Attorney at Law Magazine Salt Lake City Publisher John Marciano sat down with Trent N. Butcher to discuss his transition into corporate counsel.
AALM: How did you make your transition to corporate counsel?
Butcher: In 2005, I was working with US Synthetic as outside patent counsel when US Synthetic recruited me as general counsel. I had previously worked with several engineers who were working at US Synthetic and they were very happy with the culture at US Synthetic. US Synthetic has a unique business culture that places great emphasis on improving the lives of employees and their families and that appealed to me. Two weeks after I started, the company was forced to deal with a patent infringement case. The next 2 1/2 years were spent defending the company, while building the patent portfolio significantly. While stressful, the first several years were pivotal in better understanding the company’s business strategy and its customers, as well as building a foundation for protecting its intellectual property.
AALM: What qualities do you look for when choosing outside counsel for litigation needs?
Butcher: Competency, balance and timeliness. Litigation often seems to drive attorneys to work right to the edge of each and every deadline. While working to the brink of a deadline is sometimes necessary, constantly doing so is detrimental to both outside counsel and inside counsel. Being ahead of the curve in terms of communicating strategy and approach as well as ultimate execution is a crucial quality for litigation counsel. Balance refers to providing even-handed and realistic advice over the course of a litigation. Although litigation can be a roller coaster at times, fundamental changes in outside counsel’s advice (without commensurate factual changes) over the course of litigation can be troubling.
AALM: How would you describe your ideal relationship with outside counsel?
Butcher: Collaborative, responsive and competent. There are many reasons to engage outside counsel. Sometimes, a particular issue requires certain expertise or experience. Other times, bandwidth is needed to move a project along. Another example includes exploring creative solutions for a given situation. Follow up and collaboration help to prevent receiving work product that isn’t what you need or what you wanted. Picking up the phone and asking simple questions or discussing options is much preferred to completing a project that will require rework. The goal for outside counsel should be to deliver an insightful and responsive work product, every time.
AALM: In what areas, do you believe the legal community has fallen behind the business world?
Butcher: US Synthetic is a leader in diamond solutions and received the 2011- 2016 Shingo Award for operational excellence and implementing world-class lean manufacturing practices. One aspect of lean manufacturing is focused on exposing improvement opportunities – or gaps – through visual systems. Put another way, creating visual systems that expose gaps, weaknesses or problems is desirable in lean manufacturing. In lean thinking, seeing the gap is the first step toward solving the problem and improving the system. However, in the legal profession, exposing any weakness or problem is generally avoided. Although the practice of avoiding problems does exist in business, it appears that forward thinking businesses are making significant efforts to change this paradigm. I think the legal community has fallen behind business in promoting and adopting systems that expose opportunities for improvement. However, those firms and lawyers that are willing to adopt this new type of problemsolving culture will be able to improve their services faster than those that do not.
AALM: How has technology changed your business and your legal needs?
Butcher: Improvements in technology have provided access to massive amounts of information in a short amount of time. For example, the ability to access patent prosecution files instantly across a patent portfolio allows for better and faster decision making. One issue is how to create systems to better manage, synthesize and communicate the information. My approach has been to start small but continually work to improve, organize and augment such systems. While many of our current systems are simple in nature, they provide visual tools to communicate the company’s relative position in the market, which is beneficial to the executive team as well as the legal team.
AALM: What advice would you give to attorneys wishing to switch to general counsel?
Butcher: Before you accept a position with a company, spend a great deal of effort to understand as much as you can about the business and how the company views its operation. To what does the company attribute its success? What is the company strategy and where does legal fit into the strategy? Understanding the business approach and strategy is at least as important as analyzing the law. Furthermore, some thought should be given to career path. Is the company owned by a parent company or is the company privately held? How many times has the company been sold? What is the outlook for career growth in five or 10 years? While many of the aforementioned career path issues may be out of your control, it is better to prepare for change in an ever-changing business landscape.