Friday, November 25, 2016

18 Donuts and Attention to Detail

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving holiday.  I'm full of turkey, done with my black Friday shopping and was ready to get back to work.  Working for a small start up that is open most days of the year, we take turns playing the 'grown up' on site during slow times like the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Since I wasn't leaving town or hosting family, and being one of the newest members of the team, I volunteered to be the adult today.  I woke up early and got an extra long walk in, getting my 10,000 steps by 6:30 am.  Got ready and hit every green light on the way in.  I was in such a good mood, I even stopped to buy donuts for the few of us that were on the black Friday shift.  As I rolled into the parking lot around 9, I noticed there were only about 6 cars in the entire lot of the multi-tenant building.  Thinking it would be a really quiet day, I pulled out my donuts, balanced my tea as I tugged on the building door.  Locked.  I went around the other side - also locked.  I went to the front entrance, and it was also locked.

I had never thought to ask if the building would be closed for the day. I don't typically work in the building after hours so building access had never been an issue.  I have access to our offices within the building and VPN access for working from home when I need to pull a late night or get an early start.  The company is limited to the number of building access cards we're allowed to have, so we're particular about who gets them.  It's one of the obvious details that often get overlooked, because it's so obvious.  We think it a given and don't pay attention.  Focusing on the big stuff, the stuff that matters - the indemnification clause, the proper reps and warranties, the timing of the patent application or the marketing material disclosures.  We assume that the little things are taken care of by the process, by the administrators, or are the natural state of things.  Until we get locked out of the building juggling our tea and 18 donuts.

Because of my commute I had an understanding with my boss upon being hired that I wouldn't be working after hours at the office. It never occurred to the office manager that I would need one to work on the unofficial 'holidays' when the building is closed but the office is open.  So this morning, I stood at the door for a few minutes laughing at myself. And then I took my donuts home to the kids - giving some away to a panhandler on the way, because no one needs 18 donuts at home.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016

It’s that time of year again, time to contemplate the things in our lives for which we are thankful.    Every year the family creates a list of things that we’re grateful for – given the youth of some family members, toys and candy usually make the top of the list.  Given my fondness for champagne, so does bubbles.  But the thing we’re most thankful for are the members of our family – mom, dad, brothers, Nana, Papa, cousins, and the many friends with whom we share a bond stronger than blood.
  
This year has been one of ups and down and I’m more grateful than ever for the wonderful people in my life.  For old friends and new, I have been more than blessed with the love, mentorship, support, laughter, and encouragement from so many.  And for that I am truly thankful. 

As a legal blogger (of sorts), I also have to attest to my absolute dependence on technology and provide proper gratitude for the tools that make my job easier.  From my smartphone that keeps me connected 24/7 and allows me some semblance of balance in my life to the software that automates once manual processes that allows my team to shine, technology has had a major positive impact on my practice. 

I am also more than thankful that this election season is over.  I hope that my social media feeds become a friendlier place and I can go into the office without worrying about a fist fight breaking out over the latest twitter war or email leak. 

And because it’s my list, I’m thankful for bubbles.  What are you thankful for?

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Head up or head down?


Every couple of months you’ll see an article, presentation or infographic trying to define the line between a leader and a manager.  Often they’re full of platitudes like leaders listen more than they talk and surround themselves with “A” people.  One of my favorite useless platitudes is that leaders have their heads up while managers have their head down – meaning that a true leader will come up with ideas and delegate the execution to people more capable of pulling it off.  While those who have ‘only’ reached the manager level, will still keep their heads down focusing on the work right in front of them instead of thinking the big thoughts.

For many of us in small departments, it really isn’t a choice.  There’s just no one there to delegate to, or if there is, they are so far in the weeds that it’s not fair to pile more on them.  Of course that doesn’t relieve you of the obligation to think outside of the box and come up with innovative solutions to the problems your company is facing. 

So does that mean that we’re not leaders? Or all hope to developing leadership skills is lost?  Of course not.  Everyday leaders of all stripes are able to inspire others while getting their own jobs done well.  The trick is to know when to put your head down and when to look up.  Every day there is real work to be done.  And that’s what our company’s pay us to do.  Sure, they love the great ideas that increase efficiency or improve the bottom line, but they expect us to do our day jobs too. 

The first thing you lift your head up for is increasing the efficiency in your day job - contract management, process development, alternative fee arrangements, etc.  This gives some breathing room so that your ‘heads up’ time doesn’t just occur between the hours of midnight and 5 am. 

Once you’ve established that, you use what you’re learning from your ‘heads down’ time to inspire and innovate.  Your day job gives you unique insight into the challenges of multiple areas of the business.  For example, knowing what contracts are in the queue gives you a unique view into the direction the company is actually heading regardless of what is being said at the quarterly all hands.  Being able to raise your hand to call attention to a department entering into outsourcing agreements because they can’t meet unrealistic project deadlines can highlight the issues with the project.  It also gives you the opportunity to identify synergies between departments – IT has just contracted for a ticketing system that has a lot of the features that marketing is looking for in project management, have the teams talked?  Dealing with employment claims allows you insight into areas of the company culture that need improvement. 

The list goes on and on.  There’s a reason why a good general counsel is worth their weight in gold, and you don’t have to suck at your day job to get there.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Team Player or Team Doormat

I’ve recently been back in the market for a new job and one of the common questions I ask in the interview process is what happened to the last guy.  While there will always be spin on the part of an employer it sometimes be hard to discern if the reason he left was because he wasn’t a team player or because he refused to be the team doormat.  This becomes even more complicated in smaller companies where everyone wears multiple hats and does grunt work regardless of their status.  And it becomes even harder to self-identify if you are the said poor team player or doormat. 

So I’ve come up with a checklist to help a would be doormat out:
  1. If you’re asked to cover for an employee while they are out, even if it’s not purely legal in nature, you’re being asked to be a team player.  Frequently this will come from HR or other executive functions where sensitivity to the potential issues reduces the options and makes you the next best choice.
  2. If you’re asked to permanently handle routine non-legal matters that are heavily administrative or otherwise burdensome and your legal experience adds little or no value to the process, you may be a doormat.
  3. If you’re told budgets are tight so you’ll have to make your own copies and type up your own letters – suck it up and be a good team player.
  4. If you’re told budgets are tight so you can’t have a raise for the third time in three years yet co-workers are bragging about 5-6 figure bonuses or going on lavish "retreat" work trips, you might just be a doormat.
  5.  If the workload is increasing but in a haphazard manner, i.e. some additional contract work, some additional employment matters, a litigation matter once a year, etc.  You may be asked to step up and take on additional responsibility, which may translate into a few more hours per week.  This is what good team players do, until…
  6. If the workload has increased consistently over a decent period of time so that there is easily enough coherent work for another head (or two) to be added and you’re being asked to work double time, it may be time to find a better team to play for.


Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list – but hey, it’s my first post back.  As always, feel free to leave your own doormat examples in the comments.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

MIA

You might have noticed that things have been a bit slow on this blog.  And while it’s very un-like me to ever shut up for long, this page has been silent for far too long.  It’s been a crazy 18 months, both professionally and personally.  Mergers, integration, new jobs, kids starting school, buying a new house, health scares (everyone is fine), and just day to day life got in the way of sharing my multitude of unsolicited thoughts on all things in-house.  But, things are starting to die down, so I’ll be back to my prolific self in no time.  So for the one or two faithful readers still hanging on – stay tuned, and feel free to entertain yourselves in the comment section.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Public or Private?

Yesterday I participated in a panel at UT Law School with the intent to give the eager students a peek at a life of practicing in house.  One thing that came up a couple times in the discussion and a few more times after the discussion was officially over was the difference between practicing for a public vs a private company - and whether that difference was material.  And the determination? Well, as most answers in law go - it depends.

There's been a definite increase in regulations governing public companies in the past few years.  Counsel for a public company needs to be at least familiar with the rules even if they don't specialize in corporate work. And they're not alone; the responsibilities for compliance fall on legal, finance, and executive roles.  Many companies are even developing compliance departments with the sole purpose to marshal it all and keep everyone on point.  Which gives a little breathing room to the non-corporate in house counsel, but doesn't completely remove the added complexity of working for a public company.

There's also an increasing perception that practicing in a private company relieves an attorney of all burdens of knowing and following the required regulations for public companies; and consequently, completely unprepared to work for a public company.  I've seen it most predominately when a company is searching for a new (or first) GC.  Since I've never met a founder or a VC that doesn't dream of the huge IPO, even private companies want someone with public company experience for fear that one can't gain the necessary experience in a private company.

Of course most founders and VCs dreams of an IPO or big exit, so if you're working for a funded company you have to at least think about putting the controls in place that would ease that process. Additionally, in a funded company the investors will require many of the same type of controls be in place so they feel comfortable giving more money.  Moreover, the diligence process for selling a company in lieu of an IPO is often more in depth and a lot more time consuming than the diligence process for conducting an IPO. So an attorney can gain valuable experience even working at a private company.

That said, not all founders have big exit dreams.  Some dream of growing a company to a respectable size and serving their customer base for generations.  They want nothing more than to live a good life and leave a legacy to their families.  Those closely held companies don't usually take outside funding.  And they don't really care about following pointless process that don't add real value in at the moment.  They're often not interested in acquiring any other businesses and care more about the day to day transactions than corporate transactions.  A lawyer coming out of this environment won't be prepared to work for a public company without a good mentor to show them the way.

So all this goes to say, whether working in a public vs private company makes a material difference in either the day to day or your chances of getting that promotion often depend on the companies involved, the leadership requirements and whether or not you've got a good mentor.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Autism Awareness Month: The Lessons Continue

It's April. That means it's once again Autism Awareness month. I've made no secret of how Autism has affected my family and my career (I've written about it here and here); and once a year I try to do my part in raising awareness for those around me.  A part of that awareness is realizing that instead of attempting to get an autistic individual to conform to society, there are so many things we can learn from their unique perspective.  And since everyone seems to love a list, here's my top 3 things my son has taught me in the last year:

1. We all need a break sometimes. Kids that are diagnosed with autism (whose parents have decent insurance) get a ton of therapy.  My son has had between 10 and 30 hours of therapy a week since he was almost three.  This is in addition to school - he's in a special ed class which he attends for a little over 7 hours a day. That's a lot of demands to put on a kid. Hell, it's a lot of demands to put on an adult.  And at least once a year he starts having a lot of breakdowns and tears flow when he's asked to go to a therapy session or to school where before he was having fun.  He needs a break, so we take a week off.  He gets a week with no demands but to just be him.  It revives and refreshes him and he almost always has a big movement forward in his development shortly after he resumes.

Transfer that to the land of lawyers and see what kind of jumps in productivity you get if you take a break before you're totally burnt out.  Even in house where we're supposed to have this mythological "work-life-balance", we work 50-60 hours in a good week and routinely average 70-80 stressful hours.  Unlike many in private practice, a boon isn't often followed by a short break while we have to find the next project or client.  We can finish up that big transaction only to fall into the pile of work that was only being triaged and has now turned into a volcano about to explode.  There's always a reason to put off that vacation because there's so much to do.  Combine that with the fact that many of us with families don't do true vacations - we do 'be-responsible-for-everyone-in-a-location-other-than-home'.  Which is often even more stressful.  It's okay to need a real break.  Take a day and let the kids go to school.  Sit and read a trashy book.  Binge watch a show on Netflix you've never heard of before.  Let yourself actually relax and see how a refreshed brain can boost your productivity.

2. Celebrate the small stuff.  Yesterday LG told me about a dream he had about his favorite video game.  It seems silly to celebrate such a mundane conversation, but it was a milestone for us.  See, his autism makes it difficult for him to communicate things that aren't literal.  He's actually still struggling with communicating even those things.  But when he enthusiastically told me about a dream he had where there were the monsters and levels of his game and he was the hero it was like I was seeing a new kid.  We also celebrate when he names an emotion instead of having a meltdown.  "He makes me sad." is enough for a party in my house.  On the surface these seem like small things, but they add up to a very big picture.  And thinking of the little wins renews our faith that we'll get those big ones.

The same is true in the workplace.  Regardless of your department, celebrating that little win can make a big difference in the morale and the engagement of your team.  We don't win big cases everyday, but getting that customer to finally sign the agreement without gutting all the protections is a win.  Getting 90% of the employees to complete that required compliance training on time is a win.  Talking the head of whatever department out of that stupid thing is a win.  Celebrate them.  Realize that the small things matter as much, if not more than, the big things.  They add up to make your team a team of winners.  Or if you ignore them and only celebrate the big wins, you'll have a team of nobodies with one or two 'producers' who get all the credit.

3.  Nothing beats hard work.  Not everyone is born with the natural ability to hit a ball out of the park, perfectly play Mozart or write the perfect blog post.  There are those who just holding a conversation is difficult.  One of the things I have learned from my son and his classmates is that those kids work so hard at things we take for granted.  And to a one, they are achieving things we weren't sure was possible in August.

The same is true for lawyers.  We're not all born superstars.  Most of us are of above average intelligence, which served us well to get into and graduate from law school.  But when you're in the board room with a couple of serial entrepreneurs, your founder who was smarter at 12 than you are now, and whatever other financial gurus the investors send to represent them, you don't always feel so smart.  Numbers may not come naturally to you.  Communicating in business speak may not come naturally to you.  Thinking of the business as a business and not a series of legal issues may not come naturally to you.  But all of these things can be mastered with a little hard work.  I've seen very talented lawyers get their butts handed to them my mediocre lawyers who spent time learning the business and digging into the issues.  Don't be afraid to work hard and don't be intimidated by those ivy league degrees at fortune 100 legal departments.  Odds are they haven't worked as hard as you have to understand your business.  So when they try to rely on their size or revenue and you push back with the truths of your industry, you can get more wins than you think.  And that's worth celebrating.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Top 5 Must Do's for the New to In House Lawyer

I've written about what I wished I learned in law school to make me a better business partner (What I wish I learned in law school); what outside counsel should do to win/keep my business (10 Commandments); and what the first in house lawyer should do to set up a successful department (Top 5 Must Do's For the First In House Counsel).  Lately I've been asked a lot about what the transitioning lawyer should think about.  How do you make the move from firm to in house?  And once there, what do you need to do to be successful?  So here's my Top 5 for the New to In House Lawyer.

1. Drop the ego at the door. One of the first pieces of advice given to attorneys making the jump from firm to corporate america is to remember that you are going from a profit maker to a cost center.  It seems common sense, but you wouldn't believe how many people fail to realize what this looks like in reality.  No, you most likely won't have your own admin/secretary.  If you're lucky you can share one with the department, but no she won't make your lunch plans or type up that letter for you.  She has her own job and it has very little to do with you.  And when it comes time for bonus, stock options, etc., unless you're the GC, don't expect that you'll be valued very high in the hierarchy of the company.  Sales people and the developers making the company's best selling products come before you.  Don't get jealous - if they do their jobs well it means more money for everyone.  Your job now is to support them.  Help the company figure out how to make money.  In the end everyone wins, but your contribution won't be publicly recognized very often.

2. Get to know your company and industry. As a firm lawyer, you have many clients.  You may specialize in a particular area of law and/or industry.  But you will quickly learn that you know very little about how the company actually runs.  You need to know not just the easily researched facts, but the specifics and nuances that come to play in your particular industry. Some industries have a frenemy approach to competition.  Friendly when needed, but always watching the other guy.  Others can be outright hostile, the competition is evil.  Know which one you're in.  Get to know how your company operates within the ecosystem.  You should know how the product works; what the customer sees when interacting with your company; and most of all where the money comes from.  Without this, you'll never understand the big picture strategy.

3. Be prepared to show your worth. Hourly billing may be over but tracking isn't. More and more legal teams are being asked to justify the cost.  Executive teams and boards love metrics - dollars saved in outside spending, number of contracts reviewed monthly, average turn around times, reduction in claims filed, etc. It's a simple enough concept, and makes total sense.  When you can show the people with the purse strings how hard your team is working they're more likely to give up a little extra at bonus time or allow a new hire even when things are tight.  However, it also means that all members of the team need to track things.  Sometimes, technology makes this easy.  Contract management software will help with some of those stats.  But other things just have to be tracked and communicated the old fashioned way.  It sucks to track time spent on a project, but without it there isn't an easy way to justify that new technology or new hire that would ease the load.

4. Join ACC or a similar in house community. Congratulations. You no longer have to generate business like the old days.  And because of that, it becomes very easy to keep your head down, get the job done and then go home to the family.  It's easy to get isolated from the legal community.  But you do so at your own risk.  First, you no longer have a firm full of specialist at your fingers that you can ask a quick question to see if you're on the right track. It's harder to find a mentor who will advise you when the VP of Marketing starts being unreasonable. And when a few years down the line you need to find a new job, you have no idea where to start.  An in house community will provide an easy way to network with other people just like you, usually at reasonable times that don't impact too much on that precious work-life balance that you left the firm for.  Most, like ACC, will also offer online resources that give you a quick reference for that odd problem that everyone faces once, but only once.  And when it's time to start looking for a new job, you'll be amazed at how supportive they'll be sending you opportunities and making introductions to hiring GCs/CFOs/CEOs for positions that will never be posted.

5. Learn to embrace risk. Every company has it's own risk profile.  When you're outside looking in you tend to provide a full laundry list of potential risk to the client and let them figure out what matters.  After all, you're the lawyer not the business decision maker.  And then you move in house and you find that the business decision maker wants a yes or no and very rarely has time for a long explanation of the answer.  So you'll have to learn the risk appetite of your company and it's particular managers.  You'll have to learn how to read the decision maker to know if they're looking for a yes or a no to the question posed.  You'll have to learn how to be okay with the fact that not everything will be passed through legal before it goes to market.  And you'll have to do all this while still keeping as bright a line as you can between you the lawyer and business decisions being made.  It's something we all struggle with, even after years of being in house.  So good luck. And welcome to the in house community.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Regional Work Ethic?

It often seems like themes emerge in my professional conversations.  I'll spend two months getting asked the same question by a dozen different people.  And then I write about it here and the next theme seems to emerge.  And staying true to that tradition, I've had the same conversation with several people at a variety of events over the last 3-4 months.  It seems that for better or worse there is a perception of regional work ethic.

After an article in came out about Amazon's lack of work life balance for its developers it became a hot topic around the tech world.  Should developers complain about a lack of work life balance when they make more money than doctors or lawyers - often with better perks?  Or are we pushing these human beings beyond their limits all in the name of productivity and greed?  I don't claim to have an answer to those questions, but am interested in a spin off from that initial conversation - are there regional differences in work ethic?  Does a developer in silicon valley work harder for their dollar than one in Austin or Atlanta?  Do the lawyers?
My first reaction was a knee jerk - no, absolutely not.  We work just as hard in Austin as those California guys do.

But when I truly reflect on my experience since moving here nine years ago, I have to question whether that's true or not.  I 'grew up' as a lawyer working for a tech company right after the dot com bust. We worked hard and long hours.  I remember having a conversation with my GC at the time as to why my hours in the office had dropped (to 60-65 hours per week).  I was studying for the Texas bar and had moved farther, so spent more time in traffic.  Which was no excuse, so I got a work issued laptop and started working from home in the evenings.  A new lawyer wasn't added until we had at least a regular 70+ hours of important work per week that wasn't getting done.  Less than that and we should figure out how to make it work.  And since we were a tech company, we were not even close to being the hardest working employees.  Our dev crew was always there when I walked in the door and most were there when I left for the evening.

Now contrast that with my experience at tech companies in Austin.  During the summer I get to work around 7:30-8am.  The office is empty.  I leave around 5:30, the office is empty.  I work evenings from home to finish up anything that didn't get done during the work day, and often have to wait until the next day for a response.  As I was trained, I keep an SLA of 24 hours for responses to my internal clients, with a goal of less than 2 weeks for turn around of the actual work product.  I find most legal teams here find that SLA too ambitious.  Even the "big law" lawyers here seem to have a semblance of 'work-life balance'.  And often, the lawyers are working harder than the devs.  So I'm beginning to see how a California entrepreneur may see a regional work ethic effect.

At first I chalked it up to generational differences, we all hear about the millennials demanding more balance from their employers.  But the big law guys aren't millennials.  And most of the devs I work with aren't either.  And then there is my interaction with other regions.  I've had the opportunity to work with devs and lawyers in Atlanta, Maryland, and Chicago in the last 18 months.  Chicago seems to be always on.  Maryland and Atlanta not so much.  They make my dev team look like workaholics.  So maybe there is something to this regional thing?  What do you say to an entrepreneur who says s/he can't get the same work ethic outside of the valley?


Monday, August 10, 2015

Suits

One of my guilty pleasures is unwinding with the hubs watching bad tv.  One of the shows I love is Suits.  For those who haven't seen it, the show is set in a law firm where one of the new promising associates is a complete fraud having never actually gone to law school. The hook is that he is actually a really good lawyer - with the help of a few very qualified mentors in the firm.  (None of this could ever happen in real life for a number of reasons - but it makes for great late night tv with the hubs.)

So why am I writing about Suits?  Well, last weeks' episode hit a nerve.  A client asked the associate to speed through an acquisition in two weeks.  My reaction was, that's crazy even for tv!  Which was similar to the reaction of one of the kid's mentors, who said that you couldn't due adequate diligence in two weeks.

What struck a nerve was the request.  How many times has someone walked into your office and asked for something to be done yesterday.  Usually under the cover of there's a huge amount of money to be made or saved - but only if we complete the project yesterday.  There's a lot of pressure on the in house lawyer in that situation.  As a lawyer, you have to meet your professional responsibilities and provide adequate legal representation to your client.  But as an employee, you also have a fiscal responsibility to the company to not tank a deal by being overzealous. So how do you walk the line?

A lot of knowing when to hold the line and when to be flexible comes with experience. Over time you learn which of your sales people is always pushing that "million dollar deal" two days before end of quarter, and when your product team wants to launch the new release without proper QA testing to hit that particular calendar date (usually tied to their bonus or some market trend).  You also learn to read the tea leaves to know when something really is a bet the business deal and when an extra week or month may slow the deal but won't materially effect the value.

And sometimes you just don't know whether the crisis is real or not.  In those cases you have to weigh the risk of missing something material in the rush or losing the value to the company of whatever the requests are being made.  As in Suits, sometimes the risk isn't worth it.  The upside may be great, but missing something material in diligence can be worse. And sometimes, you can give a little on the audit provision and get that sales contract finalized in time for end of quarter without any real adverse affects on the company.  If you're really not sure, ask your GC.  If you are the GC and still unsure, talk your concerns out with your exec team.  Your CFO will be in a great position to advise on whether the value is as real as it's being portrayed.  Your COO will be able to help you assess whether your compliance concerns are material or not.  At the end of the day you have to remember that you are a lawyer first and employee second.  And sometimes the best advice isn't "No", it's just "Slow Down."