In the movie “Wall Street,” slick stockbroker Bud Fox (played by Charlie Sheen) enters an elite restaurant and requests “a table for one.” He is unceremoniously ushered out by the matre de. “Reservations only, sir. We are booked for two weeks.”
For in-house counsel in small legal departments, it’s easy to feel that we “dine alone,” and that we sometimes can’t get a table because they are all taken up with larger groups.
I rarely go out for lunch, but when I do, it’s for a business meeting. The other day I commandeered a table at my favorite Italian restaurant and sat waiting for an appointment that never showed (stuck in L.A. traffic). Regardless, I decided to stay and enjoy a meal by myself.
This was the first time I ever dined out alone. Sitting by myself led me to ponder the fact that I’ve been flying solo through much of my legal career. But unlike my “table for one” experience, which felt oddly unnatural, I am used to being my own legal island and perfectly comfortable in that role.
Waiting for my rigatoni and sausage, I reflected on the differences between my lone-ranger department and the other corporate departments, such as marketing, HR and finance, at companies I had worked for. I have often witnessed the team-based activity of other departments, such as birthday celebrations, departmental meetings and occasional outings to fun group activities such as Medieval Times or sports events. Until then, I never noticed that my daily work doesn’t provide that collegial interaction.
Being in a small legal department provides a vastly different experience than working as part of a large group of attorneys. There are the obvious aspects–for example, a small-department lawyer must take on a much wider diversity of work, cater to whatever the company needs and quickly learn new areas of law. Small-department lawyers also get to interact more closely with people across the company, in all locations, departments and levels.
Then there are the practical realities. I can’t take sick days, a business trip or a three-day vacation without feeling like I’m leaving a black hole behind me. When I’m gone, there’s no one back at the ranch for businesspeople to turn to for legal advice, and colleagues can get lost, desperate and frantic without the sole attorney’s presence.
And that’s not all that suffers from my absences. My poor plants have often gone unwatered, and my Siamese Fighting Fish, Spartacus, died from neglect.
Back at the restaurant, continuing to wait for my meal, it also struck me how being a lone lawyer for a company means a lack of interaction with other legal minds. Sure, we can speak to outside attorneys, but that’s not the same thing as having other lawyers in the office all day with whom you can share knowledge, learn from, exchange legal insights and discuss theories.
Lawyers are their own breed. We have our special way of thinking and talking, our own perspective and ways of approaching issues and analyzing them. The smaller your legal department is, the less you can think like a lawyer in the presence of others. All of my lawyerly thinking is done in my head, but when I speak to business colleagues, I have to shift modes in order to communicate in their language.
As I devoured my meal, part of me wondered how much I may have missed out on in light of the fact that I hadn’t interacted all that much with other legal minds in my daily corporate work. On the other hand, I realized that being forced to do everything myself had its great advantages as well. My job requires me to take on and resolve whatever comes my way and thereby makes me self-reliant. When you are flying solo, there can be no excuses and nowhere to hide.
Finally filled up with my meal, I realized that having a “table for one” can be just as satisfying and fulfilling as sitting at a larger table. It all comes down to savoring the experience for what it offers and making the most of it.