California - Organizations Advancing The Careers Of California's In-House Attorneys

Sunday, January 1, 2006 - 00:00

Roundtable: The Editor interviews Vincent Gonzales, Senior Counsel, Sempra Energy, and President, Southern California Chapter, Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC); Philip Strauss, General Counsel and Vice President of Corporate Development, Actuate Corporation and President, San Francisco Bay Area Chapter, ACC; Nicolas Thakar, General Counsel, Tower Records, and President, Sacramento Chapter, ACC; and Teigue Thomas, Associate General Counsel, Gateway Inc., and President, San Diego Chapter, ACC. To learn more about their chapters, visit www.acca.com.

Editor: How long have you been an ACC member?

Thakar: Prior to my arrival at Tower Records six years ago, the two other attorneys at the company were ACC members. New to in-house practice and wanting to learn some of the nuances of in-house practice, I admit I was skeptical of ACC and whether its resources would be of any real help to me. But I was pleasantly surprised by the quality, depth and breadth of the offerings at the ACC Annual Meeting, and I soon learned that the ACC website and ACC Docket are extraordinary resources. Now as general counsel, I have used the ACC website, including forms, InfoPaks and webcasts, to help me address cutting edge issues as well as day-to-day practice. I have also used the Jobline to find a temporary attorney, who has now become part of our legal team. ACC Docket articles have been extremely helpful in organizing the department, preparing marketing agreements and understanding legal developments. Attending our chapter meetings has allowed me to stay current with legal issues that are particular to California practice.

Thomas: I've been an ACC member for over seven years. ACC provides access to a wealth of educational opportunities as well as materials and networks I can draw upon as issues arise at my company. Because of these resources, I'm often able to personally handle matters which would otherwise require outside assistance.

Strauss: About four years ago, my boss asked me to research directors' fiduciary duties. I found a reference to an article in the ACC DOCKET, but I needed to be an ACC member to access it. He told me to sign up. I quickly found that, in addition to access to the awesome resources in ACC's Virtual Library, ACC membership offers invaluable networking opportunities.

Coming in-house after six years of private practice was a culture shock for me. When I asked ACC's staff for help, they encouraged me to found the national New to In-house Committee, which I'm happy to report is now entering its fourth year. Also with ACC's encouragement, I developed the curriculum for the Corporate Counsel University. Focused on giving attorneys new to in-house the tools they need to succeed, the program will be held this coming year in Baltimore on May 21-23.

Gonzales: An ACC member for more than seven years, I have benefited significantly from ACC's online resources, in-person seminars and networking events. I not only have attended, but also have spoken at, ACC's annual meetings. My company benefits from the information I gather that makes me a better in-house attorney and more efficient.

Editor: Please tell our readers about the in-house legal community that your chapter serves.

Strauss: With 1,057 members as of our last count, the San Francisco Bay Chapter has many programs serving lawyers in the peninsula, where many businesses are focused on technology. We are looking to involve more members in the San Francisco and Oakland/East Bay area, where many businesses provide financial and professional services as well as brick-and-mortar products.

Our chapter is fortunate to have motivated leaders and a great blend of volunteers. Every minute we spend on board meetings is time we could have been spending at the office or with our families. Our motivation comes from our shared commitment to the in-house profession.

Thomas: The San Diego Chapter membership includes over 400 in-house counsel from a variety of law departments and practice backgrounds. Our chapter includes members from large companies, such as Callaway Golf, Pfizer, Sony and Qualcomm, as well as from small, local companies.

Gonzales: Serving Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, the Southern California Chapter has more than 1,100 members. In response to a survey we conducted last year, 60 percent said they work in law departments with fewer than 20 lawyers; 27 percent work in law departments with 2 to 5 lawyers; and 17 percent are the only lawyers in their department. In large organizations, lawyers may specialize in one area, but in a small law department, they must be familiar with employment, insurance, healthcare, corporate disclosure, privacy, intellectual property and a wide range of other laws.

Thakar: Sacramento has a relatively small number of members in a relatively large geographical area, but we have quite a diverse legal community. Active in our membership are attorneys from Tower, Sutter Health, Intel, Waste Connections, Examen, California ISO, Pride Industries, to name a few. We have about 75 members currently, up from about 60 just a few years ago, and we hope to introduce even more in-house attorneys to the benefits of ACC membership in the future. Currently, as many as 25 or even more of our members attend our monthly meetings.

Editor: How do you tailor programs to appeal to in-house counsel's diverse needs?

Gonzales: We survey our members every year to rank the topics they want to hear. Last year, the number one topic was corporate governance in Sarbanes-Oxley's wake, followed by contract drafting, ethics, employment, privacy, commercial law, intellectual property, litigation management, internet, e-commerce and law department management.

We give guidelines to our presenters to make sure that their discussion and handouts meet the needs of the in-house counsel. Our goal is to blend the speakers' expertise in substantive areas with practical advice on how to apply the legal principles to an in-house practice. This can take the form of a checklist to help spot issues, a summary of best practices, sample policies or form documents.

Strauss: Like Vince's chapter, we survey our members so that we can direct our programming to their interests. Our programming committee has three members who ensure that the program's topic is relevant. When we have a law firm sponsor, we insist that an in-house counsel is included on the panel. The panelist can be either a client of the law firm or one of our board members. The in-house panelist can help them focus on what in-house counsel care about. Each program should give attendees at least three things to remember and a set of take-home materials for later reference so that their antenna will be ready when a related issue comes up in their practice.

One very cool thing our chapter does is our sports law intern program. We place law students from the six bay area law schools with the Forty-Niners and Giants for an in-house internship. We pay them a stipend, or they can elect to get school credit. The program is in its second year, and we have selected the third class that will start next fall. We are looking to add internships in the law departments of other sports teams in the bay area, and are considering expanding the program into the arts as well.

Thomas: The San Diego Chapter offers on average two substantive programs every month. Over 85 percent of our members attend our programs every year. One of these monthly programs is typically on a topic of broad interest to our membership such as employment law, ethics and corporate governance while the other program addresses narrow topics that are of particular importance to a smaller percentage of members, such as immigration law, intellectual property and software licensing. We also offer a variety of social, networking, career development and pro bono opportunities.

Thakar: Unfortunately, as a small chapter, we don't have the wherewithal to have gala events or golf tournaments like our California brethren, but we do have high-quality, interactive lunchtime MCLE programs on a monthly basis. We also have two social events per year - usually one in the summer (this year an outing to the AAA baseball Rivercats) and a holiday party at which we seek gift donations for local toy drives. Jackson Lewis LLP and Seyfarth Shaw LLP are both national and Sacramento ACC sponsors. Their continued support of ACC Sacramento allows us to put on these quality MCLE programs and successful social events.

Editor: Teigue, the San Diego Chapter will host ACC's 2006 Annual Meeting. Why would you encourage in-house counsel to attend?

Thomas: ACC's annual meeting is a unique opportunity to keep abreast of the latest legal developments on a wide variety of topics of interest to corporate counsel. I consider it a "can't miss" conference every year to ensure I'm on top of emerging issues of importance to my company. It is also a fantastic opportunity to develop an expanded network of in-house contacts. The fact that the 2006 conference will be held in beautiful San Diego is a bonus!

Editor: As the smallest of ACC's chapters in California, how does the Sacramento Chapter target its resources, Nick?

Thakar: We target our resources on promoting our lunchtime MCLE programs. We are currently transitioning to the annual sponsorship model that has been so successful in San Diego and Southern California, and we hope that will allow us to generate additional revenue and additional interest in ACC here in Sacramento. This will in turn allow us to spend more resources introducing our chapter to in-house attorneys in the area who may not know about the many benefits of ACC membership.

Editor: Phil, how does the San Francisco Chapter's committee structure help it to meet its members needs?

Strauss: Our committees are expected to host one meeting per quarter. Everything else is up to the discretion of the committee chair. Because leadership changes from year to year, each committee's focus is always evolving. For example, when I chaired our chapter's IT committee, most of our focus was on licensing and trade secrets. This year, the committee is chaired by a patent lawyer. Not surprisingly, the focus has been mostly on patents. Everyone appreciates the variety.

Our international committee chair almost never has a sponsored program. He puts together groups of three or four in-house counsel to speak on different aspects of an in-house international law practice. Those programs are always sold out. In contrast, our litigation committee almost always has a sponsor for its programs. Because the typical in-house counsel does not go to court, we need to hear about what is happening in courtrooms from the practitioners who are out there.

Another example of our flexibility is our recent creation of a life sciences and biotech committee. We have two chairs for that committee and are getting a law firm to sponsor it.

We have a lot of free thinkers in our chapter. Our relaxed structure helps them to contribute their creativity, as well as substantive expertise, in serving the in-house legal community in our region.

Editor: Congratulations, Vince, on the Southern California Chapter's being recognized for a record fifth year as ACC's Chapter of the Year. What has contributed to your chapter's success?

Gonzales: Our chapter enjoys a history of stellar leadership. They started the process of putting together the kind of programs that our members want to attend.

This year we are hosting our eleventh annual dinner. General Colin Powell (Ret.) will be our featured speaker. Our string of prior outstanding speakers has included former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former president George H.W. Bush.

Our annual golf tournament is being held this coming year at Trump National in Palos Verdes. It is already sold out. Our DoubleHeaders are frequently sold out within hours of their announcement. They begin with a three-hour MCLE program followed by dinner and then a Lakers-Knicks game or other professional sports event.

Our membership drive this year was hosted at the King Tut exhibit. Attractions not only included a private tour of the highly acclaimed exhibit, but also a free three-month trial ACC membership for attendees.