The first time I worked in a corporate law department, the GC’s philosophy was that because the law department was a cost center rather than a profit center, the law department had to “add value” by providing a service to the company to justify its existence.
The commercial lawyers at that company had a saying: “be a grease monkey, not a monkey wrench.” Don’t throw roadblocks in front of the business. Help them accomplish their goals. After all, if a company doesn’t make and sell products, there’s no company and no law department. The law department was a service provider.
This made sense to me, and so I brought this philosophy with me to the new company. I guess I should have asked more questions about the role of the law department in this company, because apparently I was way off base.
In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the major cigarette manufacturers and two industry affiliated organizations. This was the so-called RICO case. Then there were thousands of “smoking and health cases” in which individual plaintiffs sued the tobacco companies for the injuries they suffered from smoking. There were also “lights” cases and cases brought by state attorneys general. Suffice it to say, there was a boatload of litigation. Of the roughly 50 lawyers in the department, I think about half worked on litigation.
I’m not going to divulge any attorney-client confidences in this blog. You can read all the documents produced in this litigation for yourself at https://www.library.ucsf.edu/tobacco/litigation.
The point is that it seemed to me that as a result of all this litigation, the law department took a different view regarding their role than I was used to. Judging by the way some of the lawyers talked about the business, the role of the law department seemed to be to keep the business out of trouble. In other words, protect them against themselves. Not all the lawyers expressed this view, but some certainly did.
I didn’t see things that way. I thought my job was to help the business folks get their jobs done. I tried to find ways to help them accomplish their goals within the confines of the company’s policies. For instance, when they had a new project or idea, I worked with them throughout the project so I could help keep them within the rails, so to speak. I was an active member of a number of project teams. To tell you the truth, I really liked working on these teams. I’d rather spend time with my clients than my colleagues.
As a result, in the business I had a great reputation, but inside the law department it was not so good. I did not agree that the business folks needed to be protected against their own idiocy. These were not stupid people. They were smart, hardworking people. They gave their lives to this company and wanted to do the right thing.
This clash of attitudes put me at odds with some of my colleagues. My frustration grew with time, especially when I saw that client satisfaction was not rewarded in the law department. What do I do, serve my clients or brown-nose the inner circle? Such a tough choice for me and a no-brainer for some of the others. You know very well what I did, which is what led me to this place.