Needy Clients

Sometimes I feel like the Statue of Liberty, standing alone on a little island, with my torch held high for everyone to see ?? 1/2 and for the needy to flock to. My current employer has 2,000 employees, with revenues nearing a billion dollars--and I'm the sole attorney.

Being the "go-to-guy" is rewarding. I love having colleagues rely on me for help in solving their problems or in facilitating their goals. Some have affectionately referred to me as "The Terminator" or "Superman" (hey, wise people know how to get to the top of my list).

Beneath the flattery, however, is a serious downside. Once you develop such close, trusted relationships with your colleagues, they soon get the idea that you're there to solve all of their problems like a Calgon bubble bath. And I do mean all.

Traffic violations lead the crush. Red-light runners, handicapped-parking-space stealers, speeders--they all land on my doorstep seeking a magical dispensation of their tickets.

Other requests get far more colorful. An executive once stormed into my office demanding "urgent" help. Why? His mother, visiting from S?? 1/2 u Paulo, was caught urinating in a parking lot, and when an officer began writing her a ticket, she watered his shoes then capped off her revenge with a Zsa Zsa Gabor-like slap.

"My mother has a bladder condition!" the executive yelled at me. "She's humiliated! I want you to sue that #$%!# cop!"

In a small legal department, you see and hear it all.

The personal requests can get loony. I once got a call from a colleague who frantically rambled about the CIA hunting him down and how he needed me to contact the governor for a "pardon." Suddenly, a nurse took away the phone to say that their new patient needed his medication. Apparently, my colleague had been institutionalized a week prior.

Co-workers can even be quite brash in their requests. One day, after I finished training the administrative assistant force on things such as professionalism and sexual harassment, one particularly attentive assistant asked me for a legal referral to a litigator, "for a friend." When I pressed her for details, she confessed to wanting the referral so she could sue the company for sexual harassment.

On another occasion, a sales woman asked if I handled "real-estate issues." Baited like a fish, I proudly declared, "I handle all legal matters here." She then explained that her roommate owed her hundreds of dollars after several barhopping weekends, and she planned on holding the roommate's valuables hostage until the roommate paid up. "Is that OK?" she wanted to know. I had to convince her that such "self-help" was actually a crime.

Beyond discouraging illegality, I give my standard disclaimer to everyone seeking legal advice on personal matters: "I represent the company--not you. Anything you tell me against company interests will not be held in confidence."

Standard disclaimers are often less effective with senior executives, such as the CMO who demands your help on everything from his personal taxes to warranty battles with his Hummer's leasing company. An attorney's time and skills are a corporate asset and shouldn't be commandeered for personal use. But if you refuse a senior executive's requests on ethical grounds, you're likely to be shunned for failing to be a "team-player."

Bottom line, because we in-house counsel in small departments are the sole "problem-solving" point of light, we attract all manner of legal problems with magnetic force. This is far different from large departments, with their layers of hierarchy and bifurcation by specialty. Such fragmentations help dissipate the expectation that in-house counsel is the all-encompassing Holy Grail of legal help.

As a sole in-house counsel, the mass of work can be quite daunting, but I'll admit--the fascinating diversity of it is what makes it so stimulating. I imagine Lady Liberty feels the same way.

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Michael Baroni is general counsel and secretary for BSH Home Appliances, the North American subsidiary of the world's third-largest home appliances company.

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