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February 08, 2016 Articles

A View from the Inside: Practice Pointers from In-House Counsel

By Adrienne Gonzalez and Daniel Wittenberg, with Penelope Dixon

An interview with in-house attorney Penelope Dixon, Associate General Counsel, Tort Litigation Support, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. presented by the Co-Chairs of the Corporate Counsel Subcommittee of the Products Liability Committee, Adrienne Gonzalez, Daniel Wittenberg, and Penelope Dixon.

What advice would you give to an attorney considering the jump to in-house legal work?
Whenever I am approached by others wanting to discuss in-house positions, one of my first questions is why do you want to transition in-house? Understanding the reason for wanting to transition in-house is imperative to making a good decision. Once you understand why you are considering the transition, do your research! Treat this decision the same as you would if you were contemplating buying a house or switching law firms. We all know firm environments can differ drastically from firm to firm. Corporations are no different, as their cultures can differ drastically. Therefore, it is imperative to utilize your contacts and ask very pointed questions so you understand exactly the dynamics of that specific corporate culture—more importantly, whether you believe your personality will be a good fit to that corporate culture. You also have to understand how the legal department operates and the dynamics between business partners and in-house attorneys. Investigate and analyze the work that may be available to you and the opportunities for advancement within the corporation, should that be something that interests you.

What litigation, legislation, or regulation are you keeping a close eye on, and why?
Right now, my focus has been on one of the most fundamental rules that we all learned in law school, i.e., the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The new amendments to the Federal Rules went into effect on December 1, 2015. The amendments have several changes to procedural matters that affect both the plaintiffs and defense bar. Presumably, the change to Rule 26(b)(1), specifically the proportionality standard, is near and dear to most defense counsel and corporate defendants. This requires that the scope of discovery be "proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties' relative access to relevant information, the parties' resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit." I am very interested in how federal courts across the country are going to interpret this proportionality language and what evidence will be required to prove that the discovery requests are disproportional to the needs of the case. Likewise, cases interpreting the changes to Rule 34(b)(2)(B), which require responding parties to state "with specificity the grounds for objecting to the request, including the reasons" are on the radar to see how courts apply this language. I'm also interested in seeing if state rules of civil procedure will adopt similar approaches, as these changes can have a dramatic effect on future discovery practices.

What advice would you give to a young lawyer?
I have two pieces of advice that I still live by to this day. The first I was given as a law student embarking on the practice of law. A family friend, who also happened to be an attorney, explained that there is so much in the law that I did not know. This came as a surprise since I was just graduating from law school and knew everything there was to know about life, love, and the law (kidding). He advised, and I am passing on to the readers now, that a young lawyer should (1) not make any immediate decisions about the type of law to practice for his or her entire career, and (2) always be open to learning new areas of the law. To this day, I still embrace this advice. Fifteen years ago, being associate general counsel at a Fortune 100 company was not in my professional plan. Quite honestly, working in-house was not even on my radar. Yet, here I am, and the areas of the law that I have touched over 15 years are not even remotely close to what I thought I would be doing when I was a young lawyer.

The second piece of advice I received from a partner at my prior firm who has turned into a long-term mentor. He advised that there was very little in the law and how I handled my cases that could not be fixed, unless I tried to hide my mistakes. In short, we will all make mistakes, whether it is missing deadlines, failing to assert arguments, or simply being completely wrong when giving legal advice to our clients. The key is how you handle yourself once you realize you have made a mistake. Please own up to all mistakes and present proposed solutions. You will be respected much more in the long run. This advice applies to the corporate world as well.

Keywords: litigation, products liability, in-house counsel, discovery, proportionality standard, mistakes

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