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Who You Gonna Call? Mythbusters
If Brett Farrell were dean of GCU, the first course offering would be Mythbusters 101. That's because the first responsibility of General Counsel University would be to dispel all the rosy stereotypes: that in-house lawyers work short hours, feel intimately involved in the business, and are really, really appreciated.
Yes, the London-based general counsel concedes, in-house hours are sometimes shorter. "But in-house is not a utopia," he says. "It's a business. You're expected to deliver on business objectivesand if you don't, your boss is going to kick you."
Farrell was thinking aloud on this topic in a June blog post called "What you are not taught at General Counsel school." (The blog's name, and his Twitter handle, are Brett Tech Lawyer.) The Sydney-born attorney, who specializes in finance and technology, returned to an in-house position with an online financial services company about eight months ago. And he's not complaining about his loteven though many lawyers who stumbled on his essay thought that he was. He's just trying to paint a realistic picture.
"I prefer to think of it as eyes wide open," Farrell says. "It's realizing that lawyers in-house are part of a business function."
His top lessons for aspiring in-house attorneys? "You're generally alone. You're not with other lawyers. You're with businesspeople," Farrell says. "In a law firm, if you do have doubts about advice, you can ask somebody. As general counsel, you're on your own."
The isolation sometimes makes him feel like a man on "an emotional roller coaster." One evening he emailed a friend who is general counsel of London's Financial Times about an issue he'd encountered in his work. "Is this normal?" he asked. "Does this happen?" The reassuring advice he got from a fellow lawyer helped bring the roller coaster back into its station.
Farrell's post and comments elicited lively discussions on his and other websites. Members of the LinkedIn group for In The House, a Web-based professional community for in-house counsel, had strong opinions about the lessons that future GCs need to learn.
They have to be more than just good lawyers. That's the word from Peter Fontaine, who has more than 25 years' experience in-house and is the founder and managing partner of Old Bailey Advisors, a Phoenix-based consulting firm providing services to law departments. Too often, Fontaine says, lawyers come to the table with legal opinions, but no sense of what's best for the business; they need to think of themselves as business leaders, too.
The client doesn't want to read precedents and cases, Fontaine says. Lawyers need to be able to say: "This is what I think you should do, and here are the reasons why."
General counsel also need to understand how their clients approach decisions. Anna Woodworth is the GC at Six Hats LLC, a professional services group that focuses on start-up and high-growth companies. She says that the small-business people she works with are an excitable bunch who sometimes have a tendency to shoot from the hip.
"Businesspeople aren't necessarily legal people," she emphasizes. "Often, decisions get made without thinking about the long-term consequences." A big part of her job is being able to foresee those consequences and slow down client reaction times.
Woodworth doesn't always have a quick solution for every situation. But that's okay, she says. When she can't answer a question right away, she isn't afraid to tell a client: "I don't knowlet me look into that."
If Farrell decides to change careers and actually establish a school for GCs, it sounds like he'll have plenty of promising instructorsand no end of courses to offer.