As I stood atop the Roman Colosseum during a recent trip, emotionally gripped by its horrific history, I couldn’t help but make the connection between the ancient gladiator and my role as an in-house attorney. I know a lawyer’s life is just a bit more privileged than a gladiator’s, but philosophically the comparison is not as far a stretch as one might think.
For starters, lawyers are often referred to as mercenaries and hired guns. We are protectors, defenders and guardians–the corporate gatekeepers. We shield and protect companies from liability, and we engage in fights and battles on behalf of our clients. One colleague actually called me his gladiator after a particularly successful contract negotiation.
In-house attorneys are often called upon to head-up or consult on workplace security, for example. I’ve been responsible for getting corporate clients to instill greater physical security at office locations and for hiring security guards after certain dangers have surfaced.
But my involvement in protecting the company often goes beyond the intellectual realm. It’s an unfortunate hazard of being an in-house lawyer that we are sometimes called upon to play the gladiator in the physical sense. The lawyer is the first one called, particularly in smaller companies where no corporate security department exists. I’ve often been summoned to meet invaders in the lobby to tell them to leave–angry customers, people pretending to be government agents or people demanding to see the president. I don’t particularly enjoy putting myself on the front lines, but I can’t seem to help answering the call for help when colleagues are relying on me.
Once, when working for an Internet infrastructure company, an ex-employee threatened to come back and “take revenge.” A group of executives came into my office and told me of the need for immediate security–and, only half-jokingly, asked me if I wouldn’t mind putting on a “Security” T-shirt to help guard the building. “You look like you could be a bouncer,” one colleague told me. (Yeah, akin to the pint-size Patrick Swayze brawling with thugs in Road House, I thought). Another chuckled, “Security is legal’s obligation, right?” I explained that I wasn’t there to fight the company’s battles–not in the literal, physical sense–and recommended that we immediately contact the police and hire professional security guards.
On another occasion, I had an executive ask me to accompany him to a meeting in Texas for “protection.” I, of course, assumed he meant legal protection. Foolish me. After the meeting, the executive thanked me for having served as his “bodyguard,” because the other guy was known to “carry a gun in his boot.”
Beyond the defensive call-to-arms, companies often look to use the lawyer as an offensive weapon. We are sometimes told to smash or crush the opponent, or to “cut ‘em off at the knees.” This can often be at conflict with our legal and ethical obligations, thus compelling us to seek a more amicable solution than simply “burying” our company’s adversaries.
When in-house attorneys do well by accumulating victories in litigation, we are celebrated like champion gladiators. Our war stories even serve as entertainment; listeners revel in our tales of how we “sliced and diced” our opponent’s case until it fell apart into a bloody heap.
Like gladiators, in-house lawyers are only as effective as the weapons we’re given. If we’re not given adequate resources and staff, we can lose battles we otherwise would have won. Looking down at the Colosseum’s arena, I imagined all those gladiators who were sent out to battle with limited armor and weaponry or who were placed in other sadistic situations where the odds were so heavily stacked against them.
As lawyers, we don’t just fight for our own survival. We fight to defend our corporate clients, to facilitate their visions and dreams and solve problems.
I left the Colosseum as a red sunset spilled across the Roman sky, thankful to be a gladiator only in the most theoretical, complimentary sense of the word.