A New Type of In-House Lawyer

Michael Holston, formerly an outside counsel to Hewlett-Packard (HP) from Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, has been credited with “shaking-up” HP’s law department since his appointment as general counsel three years ago.  In many ways, he has made his 400-member law department look and act less like in-house counsel and more like a firm. His choices, which may presage broader trends, are worth a closer examination.

Holston increased work requirements and installed an “energized” corporate culture that is more reminiscent of the fast-paced work environment.   Though in-house positions are thought to be more stable than their firm counterparts, and the HP of the early 2000 was no exception, Holston had no qualms about raising the turnover rate. Corporate Counsel at Law.com reported on some of his changes: “Holston doesn’t mince words describing the personnel changes. ‘The work expectation went up, and some people left,’ he said. ‘You demonstrate what’s important based on who you hire, who you fire, and who you promote. It’s a performance culture.’” General Counsels’ offices are widely known to foster better work-life balance than firms, and women are represented there in greater numbers. It will be interesting to see how Holston’s changes effect the diversity of his law department.

When it comes to age, however, Holston is diversifying his workforce by introducing a new class of lawyer to his office: the new J.D. recipient. Holston and HP made headlines  this June by hiring new law school graduates, as firms typically do, rather than hiring associates from firms as corporate law departments typically do. This new hiring initiative took on four associates this year under the premise that “[HP] can better develop lawyers in-house right now than it can hiring from a law firm at the more junior level.” Deputy general counsel Gabriel Buigas pointed to cultural differences between the legal and business communities as one reason for this change stating that when hiring from firms, “you spend a fair bit of time getting ...[associates] to transition from risk avoidance to risk management.” Holston’s choice is also likely to further “energize” his law department as new associates jockey their way up the corporate ladder.

These changes blur the lines between traditionally held conceptions about the places of firms and general counsels in the legal profession and in individual associates’ career paths. One the one hand, by making law departments more like firms, Holston is altering a formula that has allowed many female associates to develop strong careers that may not have been possible in a more strictly regimented environment. On the other hand, by opening his law department to new law graduates, Holston is offering opportunities for meaningful training and a chance to bypass firms entirely for lawyers who are not interested in that career path. At this point, it may be too soon to tell what the ramifications of these initiatives will be.

Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School.   BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org