One of Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated masterpieces is a film called “Lifeboat,” a story of a group of characters cast adrift in — you guessed it — a lifeboat. Those characters did not choose to be stuck together and, of course, tension builds throughout the film. But, if you did end up stuck in a lifeboat someday, and you were able to choose your fellow passengers, who would you pick? That is the idea behind the “lifeboat lawyer,” a term of endearment used by former Wal-Mart general counsel Thomas Mars.

The story begins when Mars sat next to future attorney general Eric Holder, then with Covington & Burling LLP. Holder asked Mars to speak at a partner’s retreat, and that was the first time Mars ever spoke about certain relationships using that term. “Lifeboat lawyers. It’s a lifeboat, so it’s a handful of lawyers. It’s not a cruise ship,” he explains.

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Mars developed the concept of the lifeboat lawyer earlier, when he was general counsel of Wal-Mart – and when he took on the additional duties of the chief administrative officer (CAO). “When I moved more to the business side, I gained a deeper appreciation for what it takes to run a business and how lawyers can unintentionally get in the way,” he says. “The question is how; can the business leader help a lawyer do his or her job in a way that advances the business?” 

In his role as the CAO Mars found himself working with former colleagues in the legal department that he had hired and promoted, and Mars’ deputy GC had been his law partner before moving to Wal-Mart. “When business meetings were over, we’d take a few minutes to compare notes to see how we ran the meeting, asking if everyone made their contributions,” he says, pointing out how valuable it is to have trusted compatriots.

 

Mars counted the CEO of Wal-Mart as a mentor, and says that he had three or four outside lawyers – none of whom had been general counsel or even in-house attorneys – as a diverse group of trusted advisers who were used on high profile matters. He started referring to this group as lifeboat lawyers.

These lifeboat lawyers, as Mars described them consisted of people “who would have no involvement in a matter or expertise in an area, but I’d want to ask them how they’d handle this. I’d call them at home sometimes and I knew their spouses.” 

He valued these outside attorneys so much that he wanted them focused on Wal-Mart matters. While the Wal-Mart v. Dukes case was ongoing, Mars called the managing partner at a law firm and asked to adjust the billing rates for several attorneys. The partner started to give a canned response about why the rates were not too high, but Mars interrupted him to explain that he wanted to raise the rates for these attorneys by 20-25 percent. “I said they were the lawyers who had become critically important to the company in ways that are immeasurable. These guys are the lifeboat lawyers that we rely on,” Mars explains. “I don’t want them waking up in the morning thinking of another client who might be paying more.” In the end, those attorneys went all the way to the Supreme Court and scored a historic victory for Wal-Mart, one that impacted all of corporate America.

In the end, Mars says, it was the ability to call them up and ask their opinion on any number of matters, always expecting valuable advice on short notice, that set them apart. “Many GCs that I have known over the years don’t really have that safety net and I think all of them would be quick to admit they would like to,” he says.