Outside counsel

Bill Wilson spent over 20 years in legal departments at corporations large and small, from high tech to brick and mortar, and is writing about various topics while trying to find that next great career opportunity.

You need help with your search, and are thinking of reaching out to some of the outside counsel you know from your last job. You picked this guy because he got good results in past cases and the company has paid him $756,000 over the last year to handle this litigation, so why won’t he return your calls now that you’re “in transition.”

Calm down.  It’s going to happen.  It should happen less, but it doesn’t.  First, let reality in.  You are one of probably 50 in-house counsel he works with and you may not be the most important – and every other lawyer in his firm has the same issue.

Even though you picked him, he isn’t working for you, he’s working for the client: your old employer.  You didn’t pay him, the client did.  And he has to balance any residual loyalty he may have to you with his obligations to the client, and sometimes that isn’t easy, depending on the circumstances of your departure.  So recognize that while he may help you, he may not just as easily.  As with so many other things in your search, if he doesn’t: move on.

Having said that, I have often wondered why outside counsel don’t think long term and help in-house counsel in transition.  Assuming that you are convinced that I know my stuff, and that my departure was not the result of nefarious activities, why would you not want to remain in my good graces by helping my search?  Outside counsel spend an inordinate amount of time – and money – these days trying to attract and keep clients.  So why not try to maintain relationships with in-house lawyers you already know, who might be in a position to remember your e-mail address the next time outside counsel is needed, by giving their job search a boost?

In some cases, the indifference they display has annoyed me to the point of wanting to ask: “So you’re willing to bet I will never be a general counsel again?”

The reality is that there are lots of good lawyers out there.  As house counsel, I can pick lawyers from ten different law firms for any given legal problem, and probably get similar results from a legal standpoint.  Why should I call you?  No quid pro quo.  No improper influence.  But that help you gave me helps build our relationship, and convinces me you are smart enough to think strategically about your firm and you’ll apply that same smarts to my case, enough to tip the balance in your favor.  And believe me, no matter what you read, relationships are not dead as a deciding factor in counsel selection, even in the current “cost is king” environment.

The best job hunting advice I’ve ever heard is that your job search never stops.  Prepare for when you no longer have the job you would do for free.  When you are working, pick the outside counsel you value, who do a good job legally and who are smart enough to know they need to work with you to make your management happy, not just tell you their problems and call only when they’re sniffing for business.  Show them you know your stuff.  Offer to speak at one of their programs.  Cultivate the relationship.  Take some time to help them out; introduce them to someone they’d like to know – or represent.

It’s a two way street.  And then, when you need them, you – and they – won’t have to justify it.


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