Small victories

So, I’ve been struggling about whether or not I should continue to write this blog. My last post – at least two or three weeks ago – was a question of anonymity and how I would feel if my identity were tied to this blog. Given that I practice in a field where confidentiality is of utmost importance, it’s been a hard decision. I can’t – and will not – provide details of anything in particular I’m working on for any client, but using broad brush strokes, I feel I can tell my story without risk of divulging details that could, well, get me disbarred.

Which would suck.

So, I started my new gig 3 weeks ago today. I can’t believe it’s been that long. It’s been only 2 months, 1 day and about 6 hours since my old boss sat me down and informed me that “the Board” had decided “to go another route with the General Counsel position.” (I use quotes because I don’t remember exactly what was said – I was in that sort of what-the-fuck-is-happening-right-now situation – but that’s pretty close.)  Let’s just say it’s been quite the whirlwind.

First, I’m getting a hang of the billing system and the document management system, and have figured out how to find templates of what I need. Maybe not as quickly as I’d like, but as I poke around searching the system, I’m more easily finding what I need.

Second, I finished the first draft my first memorandum in support of a dispositive motion in 16 years, which required good ol’ roll up the sleeves sort of case law research and analysis the likes of which I hadn’t done in a while. I remember the last time – one of the only times – I had to do it in my in-house job and had the same sort of “aha, I enjoy this” feelings when I figured this one out.

Part and parcel of drafting this memorandum was remembering how to properly cite and quote case law, the record and exhibits. Something that really was second nature so long ago that my son, who will be in high school in August, wasn’t even born yet, took a few hints and memory jogs to get started, but I figured it out (and remembered it) fairly quickly. Funny how accomplishing again many years later what once was so simple can give you a certain silly sort of giddy excitement when you realize you can do it again.

Third, I remembered how much I enjoyed crafting a good legal argument. The research, the analysis, finding the right words, the right phrases, anticipating how the other side will argue against my position – it’s as much fun as I remember. I don’t know if I lot of other lawyers feel this way – I’m sure the best litigators do – but I had forgotten the sheer excitement of the intellectual battle of litigation.

Fourth, I’ve still been doing work for my old employer/current client. It’s reassuring that there’s something out there in the legal field that I can do nearly with my eyes closed. However, being able to do just some of it and really dig into it and analyze it rather than being the only lawyer at a multi-company enterprise that cleared $200,000,000 in revenues that has to put out new fires every 30 seconds is refreshing. And, it allows me to really focus on the work and focus on perfecting it, when I was stretched so thin before that I didn’t have the resources to really nail it.

I’m still trying to figure out the best way to secure my own clients. I’ve met with and spoken with a couple of other attorneys who found themselves in very similar predicaments – long in-house stretches, followed by a “see ya” – and picked their brains on marketing oneself as a freshly out of an in-house gig lawyer back in private practice. One of these guys I had retained several times as outside counsel on some specific work when I was in-house and who I very highly respect. He asked me what I could, right now, sit down and do a 1 hour webinar or CLE on.  I have some ideas on that, but it’s still sort of rolling around my head. I’d need some technical and financial support from the firm to do so, and I’m not sure who would watch it, but it is a great idea.

I was also able to contribute to an issue that has been percolating around the local bar for a few years. I was asked to take a cut at drafting some legislation, which I’ve done PLENTY of before. Unlike the rust-shaking experience of case law research and analysis, I was able to bang out not one, but two pieces of proposed legislation that were, in my own humble opinion, pretty kick ass. And I volunteered to personally lobby for them when the time comes. I even got an “atta boy” from my supervising attorney in an email to several other shareholders and associates in the firm (although I’m slightly embarrassed at having a “supervising attorney” after 20 years in practice.)

Small victories, all.  But the gut knot is still there. And the trepidation of “what the hell am I doing” is still there. And the mystery of where do I fit in with the firm feeling. And looking at the younger shareholders and realizing that I’m perhaps 7 – 10 years older than they are and now they’re my bosses. And looking at the 2 – 3 year associates and realizing that in some ways, I have less experience at some things than they do.

But then I remember that I handled expertly and completely by myself the legal and compliance needs of a multi-company enterprise which had $200,000,000 in revenues (2015) with no dedicated legal assistant, no other lawyers, and two paralegals who had full time duties doing things other than being my assistant. Recent law department benchmarking studies show that companies with under $100,000,000 in revenues – half the size of my old employer – have an average of 2.3 lawyers on their in-house staff, while companies with revenues between $100,000,000 and $1 BN averaged nearly 5 in-house lawyers on staff. So, basically, I was doing the work of between 2 – 5 lawyers by myself for over a decade and a half.  I can hold my head up high when I remember that.

So, after 3 weeks, I won’t say all is hunky-dory. I’m facing the prospect of working on discovery responses – again, something I haven’t done outside of the in-house atmosphere in over 16 years – but with the knowledge that, hell, it’s not like I haven’t done it before and once I do it the first time, yeah, I’ll get that one under my belt.

Small victories are better than none, right?

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Anonymity and honesty

When I decided to write this blog, I did so with the intent to remain anonymous. Living and working in a small community, it’s vital that I maintain some “space” between me and the blog. I need an outlet to share my thoughts and perhaps help somebody else out (and perhaps receive some thoughts and ideas from cyberspace), but I fear this may not be the correct outlet to do so.  If anyone connects me and this blog, it’s very easy to connect the dots of where I used to be and where I am now. I can’t share my feelings and thoughts if I can’t remain anonymous.

Decisions, decisions.

Technology! Technology everywhere!

What an eye-opening day. I had no idea how far law firm back office technology had advanced in the past, oh, decade and a half.

I’ve been using Westlaw for my entire legal career, but in my last job it was pretty much restricted to basic statute and regulation research. The new job will require much deeper legal research and analysis than the old job. In the blur of my re-introduction to Westlaw as it applies to private legal practice today, I was AMAZED at how much it actually can do FOR YOU.  The depth and breadth AND analysis of research it does now is leaps and bounds over what it used to do, oh, a decade and a half ago.  (End Westlaw commercial.) Now, can I actually figure out how to do by myself what the 15 minute online blur of a rep was trying to show me?  Maybe not right now, but I can figure it out (or call for some free training.)

Document management. Electronic document management. Crazy. You can search briefs, motions, discovery, contracts, real estate docs, and so many other legal docs that other attorneys have previously drafted and, well, copy their work to whatever extent you need to.  As I was reminded, never recreate the wheel when you don’t have to. (Also good for the client.)  “Back in my day” (said like a grumpy old man), you had to walk around and ask every attorney if they’d ever drafted a such and such document before. If they could remember whether they did, you had to find a hard copy of it and had to re-type the parts you needed. Or, even better, you could reference your own work and use it over again. But, the ability to research EVERYBODY’S work for examples of what you need? Egad! Who knew such magical technology existed!

Electronic billing records. Most lawyers bitch about billing. When you ask  in-house counsel what they like about being in-house, not having to record their hours is always on the list.  But, when you can just enter them electronically and not have to write them out by hand or manually calculate them, wow, it makes billing almost…fun? (And I had forgotten how tracking your day in increments of 6 minutes actually makes you far more accountable to yourself and prevents time wasting. But, that’s beside the point.)

Unrelated to technology, but probably more important – I have an actual assistant again. I haven’t had a dedicated legal assistant in 16+ years. I’ve borrowed paralegal/analysts to do work that an assistant would do – or I just did it myself. My new assistant – who is fantastic – keeps having to remind me to let her do things that I’ve been doing myself for 16+ years.  Funny thing, I still feel bad when I ask her to do something and she just laughs at me.

On a good note, I sent my first legal representation proposal letter today. I never had my own client when I was a young associate before I went in-house. I’m excited to at least have the chance to pitch my skills to a new client after having the same single client for 16+ years.  And, if I do happen to land them for this project, I actually have other lawyers around me who can help. Who knew?

Is this what life is like when you’re NOT a solo practitioner with one client?  Is this what it’s like when you’re not the dreaded in-house counsel who nobody wants to talk to and whose primary role is to be that person who gets blamed when things don’t go perfectly?  Did I miss out on this? Hmm. Things got interesting today. Still stressful as hell, but interesting. Stay tuned.

Day 2

Today was my second day back in private practice. Needless to say, my head is spinning. After over a decade and a half of the same routine of being a solo practitioner with one client that provided steady and predictable work, I feel like a fish out of water.

Billable hours.  Finding work to do.  Finding new clients. Remembering how to do things that were second nature before you went in-house. Document management. Working for a small company instead of a big one. Being one of many lawyers instead of the only one. Trying NOT to multi-task because you can’t multi-task and steadily bill hours (when the entire life of a solo GC is multi-tasking all day long!) Locking yourself out of the damn parking garage because you didn’t know that you needed the swipe card to get in and out and left it in the car. Having lunch delivered because you don’t have time go to get lunch.

Most of all, trying to figure out where I fit in. As a solo practice GC, I was “the guy.” If somebody had a legal question, they stopped by my office or called me or sent me an email. I was the problem solver. The work, at least after a couple of years, wasn’t complex. When you’re the only in-house lawyer at a small company in a narrow industry, a large part of your job is determining when to hire outside counsel who have more in depth knowledge of an area and it’s in your company’s best interests to hire that counsel for specialized advice. No lawyer can know everything. Most lawyers are really good in their practice specialties.  You don’t ask your GP doc to do brain surgery, right?  As a solo GC of a small company, you have to know *this much* about THAT MANY areas of law, but in reality you can only specialize in one area (mine was compliance.)

Now, as one of many lawyers who all seem to have a specialty at which they are very good (even the young associates), I’m trying to figure out how to fit in. I feel like a GP doc in a practice of specialists.  At least I was helpful today when I could explain to the group in a marketing meeting what a GC looks for when they are hiring outside counsel. I tried to express what I felt the firm and the attorneys could do to better market themselves and the firm to find more business from those people who are the ones who hire them – often GC’s or other in-house counsel. At the very least, I provided a semi-outsider’s view of how the firm is (or isn’t) perceived or known by people in the community.  So, at least there’s that. One small victory, I suppose.

Lawyer on Restart

I sit here, a 20-year lawyer, less than 48 hours after my final day as an solo practitioner, in-house counsel with a small company headquartered in the most remote city in America. In less than 72 hours, I will be rejoining the same law firm where I started in my legal career first as a summer associate and then an Associate Attorney after a clerkship.

To say there are butterflies, a ton of trepidation, sleepless nights, a lack of appetite, and a mix of excitement, fear, and outright panic would be a drastic understatement. I feel like after 20 years, I’m starting my legal career over again. Hence, a Lawyer on Restart.

How did I get here? I don’t even know how where to start to explain. Given that I am a very lineal thinker, starting at the beginning is probably appropriate.

I was born and raised in a large metro area in the mid-Atlantic/south. My father was a surgeon. A hard working, very driven, well respected doctor who owned his own practice. He worked long hours, lots of on-call nights, performed surgery every Wednesday morning, and played a lot of tennis.

Until I was 11, Mom was your classic 1970’s stay at home mom. The station wagon, the house in the suburbs, dinner on the table every night, driving the carpools to the bus stop and sports.

Right after I turned 11, my parents divorced. I could write another blog about that, but it’s not important to this story.

From first grade until halfway through my senior year in high school (that’s another story), I went to school at a small private school.  The work was intellectually challenging and you were definitely pushed. It was academically competitive and you were expected to end up at an elite private college (preferably Ivy League) or at least a top public school.  Luckily, I was accepted by the latter.

When I say “luckily,” as noted above, I made a mid-Senior year “poor decision” that resulted in leaving the small, culturally homogeneous private school and a senior class of less than 100 for a relatively rough-and-tumble public high school of 1700 kids.  It was a pretty stressful 6 months before graduation.

From what I found out later, I wouldn’t have gotten in to the college I attended absent the Headmaster of the private school’s help, given what had just happened. This was one of my first lessons of “it’s not what you know, but who you know.”

Why am I blogging about all this?  I’ve been researching the internet for stories and advice for lawyers who have spent many years in-house who move back into private legal practice. Let’s just say there aren’t many of those stories out there. It is drilled into your head from the beginning of law school (and even before that) that lawyers are supposed to aspire to certain pinnacles of the practice – a judge, a partner in a large law firm, Chief DA/Prosecutor, or the General Counsel of a company.  When you reach one of those, you never go back – that’s where you’re supposed to stay and where you’re supposed to be forever. Those are the “greenest grasses” in the legal world and everybody does (and should) want those jobs. The money and/or prestige are found there. And that’s what law school and being a lawyer is for – money and/or prestige. You always are supposed to go towards those – never back.

But what happens when you have to go backwards? What happens when the GC job goes away? What happens when, after 20 years, you become a “Lawyer on Restart?”  Well, stick around and let’s find out together.