Thursday, June 28, 2012

Boring guests

The best lawyers to go have drinks with or invite to a dinner party are employment lawyers from the big firms.  They have the best stories because people are crazy.  Employees are crazy.  And sometimes, employers are crazy.  Firm lawyers can tell these great stories about employees who try to run over customers in the parking lot or employers who want to sue an employee for misrepresentation because she happens to be pregnant and didn’t tell him during the interview process (both hilarious stories I’ve heard from colleagues). 

The most boring lawyers?  Easy, that’s us, the in house lawyers.  We can’t talk about anything fun.  Firm lawyers can take out all identifying information so their stories are just from “a client” from years ago, with no way of telling which one.  In house lawyers only have one client.  Unless you’ve hopped around a lot, you may have only had 2-3 “clients” in the last decade.  It’s not hard to figure out who you’re talking about and therefore you just can’t talk.  Telling stories out of school would often result in a breach of confidentiality if not privilege, and is the height of unprofessionalism.  Not that we’re not tempted, but it’s just not worth it.

The real victim in all of this confidentiality stuff is really the spouse.  The thing my husband hates most about my job (besides the hours and the fact that I dream about work more than I dream about him…) is the fact that I have no good answers to “how was your day?” when I come home from work.  Sometimes we’ll talk about office politics and who pissed who off or who really shined in a meeting, but let’s face it – it’s all really just gossip and fluff.  I can’t tell him what’s really got me all wound up (or even what’s in those dreams) until it becomes public knowledge, if ever.  We’ve been together long enough that he just accepts it, but I know that secretly, he sometimes wishes I was an employment lawyer from a big firm so that I could keep him entertained over dinner.  

Monday, June 25, 2012

In House In The House

Today's post comes from a talented friend who has had the unconventional experience of being an in house lawyer working remotely.  Sarah Tuchler McElvaney is assistant General Counsel at Deltek, Inc., a Virginia-based software and services firm specializing in providing information and tools geared towards project-based businesses.  She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, two children, and co-worker dog Abby.

This month marks my 7th anniversary of working exclusively from home as in-house counsel.  I am frequently asked how I got this gig and what it takes to get one like it.  Getting my first telecommuting opportunity was based on a set of unique circumstances that would be hard to orchestrate (a GC about to announce his resignation, a couple pioneers in the group having done it successfully before me).  But after three years in that job and seven years with the company, I had also established myself as a known quantity within the department; I like to think that helped, too.  There was nothing to stop my employer from letting me go if I didn’t pull my weight or deliver on expectations.  It probably also didn’t hurt that I was the lowest paid attorney in the department.  I was insanely inexpensive when taking my salary and volume of work product into consideration.  Add the reduced costs by releasing my office real estate and one less person using office printers, internet, office electricity, phone, coffee, parking, etc, and it seems like a no-brainer. (Note: these have never been reimbursed expenses for me but of course are required for me to perform by duties.)

You probably dream up the positive aspects as you envision yourself walking in your fuzzy slippers from your bed to your laptop on your sofa.  And I’m not going to pretend telecommuting not a great benefit, but there are some negatives. 
         First, there is a much smaller separation between work and the rest of life. For me these days, the work day ends when I have to leave to pick up kids from daycare, but before kids, it didn’t end until I ran out of energy. I was always on, day and night, weekends and holidays.  While great for the employer, it’s not so great for the employee’s work/life balance.  It also establishes an expectation of immediate response times and that expectation is very difficult to change. I still work the occasional late night after the kids are in bed but I try hard not to.
      Second, you can easily become a loner.  I have to make a concerted effort to get out of the house a couple times a week to interact with people. I “talk” to people on IM and email, and of course spend lots of time on the phone, but not having any physical interaction with colleagues or friends can be very isolating. 
         Can physical separation from the leadership team have an impact on your career development? It depends on your company’s leadership team and company culture, but I would say quite possibly. There’s something about face time that seems to provide an advantage over remote work even if you put in more hours than everyone else. You’re also not there when someone pops by with a question.  Out of sight can mean out of mind. It’s not fair, in my opinion, so consider the impact telecommuting might have on your career path and whether it fits your priorities or plans. 
         Developing relationships with colleagues and others in your company is a little more challenging when you’re not physically present.  When you don’t get to talk daily about your kids’ accomplishments, your dog’s latest antics, your spouse’s snoring, or compliment a friend on their cool new boots, you just don’t make the same connections as easily or as deeply as you do when you sit down next to someone every day.  You don’t get the vibe of the office.  You have to make an extra effort to reach out and talk to people to stay connected.

Starting off with a remote employee is scary for an employer unless they know you well because until they know they can trust you, they’re taking a risk that you are not going to produce or that your work quality may not be properly reviewed or up to par.  When you’re sitting in an office, others can see you working and that gives supervisors some comfort, even if they’re not literally looking over your shoulder.  The technology environment has changed a lot over the years. Today you can be almost anywhere without the confines of a traditional office and still be “there.”  But for some managers, it’s just not the same.  It takes time to build trust.

Transitioning to remote work is challenging for the employee, too.  I know I had a certain level of paranoia that people would think I wasn’t working.  (I also come from a “butts in seats” culture and there were nasty emails if you weren’t in your office by 8:30am, even if you worked until 2am, in the office no less!)  So when I started working remotely, I answered emails and phone calls no matter what time they came in. With my next job, I was hired as a telecommuting employee.  I got that job in large part based on my successful history of remote work.  I traveled a little more in the beginning but that helped establish the relationships. Shortly thereafter came a corporate instant messaging program, which also functioned as a test to my dedication – if I didn’t respond immediately, it looked (to me) like I wasn’t sitting at my desk working. That was probably more self-imposed pressure than anything.  Five years later things are a little more relaxed (except at quarter end) and the company acknowledges that people are located in varying cities/countries and time zones.

Where you sit is less of an issue as long as you are available when needed and get your work done.  Personally, I’ve also adjusted my career expectations and put a greater emphasis on the importance of work/life balance.  So this is working for me. My ideal would be home 3 days and in an office 2 days, but I’ll take what I can get.  How can you start working remotely?  I would suggest the following tips for getting your current employer to try it out, or if you’re looking to propose a remote gig, be prepared to address these issues:
1.      Test your technology.  Make sure you have a clear phone line and a sufficiently fast Internet connection.  Make sure you can access the documents you need as well as email and IM.  (We have shared network space where my group stores signed contracts, internal documents for legal department only use, etc. so I can access everything from anywhere.) Are there comforts of your office that will be missed at home, like a headset or a wireless mouse? Get them.  If you need to sign documents, make sure you have a good printer and a scanner or fax. 
2.      Check your company’s policies – technology, privacy, taking documents out of the office, etc.  If there are discrepancies between what you’re proposing and your company’s policies, you’ll need to address how you will be able to stay in compliance while at home. 
3.      Go paperless. Start to review documents online, and if you are a tree killer, start to get used to relying on electronic documents. It takes time, but it’s key to being able to work remotely. If you’re always lugging a ream of paper with you, and you forget your paper, you won’t be very efficient at home.  If I do print, I print on recycled paper (that has my kid’s daycare menu on the other side, for example).  All paper gets used twice in my house! If you print confidential documents, make sure you have a good shredder too.
4.      Float the idea with your manager and propose 1-2 days a week.  Be prepared to describe how this will work, how you can be reached, and why this is a good idea (hint: focus on why it’s good for the company and not all about you personally).
5.      Look for successes and keep track of them.  When it’s time to reevaluate how it’s going, it’ll go much better if you have concrete examples of things that you were able to accomplish more effectively away from the office.
6.      Seek support with your clients.  If they support your proposed schedule and they see an improvement in your response times, ask them to email your boss. 
7.      Be transparent. If you are working a part-time remote schedule, make sure those in the office that are used to poking their head in to say hello know how to reach you. Nothing undermines your attempt to work remotely more than the appearance of you not being accessible. This doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to take a lunch break, though, so don’t set the expectation that if you’re working from home you will be available every minute of the day.  That would defeat the purpose.   

The flexibility of being able to working from home is wonderful, and it is a really important factor in making my work/life balance manageable, but it takes effort.  Finding that balance can take a while, but if you can get the opportunity, take it.  It’s so worth it.  

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Parental Guilt – An Equal Opportunity Pain in the A$$

With Father’s Day last weekend there has been a lot of press about the changing roles in families today.  My family is prime example.  I work, sometimes a lot.  My husband is a stay at home dad to our three boys.  When we started this five years ago, it was something of a novelty.  We weren’t the first to do it, but there definitely weren’t a lot of other stay at home dads in our central Texas neighborhood.  Five years later and the legions of dads taking on primary child care (both working and stay at home dads) have visibly grown.  And that means we can now welcome these dads into the Mommy Guilt Club. 

Mommy Guilt or Parental Guilt is that sinking feeling you get in the pit of your stomach knowing that you’re missing those first steps, the first word, the first time they throw a ball or ride a bike.  You’ll be there for the second time, but it’s not the same.  It’s also the guilt you feel for the fact that you actually like being away from the kids and doing your job.  So you feel like a bad parent because you aren’t there and a worst parent because you’re enjoying your time away from them. 
A lot of this is a new phenomenon; it started with the age of helicopter parenting and the idea that if you aren’t there during your child’s early years you are giving them a disadvantage in life.  There are studies that back up the idea, along with studies that say letting your kids watch TV (we do – Dinosaur Train rocks!) is bad, not making them eat a healthy well balanced meal at every setting will make them obese (they know the difference between Happy Meals and Kids Meals, and have a preference), and not reading to them at night will drop their IQs by a few points (good thing they’re smart to start off with…).  There are so many ways of being a “bad” parent and being a working parent is top of the list. 

This makes you feel especially bad when you actually like being a working parent.  Taking time off to be with the kids makes you feel guilty that you’re not finishing that brief or haven’t yet reviewed that contract.  There’s always a pile of stuff on your desk that should be looked at but hasn’t been yet.  So when you take the half day to watch your baby graduate from Kindergarten, you’re struck by the fact that you’ve missed so much of his life and still aren’t on top of everything at work.  It feels like a lose-lose in every possible way.

So how can you deal with the dreaded Parental Guilt?  What is my grand advice?  Relax.  No one is a perfect parent.  Those that stay at home and are with their kids 24/7 have the same concerns you do.  And no one is a perfect employee.  Those without kids never clean their desks either.  The real secret to success is understanding that you can’t be everything all of the time.  So focus on what’s in front of you.  If you’re working, trust your child’s caregiver to take care of him.  Focus on your work.  Don’t worry about missing the first whatever.  It’s more important that you’re there for the ones that come after.  If you give all of your attention to your employer during working hours, then it will be easier to actually have off hours.  And when you’re off, focus on the family.  Don’t keep going over your to do list in your head when you should be playing “What dinosaur am I?” with your 5 year old.  Be present mentally, not just physically, and the time that you do get with the family will be truly quality time.  They’ll remember that more than whether you saw their first goal or not. 

It’s hard, I know.  I still struggle with it every day.  But a few ground rules can help.  I take the kids to school in the morning and once a week we have breakfast (thank you IHOP!) before school/work.  Phone is off and I just listen to how his week is going.  Then I get to work, usually an hour or two before everyone else - internet company, we don’t officially start until 9-9:30ish…  And I focus on work.  I don’t call the hubs to see how the boys are doing, although he does kindly send me pics of cute stuff every so often.  Barring some time sensitive matter (and no, you’re lack of planning does not constitute an emergency on my part), I leave the office by 5:30.  I have dinner, an hour of play time and bed time rituals with the boys.  I focus on them; I try really hard not to check my phone until after they’ve gone to bed.  I’ll work till 2am if necessary – after they’ve gone to bed.  But those 2 hours every night are precious and work is not allowed. 

So far, this has worked for me.  I’m not sure what adjustments we’ll need to make as they get older or my career grows.  For now, I’ve made a tentative truce with my mommy guilt.  It’s not strong, but I’ll take what I can get.  So what do you do to manage the parental guilt?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Be Wary of the Natives.

Every once in while I hear about legal departments shaking things up and decentralizing – moving lawyers to sit with the business units they support.  It makes sense, the in house lawyers get to know more about the business, the players and proximity alone will lead to them getting wind of things they wouldn’t have before.  That makes the lawyers happy and the internal client happy – what’s not to love? 

The problem comes when the lawyer goes “native”, they start to identify more with the business unit than the law department.  They see first-hand the pressure of meeting quotas at the end of the month/quarter/year, or getting in that supplier fast so production isn’t held up.  At first, this insight will help them be better at their jobs.  They’ll be able to more accurately prioritize work and separate the real risks from the perceived ones.  But there’s a danger of becoming too tied up in the business side of it.  Real risks are downplayed because the business folk don’t think they’re a big deal.  Unit priorities begin to outweigh company priorities.  And the work starts to suffer.  The same thing happens when lawyers are improperly incentivized, but that’s another post.  For now, let’s focus on how to get the benefits of a decentralized law department without risking losing good lawyers to the natives.

First, both the lawyers and the business unit need to be reminded periodically that the client is the company and not the unit.  Give them some cross departmental work to focus on periodically.  Make at least one project a quarter be about a different business unit. 

Second, keep lines of reporting clear.  Lawyers work for the legal department, period.  They should always report up to the GC, not a unit leader.  Give the business unit input on annual reviews, but ultimate evaluation should be performed by the legal supervisor. 

Third, stay on top of what they’re doing.  Hold weekly status meetings to keep tabs of what each embedded lawyer is doing.  Help them prioritize workload based on the overall company goals, even if they conflict with the business unit goals.  And back them up when the unit complains. 
Finally, foster a good team.  Most business units do team building of some sort, even if it is informal lunches with co-workers.  Being on a team gives a sense of belonging and drives loyalty.  Make sure your lawyers get the same sense of team from you.  Take them to lunch occasionally; do team building outings or meetings, organize a softball team or some other activity that fosters the team environment within the legal department.  Make sure they understand their primary team is the “Team Legal” and it will go a long way towards keeping them out of the grip of the “Natives”.  

Thursday, June 14, 2012

What can you learn from a Jackass?

When I was younger my uncle tried to set up some training sessions with a painter friend of his to help me get better at my then-current passion.  I thought the friend was a little creepy and only did cowboy art, so I wasn’t interested.  After getting frustrated with me, my uncle asked me why I was turning down such a great opportunity.  To which my smart-ass, teenage self replied, because I didn’t think he’d be able to teach me anything I wanted to learn.  Then my uncle taught me a life lesson I’ll never forget.  He told me that there are opportunities to learn everywhere and I was stupid for missing out on them.  “Hell, Tanya, you can even learn from a jackass what not to do!”  I lost my uncle a short time later to an unexpected heart attack.  But I can still hear that conversation very clearly and it has become one of the guiding principles of my life.

There are times when you get so extremely lucky that someone sees the potential in you and takes the time to teach you to become better - better at a job, better at a hobby or just plain better as a human being.  When these times arise, take it in with as much enthusiasm as you can.  That criticism that stings so much is something that will help you to grow.  Internalize it and learn from it.  Great mentors and bosses will offer you this opportunity often.  When a superior, co-worker or friends identifies a flaw in your work, it’s generally not done with malice.  Half the battle of improving yourself is knowing what needs to be improved.  Having the input from those you trust is invaluable in identifying your short comings.  Once identified, put their constructive criticism to use, and redo the work or apply the lesson to the next project.  Each project you do should be better than the last.  No excuses.  Externalizing criticism as a too demanding boss instead of using it as an opportunity to continually improve will be career limiting. 

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of great mentors and bosses willing to take the time to teach you the ropes or help you refine your skills.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing it anyway.  Watch those around you, who is successful and who isn’t?  Why?  Are the skills they are using something you can learn or emulate?  Are there things you see that don’t go over well?  Why?  What could have been done differently?  Take time to critically think about your interactions each day.  There are learning opportunities everywhere, you just have to look.  Remember, you can even learn from a jackass what not to do!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Promoting Diversity

There’s a lot of lip service paid to the idea of diversity in the legal field today.  As in house counsel, and a female, I’m supposed to do my best to find diverse outside counsel to represent us when needed.  Somehow, the onus for diversifying the industry has fallen on my (and my colleagues) shoulders.  I feel pretty strongly that diversity is crucial to obtaining a depth in ideas and approaches that homogeneous thought is lacking; so, I generally take up the banner and try to practice what I preach.  So, on behalf of all of us in house folks looking to diversify, I have just one request for all my diversity loving brothers and sisters out there – help me find you! 

We do a great job of promoting diversity with specific groups at specific events - the Minority Counsel Bar Program, the Women’s Lawyer’s Association, etc.  But I don’t always have a need for counsel at that particular moment.  When I do, I need to be able to evaluate experience and fit very quickly and pull the trigger.  Unfortunately, all of those great people I meet once a year are not first to my mind if I haven’t heard from or about them in several months.  But the guy that shows up at every CLE, sends me unsolicited alerts in specialized areas that actually matter to me and offers me a free piece of wisdom every now and then is easy to think of and easy to reach.  (I won’t lie, the brownies at Christmas help me remember his name too.) The firms that really want my business understand that I may only need them once a year, for small matters, that are often specialized.  They still take the time to get to know me, my business, my role in the company and the areas of exposure where issues might pop up.  And then they network like a boss. 

Unfortunately, that’s something a lot of minority and women owned business haven’t figure out yet.  I meet great people, who don’t keep in touch if I don’t have immediate work available for them.  Or who don’t bother to learn about my business and my role and offer their services for things that I least need them for.  So, when I need someone quick, I struggle to fill my desire to promote diversity and my obligation to promptly obtain competent counsel for the specific matter at hand.  Selfishly, I’m asking you to help me with my struggle.  Here are some things that can get you to the top of my quick call list:
  •         Be competent in an area that matters to me.  This should be self-evident, but unfortunately it’s not.  The last minority bar convention I went to I was inundated with emails the following day (a perk of the GC title).  Half were pitching services we will never use – plaintiff side torts, guardianship, etc.  Some were pitching services that I can do better in house.  And a few actually attempted to seem relevant but failed miserably – making it clear that they don’t understand the internet or my company’s role in the industry.  This last group is made up of people I will never use – for anything.  Don’t waste your time thinking I’m going to hire your firm solely because we met at a diversity event.  If you have competency in a relevant area, then keep in touch.
  •         Keep in touch.  I’m busy, you’re busy, we’re all busy.  It’s easy to drop off the face of the Earth if I don’t have something for you right away.  And let’s be honest, it may be years before I have something in your area of competency.  But when I do, you want to be at the top of my list of people I’m comfortable with quickly pulling the trigger.  It doesn’t take much – not even those Christmas brownies!  Just stay in touch.  Show up at relevant CLE’s, even be the presenter at one or two.  When you’re in town, drop a line to say hi.  Send me copies of the topic articles/newsletters that your firm puts out.  Keep your name somewhere in my mind and associated to the area in which you want my business.  But be careful, there is a line you shouldn’t cross.
  •         Don’t stalk me.  Nothing is more uncomfortable than the routine monthly call from the lawyer I had a brief conversation with asking what he can do for me this month.  This is usually from the guy who has no idea how my business actually runs or how the industry works.  It always comes during the last week of the month, when he’s clearly trying to make some quota.  This approach does not inspire confidence.
  •        Offer me something of value.  I don’t mean shower me with gifts or expensive dinners.  No offense, but I don’t really want to spend my evenings with you.  I’d rather spend them with my family.  But a free CLE, or offer to train my employees or managers on something, or help me make a connection that I didn’t have before.  Promote diversity by syncing me up with other diverse attorneys in subject matters that you don’t represent.  These types of things are low cost to you, but high value to me.  And trust me, I remember them.  I’m much more likely to use counsel that has presented on a topic and seemed competent, especially if my management team also feels confident about them.  Of course, that is if I can afford them.
  •        Be reasonable and flexible when it comes to fees.  I view outside counsel in much the same way I view contractors – for the most part, there is definitely some skill required, but once you reach a certain point they are interchangeable in all but the most specialized areas.  Cost will not be the only factor considered when we choose counsel, but it is definitely considered.  So when counsel offers me a discount, or to write off the time of a learning associate or some other reasonable and flexible fee arrangement, I feel like I’m getting value there that I won’t with a similarly situated counsel elsewhere.  If you want the business of a small business, you have to remember that we don’t have the deep war chests of the Fortune 100. 
  •        Be likable.  We started with something obvious, and I’ll end with something obvious – be likable.  It’s a proven fact that we do more business with people that we like.  This is part of what we’re fighting when trying to build diversity.  The good ole’ boys like other good ole’ boys.  They don’t always mean to exclude, but it’s a natural result of the human inclination to gravitate towards others that we enjoy being around.  If you’re all business all the time, you may master 1-5 above, but you still won’t be the first person I think of.  I’ll still think of the friendly person first.  Because I’m consciously trying to promote diversity, I may discount that and keep looking – but it would be so much easier on me if you were all of the above and likable.  And it’s really not that hard.  Just smile and try to make a personal connection – I’m sure we have something in common.

My quick call list isn’t ground breaking or even all that unique.  Lawyers have been doing it all for generations.  But I don’t see many minority lawyers doing it.  I still struggle to think of someone when a matter comes up.  I’m committed to promoting diversity where I can.  All I ask as that you help me to find you.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Should you tweet?

Last week we talked about how to manage your social media policies; about now, everyone is feeling pretty confident that they’ve got this social media thing covered.  There’s only one question left – should I be using social media?  What sort of image does it project?  I’m not a kid, I have real work to do.  Besides, I don’t really get the whole social media thing, I’d probably end up with a meme of “Sh!t the Lawyer says” running through the company.  What could I even talk about anyway?  Most of what I do during the day is privileged or confidential, it’s not like I can tweet the board meeting! 

All of these are valid thoughts – I went through the same doubting when deciding to start this blog.  Social media isn’t for everyone.  It can be very bad for your career if you use it carelessly.  On the other hand it can do a lot to raise your profile, and potentially that of your company.  A study by BRANDfog shows that 82% of respondents were more likely or much more likely to trust a company whose CEO and leadership team engage with social media.  In-house lawyers are also increasingly engaging in social media platforms according to the 2012 In-House Counsel New Media Engagement Survey.  Ignoring social media could leave you looking out of touch with today’s market.

Obviously I use social media - I have this blog, a Twitter account, LinkedIn profile and Facebook page.  I haven’t yet been trapped by Pintrest, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.  You can’t work for a young technology company and not have at least basic social media skills.  The trick is to make sure that your public facing profiles are presenting the image you want your client and their customers to see.   You must be professional (no twit pics from that concert where you had one glass of wine too many), insightful (you can’t just repost links to decisions relevant to your area, you must at least occasionally have an opinion), human (it doesn’t hurt to throw some love for your favorite book, tv show, musician, etc.), and hopefully a little entertaining or at least passable attempts at entertaining. 

To get the full benefit of social media, focus on general topics that are relevant to your industry.  If you’re in retail, you can generally get away with posting commentary on new advertising regulations or decisions.  If you’re in tech, post on the latest innovation to hit the market.  It doesn’t have to all be legal.  But be careful to stay away from controversial items where your employer has not made a public stance.  Although we all use the disclaimer that the blog/tweet/post/whatever is our opinion only and not that of our employer, if you take a stance on a controversial issue that your boss doesn’t agree with, or his boss or the shareholders, you’ll be looking for a new job.  If it’s very controversial, you may become the lightning rod for customers to rally against your company.  So keep it light. 

Once you’ve got the tone down, remember to keep at it.  Social media isn’t a one and done type thing.  It’s something you have to constantly update.  Make a goal of making one post or tweet every week.  Once you’ve got that down, try a couple times a week.  Unless you’re really entertaining I wouldn’t do much more than that on a regular basis.  Of course if you’re pretty witty or involved in some high profile and public activities, feel free to tweet away.  Just do so with caution.