. I know I am not alone, especially in the legal profession, as lawyers typically are more susceptible to stress and depression than most any other field. The work and deadlines take their toll not only on the lawyer, but on their family as well.
Why am I focusing on all of this unpleasantness you ask? Because I just realized that May is now mental health month. And while Hallmark has not taken over the festivities (yet), it is an excellent time to take stock of our own mental health and, for in-house lawyers, that of the legal department as a whole. Over the years, I have learned some things about preserving my mental health in an incredibly stressful job. Most of the time I just sucked it up and kept any issues to myself, I realize now that that is exactly the wrong type of behavior. I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. But, this edition of “Ten Things” discusses some ways in-house lawyers can reduce stress with things I have done and still do, as well as things I wish I had done (or done more of). I’ll try not to get preachy, and I hope there are a few things here that will help you deal with the massive amount of crap that comes over the transom every day in the in-house world; a world where there is never enough money, time, or manpower to do the job:
In seven years of writing this blog, I have turned down all offers of a guest post. Nothing personal, I have always wanted “Ten Things” to just be my thoughts. Today, I make an exception. Why? Because I think this is an incredibly important topic – one I have wanted to write about but knew I could never pull off. At its core, blog writing has to ring true and be based on experience or expertise to provide value. As a middle-aged, white guy, who grew up in Nebraska, I cannot write effectively about this topic. But my guest writer can. In fact, she writes the hell out of it. Still, I can say that I have seen firsthand much of what she sets out and 100% endorse what she is talking about. So, pay attention. If you are a woman, take these points to heart. If you are a man, do the same – maybe more so. It truly matters.
I have been fortunate enough to work for and with many great female executives, especially lawyers. I not only admire them for their brains, insights, and work ethic, but for their ability to find a way through the many obstacles that stand in their way, from outright misogyny to dealing with the disproportionate share of child care. My oldest daughter will start graduate school in the fall and my youngest daughter is at the University of Texas Law School, and I want both to have every opportunity to succeed in the business world on their merits. I hope they both turn out a lot like Talia whom I have known for a while now and already believe has more insight, ability, and talent than I had when I first became general counsel. I know you will agree and I hope that you will share this post with everyone you know.
I am excited and pleased that this edition of “Ten Things” discusses what you need to know as a woman in-house lawyer.
Last year, I wrote about how to get the most out of regular 1:1 meetings; from the viewpoint of the manager and from that of the employee. Those two posts turned out to be really popular. I wasn’t surprised by that because I know (from experience) how often those meetings sucked. Not on purpose, but because neither I nor the other person – regardless of which chair I had at the time – really knew what we were supposed to be doing. Fortunately, I figured it out for the most part and was happy to share what I knew in those two posts. So, let’s now turn our attention to another chronically sucky legal department process, the yearly performance review. I hear you out there, “Wow, jackass. This would have been great information… last November when we were scheduling reviews!” True. It probably would have been. But, allow me to retort. I say, and as you will see below, that now (March) is the time to start thinking about and preparing for performance reviews. Actually, you should have started in January. You’re already behind. So, there. But, before you riot, unsubscribe, or start driving slowly by my house at night – like those jack-booted goons from the ABA’s publishing division making sure I am busy writing that book – let me explain myself. Performance reviews are a critical tool in the hands of every manager. They are even more important in the current forced-remoteness of COVID-19. Getting them right takes a lot of effort and thoughtful consideration and you cannot wait until the last minute to get started. This edition of “Ten Things” walks you through what you need to do and think about to create truly valuable and useful performance reviews: (more…)
A few months back I took some swings at meetings in general, i.e. Escaping Meeting Hell. But, as I noted, not all meetings are “bad” and many are necessary, especially for in-house counsel. Of the meetings in-house counsel must attend, none should rank higher than your 1:1 meetings with your boss. You may think it is just more administrative bullshit you have to make time for during your already crowded week – and you would be somewhat correct. But, it is important administrative bullshit and the administrative part of being an in-house lawyer is just as critical as the substantive legal work. Not only is a one-on-one meeting a way to keep your manager informed of what is going on, it is also a key ingredient of the “soup” that is served up as part of career development and advancement. So, grab your spoon and get ready to dig in as this edition of “Ten Things” discusses what you can do to have more effective 1:1 meetings with your boss:
As we come to the end of 2019, I wanted to write about an issue I hear a lot about. In fact, in many of my conversations with in-house counsel, this is the number one topic, i.e., “how do I become a strategic in-house lawyer?” While sometimes this is a self-generated concern, it arises mostly because someone (the CEO, the General Counsel, or whomever) told the lawyer during an annual review or another setting that they need to be more “strategic” with their thinking. Sadly, that is typically about the extent of it, that is, “be more strategic. Now go forth and sin no more.” From personal experience, I can tell you that receiving such a command from your boss without more is about as useful as a mud fence in a rainstorm. But, as many in-house lawyers are learning, it is not enough to be an excellent lawyer with deep legal skills and institutional knowledge. That just gets you to the table. The business wants more out of its in-house legal department, especially from the general counsel and other senior members of the legal team. They want you to be “part of the business” and they want you to be “strategic.” Unfortunately, no one teaches you how to be strategic in law school – at least not when I was there. For most, you just sort of figure it out as you go along. That was my method. I cannot tell you that I figured out the magical incantation that makes you a strategic thinker, but I have learned many relevant lessons over the years. This edition of “Ten Things” shares my thoughts on how to become a strategic in-house lawyer:
As I mentioned in my last post (January 8), over the next few weeks I will dive deeper into some of the sample department “goals” I set out in that article. Today I will focus on this goal: “Build and retain extraordinary team with exceptional people.” I always put my “people goal” first because I truly believe that nothing gets done in legal unless you have top talent that is motivated and happy in their jobs. How do you keep and reward people so they stick around? The obvious answer is to pay them well, have a good performance bonus program in place, and let them share in equity plans. The problem is, for many reasons, it usually is not fully in your control to make any of these three things happen. For purposes of this article, I am going to assume that you are doing what you can for your team around salary, bonuses and equity and, instead, focus on some low-cost ways you can reward/recognize employees.
The beginning of any calendar year is always busy with key administrative tasks for an in-house legal department. My next several posts will deal with such items. One of the more daunting tasks (whether you are general counsel or not) is setting useful goals for the upcoming year. Legal departments do not always lend themselves to neatly setting goals like the business units, i.e., it can be difficult to measure “success” in legal vs. measuring profits and sales or setting key performance indicators (“KPI’s”). That said, setting goals for the department or yourself is important and a fresh opportunity to take stock of many things. I always approached yearly goal setting as, among other things, an opportunity to market the department (i.e., all the great stuff we were doing), get a deeper understanding of what was important to the business, and gather feedback on how the department could improve in the upcoming year. Meaning, don’t shirk the opportunity and think of goal setting as some type of pain-in-the-neck HR exercise you have to muddle through. Embrace the process as the more thought and effort you put into goal setting, the bigger the payoff. And, there will be a payoff for you and your team if done properly and with some enthusiasm.
It’s hard to recall a more disconcerting feeling than getting a copy of a lawsuit filed against your company. If you have no experience with litigation, this can be a panic-inducing moment. And no matter how experienced you are handling litigation, your stomach will start to flutter as you read through the allegations.
I was a litigator in private practice and I definitely saw my share of litigation, big and small as in-house counsel. Over the course of that time, I developed a standard list of “things to do” when a lawsuit came across my desk. I did this because it’s easy to forget some basic things you need to do up-front to put yourself in the best position to defend the claim. Below are ten things to do when your company gets sued (I have added links to additional resources in key spots).