Inside Experts: Synergies tie in-house counsel, skiers

Like skiers, in-house lawyers understand the challenges they face in their jobs and can formulate strategies and identify tools needed to succeed.

Being an in-house counsel is a great career and a great life, but not a perfect one.

If you are a GC or deputy GC at a large corporation, or GC at a smaller company, or your legal department is understaffed, you are going to need to stretch yourself across multiple practice areas. And you are going to need to be someone who can make decisions, when necessary, under pressure and based on incomplete information. You will need to become something of a jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none, and someone who can both look and leap at the same time.

It’s this side of in-house lawyering that I don’t like. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. I am, by nature, a ponderer. I question, research, assemble data, analyze, strategize and execute a plan. I’ll certainly change the plan if needed, and I’ll even throw it out the window and start over. This approach has proven to be very successful for me in my in-house career. But it isn’t always possible to take this approach, especially in the face of a crisis or any set of unanticipated circumstances requiring immediate response.

During the winter here in New England, I go skiing whenever I can. I also watch skiing on television. Each year, professional skiers compete in a circuit called the World Cup. Being a good World Cup skier isn’t just about speed. In the days leading up to a race, World Cup skiers make their way down the mountain inspecting the course (as much as the rules will allow for the event) and confer with their coaches and technicians. Based on their inspection, the skiers make critical decisions about how they will attack the course: how high a line to take between gates; the sections where they will push their limits; the spots where they might crash or miss a gate, etc. They assess their physical readiness for the course (injuries are common for skiers). On race day, before they enter the start house, you will see skiers like Lindsey Vonn standing with their eyes closed, twisting and moving in place, visualizing themselves going down the mountain. Often the race doesn’t go as planned, though, and a skier will need to make a spectacular recovery or change tactics mid-course to make up time.

Winning the overall World Cup title means being competitive in all the events: slalom, giant slalom, Super-G, downhill and combined. Vonn didn’t win the women’s overall title in 2011 because there came a point in the season when, even though she won or placed second in almost all of the downhills and Super G’s, she DNF’d (did not finish) four consecutive slalom events. Maria Riesch of Germany was competitive enough in all the events throughout the season to edge out Vonn for the overall title, 1728 points to 1725.

I think skiing is a great metaphor for approaching the job of in-house lawyering. Like the overall World Cup, being a successful in-house lawyer means dealing with many constituencies: executive management, customers, investors, other lawyers, regulators and internal business units. Success in-house depends on developing basic competency in a broad range of practice areas, including corporate governance, compliance, internal matters, intellectual property, contracts and litigation. Like skiers do before a World Cup event, in-house lawyers must take every opportunity to understand the challenges they face in their jobs, to size themselves up in the face of those challenges and to formulate strategies and identify tools to succeed.

When faced with litigation, think like a downhill skier. In downhill, finishing the race, let alone winning, is impossible without careful preparation. The rules of downhill allow skiers several days to inspect a course and to take practice runs. The skiers who push themselves in the practice runs often win. Parties to a court case prepare for trial much the same way. Preparation isn’t all of it, though. To win, downhillers must put themselves at great risk. World-class downhillers also must possess the super-human capability to recover from surprises—ice patches, ruts, shadows—at 75 miles per hour plus, and not let the experience slow them down for even a fraction of a second. Great downhillers like Bode Miller of New Hampshire are physically stronger than their competition, allowing them to fight the G-forces in turns, absorb the incredible vibration or “chatter” in their skis and maintain momentum on a course stretching several miles like Lauberhorn in Wengen, Switzerland. Preparation, risk taking and stamina are all essential attributes for litigation.

Slalom courses are the opposite of downhill: short races with gates placed a few meters from each other, and an opportunity to inspect the course only on race day and from a distance. Corporate compliance is much like skiing slalom. Like slalom gates, laws and regulations stand in our way of doing business, and we don’t have much choice but to interpret them as accurately as we can and navigate them as cleanly and efficiently as possible. Violating laws and regulations can be disastrous for a company, just like hooking a slalom gate will most certainly end in disqualification. Austrian skiers like Marlies Schild and Elizabeth Gorgl, and Frenchman Jean Baptiste Grange, are great slalom racers because they have superior technique. Their skis never leave the ground; their upper bodies remain still. In the same way, technical competency, efficiency and poise are also keys to good corporate compliance.

The overall World Cup winners in 2011, Maria Riesch and Ivica Kostelic of Croatia, are not the most exciting skiers to watch, nor are they particularly exciting personalities. What they are, however, are winners regardless of the event or the venue. Kostelic surprised many by his successful expansion from slalom and giant slalom to downhill and Super G. Reisch is an amazingly good slalom skier at a lanky 5-feet-11-inches tall. Riesch and Kostelic are dedicated to being great all around skiers, they are not content with being specialists. They take huge risks but do so smartly and without drawing attention, which are qualities that in-house lawyers should look to develop in themselves.

Contributing Author

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Eric Esperne

Eric Esperne is counsel for Dell Services and is located in Canton, Mass. He has more than 15 years experience as in-house counsel for government,...

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