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Alumni find fulfillment as in-house counsel

Friday, March 16, 2007

Six alumni working as in-house counsel spoke to students in a panel hosted by the Career Services Office earlier this month.

Attorneys from BP America, Edison International, Fox Entertainment Group, Grill Concepts, Inc., Kaiser Permanente and Legal Zoom discussed some of the high points and potential drawbacks of moving in house from a firm.

Bryant Danner ’63, practiced with Latham & Watkins for 30 years before becoming general counsel at Edison International, the parent company of Southern California Edison and Edison Mission Energy. He retired in 2005. The greatest benefit to being general counsel, he said, was gaining access to the inner workings of the company.

In-house counsel panelists
In-house counsel panelists (l-r) Rampenthal of
Legal Zoom, Fromholz of Kaiser Permanente,
Russell of Fox and Danner of Edison International
“It was so refreshing and new and challenging to be in an in-house position as general counsel and to be not just a consultant, but a participant and decision-maker,” Danner said. “To be invested in the business world and be a part of the decision-making process and see how the company worked was an incredibly rewarding part of the job.”

The biggest change for Ted Russell ’94 in moving from a firm to senior vice president of litigation at Fox Entertainment Group was a broader focus on a larger case load.

“Instead of having three or four cases at a time, I had 54,” Russell said. “What you learn is you’re focusing on different parts of all these matters rather than knowing each case inside and out. You end up making better decisions.”

Michelle Feinstein ’02, director of legal affairs at Grill Concepts, which operates the Daily Grill and The Grill on the Alley restaurants, agreed. She previously was an associate at a Century City law firm, where she concentrated on real estate transactions and became an expert in that area of the law. With Grill Concepts, she has expanded her expertise by handling matters from union issues to guest incidents.

“The world opened up to these other issues that, when I was doing real estate, I didn’t even realize were going on,” Feinstein said.

In a company as big as BP America, the second-largest oil company in the world, doling out advice as in-house counsel can be unnerving because hundreds of millions of dollars could hang in the balance, said Elizabeth Atlee ’93, senior attorney at BP.

“You do get questions on the spot from clients and no one is backing you up,” Atlee said. “And the clients hang their hat on what you say.”

A drawback to working in-house is there is less job security, panelists said. Ann Framholz ’94, senior counsel in Kaiser Permanente’s labor and employment group, noted that law firms view attorneys as money makers, while companies view their legal departments as a cost, “even if you’re indispensable.”

Chas Rampenthal ’98 said he knew he would forgo the stability of firm life, but was willing to take the risk – and a 65 percent pay cut – to join Legal Zoom as general counsel. The payoff was worth it. Rampenthal found a job he loves, and the company has grown 50 percent a year for the past three years.

The panelists all arrived at their in-house positions by different avenues, although all had at least several years of firm experience behind them. To be a viable candidate for an in-house job, the panelists suggested gaining experience with litigation, advice-giving and directing outside counsel.

The same skills that make someone attractive to a firm will also translate in house, Danner added.

“It’s fundamentally smarts: the ability to think like a lawyer, the ability to work hard to find out the answer,” he said.



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