law legal inhouse in-house department management

How to be a Practical In-House Lawyer

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.[1]  This edition of “Ten Things” brings the cure and discusses how to be a practical in-house lawyer:

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Ten Things: Best Blogs (And Other Media) for In-House Counsel (2021 Edition)

Well, here we are at the end of another year.  I hope all of you are having a wonderful holiday season.  As usual, I like to take a few minutes every December to reflect back on the year and take stock of where we are with the “Ten Things” blog. It’s been a busy year for me, but I have enjoyed every minute of it.  I have published my fifth book, Showing the Value of the Legal Department: More Than Just a Cost Center, I have been a guest on several podcasts (thanks!), I have put on a large number of presentations (live and via webinar), and – of course, I keep cranking out the blog.  Somehow, we’ve already started “Ten Things” year number eight!  As my mom often asks, “How the hell did that happen?”  And I am excited for 2022, with plenty of things to write about for at least one more year.  That said, I always love getting (and writing about) suggestions from you, so feel free to send them my way.

As usual, we will end the year with what traditionally has been a post about the ten best legal blogs for in-house counsel.  I enjoy finding and reading the work of great writers, especially the up-and-coming “next gen.”[1]  They have a lot to say and it’s worth reading! Like last year, I am going to shake things up a bit and add non-traditional bloggers, i.e., podcasts and LinkedIn writers to my list.  I am also going to (finally) list my “Top Ten All-Time Hall of Fame Legal Blogs,” just to give some love to blogs I am still reading after many years.[2]  Sometimes you just have to reward the wonderfulness of sticking around (right, Boomer?)!  So, with no further ado, this edition of “Ten Things” sets out my 2021 list of best blogs (and other media) for in-house counsel:

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Ten Things: Taking Advantage of Opportunities to Build Your In-House Career

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:

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Ten Things: How In-House Lawyers Can Reduce Stress (in an Overly Stressful Job)

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:

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Ten Things: Getting Performance Reviews Right

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[1] – 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…)

Ten Things: Essential Issues for In-House Counsel (2021 Edition)

Welcome back, everyone!  I hope your holidays were joyful and restful (and COVID-free).  I was able to make a bit of a dent in the next book, so the ABA goons are leaving me alone… for now.  I did have some time to squeeze in the first “Ten Things” blog of 2021.  As usual, and like I did when I was general counsel, I like to start the year by sitting back and just thinking about all the crazy shit going on out there in the world and how it might impact my company and the legal team.  When I was in-house, I would use this exercise to help me plan out the year, set goals, and – most importantly – set some tripwires for starting to measure and balance risks to the organization.  So, I have been reading a lot, talking with in-house lawyers, and generally trying to figure out what’s hot and what’s not.  No surprise but it looks like a lot of last year’s list is still pretty relevant (click here to read the 2020 list).  But, there are definitely some new players on the field.  And, the idea here isn’t to figure out every possible thing that can cause problems or provide opportunity – that’s impossible (See COVID-19 for more details).  Rather, it is about doing your best to find a lens to help you anticipate the problems you can anticipate so that the issues that inevitably come out of nowhere are easier to deal with or do not hurt as much.  In other words, looking ahead to maximize value creation and minimize value destruction.  Also, you should know that my New Year’s resolution for 2021 is to be a bit more pithy with the blog.  We’ll see how long that lasts (maybe not even to the end of this one).  Anyway, let’s start the car and hit the road!  This edition of “Ten Things” takes a look at my predictions of the essential issues for in-house lawyers in 2021:

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Ten Things: More Effective 1:1 Meetings (Manager View)

In my last post, I dealt with the importance and effectiveness of 1:1 meetings from the viewpoint of the employee.[1]  As promised, I will now discuss 1:1 meetings from the viewpoint of the manager. The first thing you should do is go back and re-read the last post because pretty much everything on that list applies to the manager side of the equation as well, either in terms of understanding where your employee is coming from or common sense tactics that make for better 1:1 meetings regardless of which side of the table you sit.  Second, if you have never had any training on how to conduct 1:1 employee meetings do not feel bad.  You are not alone!  Coming up through the ranks of in-house lawyers, my only experience with 1:1 meetings were the ones I attended as an employee.  Some managers were really good at it and some were pretty bad.  Since most companies don’t spend a lot of time training people (especially in-house lawyers) on how to manage people, when I became a manager and started holding my own 1:1 meetings the key, for me, was to mimic the things I thought prior managers did well and not do the things I thought sucked.  Over time, and with a little research on the side, I like to think I developed a process for pretty effective 1:1 meetings (though if you worked for me in the past you may disagree!). Regardless, since it is my blog, I get to at least pretend those 1:1’s were awesome.  And now it’s time to share that big bag of awesomeness with you. This edition of “Ten Things” shares my tips on how to host effective 1:1 meetings with your direct reports:

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Ten Things: Essential Issues for In-House Counsel (2020 Edition)

When I was a kid there was a Saturday morning cartoon show called Sealab 2020.  I remember thinking that was a long, long way off and wondering how old I would be when 2020 rolled around – – and whether by then there would really be a giant lab on the bottom of the sea with 250 oceanauts fighting sea monsters and battling pollution.  But, here we are; it’s 2020!  I am officially old(ish) and, sadly, sea monsters go un-battled under the ocean (unless you count Wicked Tuna), but pollution on (and in) the high seas runs rampant.   Triple bummer.  What does this have to do with “Ten Things” you ask?  Nothing other than a little nostalgia and the “2020” reference as this is my first post of the New Year.  As usual, we’ll start the year with my list of essential issues for in-house lawyers to pay attention to over the coming months.  When I was general counsel, I started every year thinking about the “big picture” and what risks (good or bad) might be coming down the pike that I needed to be aware of as an in-house lawyer.  It’s not an easy task as there is so much “out there” that can have an impact on your company and legal department.  Still, it’s better to try to anticipate some than to ignore all.  So, once again, I have sat down, read a lot, and thought hard about different issues that will likely have some substantial impact – positive or negative – on in-house lawyers and for which a little bit of preparation or pro-active attention can make you a hero vs. someone caught flat-footed.  With the usual caveat that I have no crystal ball showing me what’s important, here my “Ten Things” 2020 edition of essential issues for in-house counsel:

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Ten Things – How to Read a Contract

I recently heard from someone I worked with when I was General Counsel of Travelocity.  She was on the business side and worked on a lot of contracts.  She reached out because she remembered an article I had written and posted on the legal department intranet site about “how to read contracts.”  It was something I wrote for the business so they would be better prepared to work with my team on contracts.  Apparently, she still used it over ten years later!  But, she had lost her only copy and wanted to share it with some of her team at her new company so she could coach them up.  She reached out to ask me if I still had a copy that I could share with her.  I did and sent it over to her.  Now she is teaching a new generation of her sales team how to read contracts.  Reading back through it, however, got me thinking about the fact that not all in-house lawyers have a good understanding of how to read a contract – though we would all hate to admit it.  It is not a skill they teach in law school (or least didn’t when I was there, i.e., I never saw an actual contract until I started working at a law firm).  Instead, law schools focus more on contract theory and stuff like that.  Which is all well and good until you’re faced with your first 50-page agreement and realize all that theory isn’t going to help you much as you start to wade through something that reads like a map written in ancient Greek.

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Ten Things: Ten KPIs All In-House Legal Departments Should Track

I have been struggling to write this post about KPIs.  It’s taken way longer than it should have – with several starts and stops.  First, should it be KPI or KPIs?  Just like the debate over RBI and RBIs in baseball, passions run hot on this point.  I think “KPIs” sounds better so I’m going with that.  Second – and slightly more important than the KPI/KPIs controversy – KPIs don’t work particularly well for in-house legal departments.  Actually, I had this eureka moment a long time ago when I was first asked as General Counsel to provide “SMART”[1] objectives for the legal department for an upcoming calendar year.  I literally had no clue what they (HR) were talking about.  And when I asked them for some examples, it was clear they had no clue either – at least when it came to developing SMART objectives for the legal department.  For other parts of the business, SMART objectives seemed obvious and worked great.  For legal, not so much. But, I (and my team) eventually figured it out and designed goals that were a little squishy – “SMART-ish” – but to which no one objected.  You can see some examples of this in an older post titled “Setting Goals for the Legal Department.”

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