Monday, April 21, 2008

Practice Skill Portability

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

As someone who has made a few moderate shifts in career focus, I'm always interested in seeing stories Chart3 about people who overcome, as they say in behavioral economics, path dependency.  In more colloquial terms, that would be the career track, or to some, the career rut.  Right?  Once you've made it in a particular area, the costs of, and barriers to, movement to another area outweigh any momentum or desire to make the move.  (For some data on career satisfaction, exemplified by the chart, left, see the ABA Journal's October 2007 issue.)

The Wall Street Journal has a story today about a lawyer, Katharine Bostick, who made what sounds like a counter-intuitive jump - from chief of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force for the Pacific Region (previously an assistant U.S. attorney in New York) to Senior Director of Legal and Corporate Affairs - Asia Pacific for Microsoft.  The "interview" has a public relations department feel to it (people don't really talk like this, do they?), so I'd say it likely over-emphasizes her work in helping Microsoft combat cyber-crime, but I have no doubt that she means it when she says "I need to ensure that our legal teams are integrated into the business, understand the business and listen to the needs of our business teams." 

As I've said before, academic punditry has a way of taking a black-and-white post-hoc view of the relationship of law and business.  It's in fact a nuanced interaction in which you are always seeking a reflective equilibrium between the needs of the business and the legal, ethical, and moral strictures.  Says Ms. Bostock, "I emphasize that the best way to serve our customers is to win the right way, which doesn't mean winning at any cost." 

The real fear is making this jump is usually about transactional skills.  I wouldn't suggest that it's easy to go from being a federal prosecutor immediately to doing markups of preliminary prospectuses for initial public offerings.  But deal work and corporate work (i.e. governance related), particularly at the in-house supervisory level more often narrows down to three or four big issues - intertwining law and business - on which you quickly come up to speed, and then the question is judgment.  That just doesn't differ all that much from area to area.  Three instances come to mind:  (a) I used to deal with the general counsel of a major auto supplier in the Detroit area.  Earlier in his career he had been the prosecuting attorney for one of the less populated counties in central Michigan.  (b) At AlliedSignal, I hired somebody who had been a litigator his entire career at Rogers & Wells to be the general counsel of one of our business groups.  Eleven years later, he is the general counsel for one of the largest divisions, and one of the most senior lawyers, at Honeywell.  (c) George Mitchell.  I don't know much about his early career, but he was a judge and then a senator, and somehow developed the skills to be the chairman of the Disney board during and after the Ovitz litigation, and through the transition out of the Eisner era.

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