Talking shop with the chief counsel of a $12 billion multinational

Talking shop with the chief counsel of a $12 billion multinational

Mark Herrmann is the author of a book called, "The Curmudgeon's Guide to Practicing Law," which dispatches professional wisdom to wet-behind-the-ears associates... from the perspective of a crotchety partner.

It's the second best-selling book the ABA has ever published.

To even come up with that idea, let alone execute it, you have to possess a level of self-awareness and understanding of people dynamics that -- let's face it -- is not a hallmark of the legal profession.

Herrmann, who, in addition to being a well-known writer, is, in his day job, the chief legal counsel of Aon, the $12 billion British reinsurance brokerage where he is responsible, in part, for the job satisfaction of those who report to him. That role is a world apart from that of the major international law firm at which he was a partner for nearly 20 years. "Law firms do not do human resources," he says.

In this interview with Logikcull, Herrmann discusses the differences between law firm and in-house practice, how experience with the former may inform the latter, and how developing people skills can facilitate a successful transition. This is the first of two parts.

Logikcull: You're the chief counsel for a 72,000 employee company. Aon has 500 offices around the world. As chief counsel, what do your job responsibilities entail?

Mark Herrmann: I do two different things for us. I’m the chief counsel for litigation, and I’m also responsible for employment law. So any litigation that is filed, either for or against the company I’m ultimately responsible for. And then employment matters I’m also responsible for. So I’m wearing two hats.

Logikcull: How is your job different from the general counsel’s? Is there a difference?

MH: Well the general counsel is the person who’s also responsible for mergers and acquisitions. And at least within this company, that would include compliance as well. And the general counsel is also responsible for board work and securities issues. So litigation and employment are two pieces of it, but not all of the pieces of it.

Logikcull: How is your job performance measured? I’d imagine you have to stick within some kind of litigation budget, and then there's also some kind of risk-related metric? Is that right?

MH: We try to do things objectively. So you set goals that you can meet and you can measure whether or not you meet them, although frankly there are issues with that. But objectively I’m measured on whether we met the litigation budget and on whether the engagement score, which is sort of a job satisfaction metric of how happy the people are who work in the department, goes up year over year.  

We also look at things like number of training sessions we gave and how many people attended -- things that, at the end of the year, you can see whether you hit them or you didn't. But there’s also, I think most importantly, the subjective piece, which is impossible to measure, but you’re always looking for. Do you have good ideas for resolving cases? Are you improving the briefs that are being filed on the company’s behalf? Sort of whether or not you’re a good lawyer, which you can’t measure objectively.

Logikcull: Going back to job happiness, I think I read that you have something like 150 people, maybe not directly reporting to you, but working under you in this function.

MH: Once upon a time I did both litigation and compliance, and with compliance, there was a huge department that was reporting up to me. Now what I’m doing, litigation and employment, there are fewer people reporting up to me. The law department as a whole has about 250 professionals in it.

Logikcull: Okay. Well what I’m curious about is, you came from a law firm. I’d imagine that if you had a management function there, it was a little bit different. And now you have this huge team of people under you. How did you grow into that role, and has that been a challenge for you to take on this big management function?

MH: I guess I’ll say two things. First, law firms really do not do human resources. In the sense that corporations do human resources. In law firms, you work with, generally, fewer people. The idea of an engagement score at a law firm is almost silly. It just doesn’t matter. We’ve got a bunch of cases. We’ve got to get briefs filed. We’ve got to get cases tried. We’ve got to make the work happen, and associates who thrive in that environment thrive in it, and associates who don’t like that environment bail out pretty quickly. But it’s really not tending to the care and feeding. You think about professional development, but you really don’t think about making people happy.

"Law firms do not do human resources... The idea of an engagement score in a law firm is almost silly. It just doesn't matter. We've got a bunch of cases. We've got to get briefs filed. Associates who thrive in that environment thrive, and those who don't bail out quickly."

But in this corporation, we do care about making people happy. So we measure whether or not people are satisfied in their job. Perhaps there is some evidence that employers who have a happier and more satisfied workforce do better financially. So we try to improve those numbers year over year. That is a shift because, at law firms, nobody is paying attention to that stuff. But at a corporation, it’s quite an important priority.

There’s a lot of training that goes along to help you with it, and a lot of it you just sort of figure it out as you go along. When you manage people, you have to care about their careers. Whereas, at a law firm, the career path may be fictitious but it’s sort of obvious. At a law firm, as a young associate, you work hard and get more work, and make sure you do it well, and you’ll progress to senior associate. And as a senior associate, you do good work and work hard and begin to bring in clients and you’ll become a partner. And as a partner, you work hard and do good work and bring in more clients and you’ll become a senior partner. And eventually you will retire and die. Everybody knows what a career path is at a law firm. It may or may not be fictitious, as I said, because maybe the partnership really isn't as open to new people as you thought. But everybody knows what the career path is.

At an in-house law department, that career path doesn’t exist because there are many, many fewer people, and the pie is not always expanding, and because you don’t move up unless the person ahead of you is moving on, or into a new position, or something is happening. So you have to think about career advancement in a very different way.

Logikcull: Did you find that you naturally had those people skills, and management skills, or was it a big learning process for you? How easily does something like that come to you?

MH: I guess I’m okay at doing it. It was just that I had never thought about it before. At a law firm, you really don’t pay attention to the care and feeding of the people around you. You are all under extreme pressure trying to get stuff done, and the name of the game is get the stuff out the door and making stuff happen. And a corporation you sort of have to pause and think more about what [your employees] are doing now and where they will be in three years. Are they going to still be at our corporation or at another place? What are we going to do in order to help people reach their career goals, which may or not involve staying put at the corporation? At a law firm, you’re not thinking about what their next step is. They should just do good work and work harder.

Logikcull: What do you see as the abilities that distinguish run-of-the-mill chief counsels, or heads of litigation, from the really good ones? When we were talking about job performance, you said there were objective metrics, and there were subjective ones --  for instance being able to creatively resolve disputes...

MH: What sets you apart is the ability to improve the work product that’s going out on behalf of the firm. Certainly there's the "traffic cop" piece of it. You have to make sure everybody knows what’s going on, make sure there’s no surprises to the finance department, make sure there are no surprises to the business units, make sure everybody who has to be in the loop is in the loop. It’s really not that hard once you get the hang of it, because anybody can keep everybody informed.

But making sure that we’re making all the best arguments, and we’re doing the very best for the corporation is what sets you apart. It’s the hardest to evaluate, but I think it’s probably what sets you apart.

"What sets you apart is the ability to improve the work product that's going out on behalf of the firm."

Logikcull: So you practiced at a large law firm -- one of the biggest international law firms -- for about 20 years. How did that experience inform the way you deal with the law firms that you now work with?

Mark: So I guess there are two things you learn from working at a firm. The first is, you know that the law firms are fallible. I think as an in-house lawyer, there is an inclination to say that if the outside counsel said it, it must be true. And if you’ve been outside counsel for most of your life, you know that's ridiculous.

"As an in-house lawyer, there is an inclination to say that if the outside counsel said it, it must be true. And if you've been outside counsel for most of your life, you know that's ridiculous."

Just because the outside counsel said it doesn’t make it true. The questions is, is it true -- not did outside counsel say so. So it makes you much more suspicious of what outside counsel says because there were so many times you were ready to give advice that just ended up being plain wrong, but then you thought it through harder and ended up giving the right advice over time.

The second thing is, we do alternative fee deals, where we say, how would you like to do all of our cases under a certain value everywhere in the country of a certain category? You can do that with big firms, because if you just say we’ll pay you on an hourly rate, they’re happy to do the work on an hourly rate and not innovate at all. But if you instead say, I’m going to pay you X dollars, you make it work. The firms can become more innovative and can make things happen. So paying a certain amount of money and saying, "Now you figure out how to make it profitable," I think is challenging but good for law firms.

Part two of this interview will be published on Friday. If you like to learn more about how corporations are using modern technology to reduce legal fees (and create a happy work force), please check out a demo of Logikcull's legal intelligence.

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