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Why Some Straddle The Line Between Law Firm And GC Gigs

Michele Gorman LAW360.COM

While serving as the general counsel of a blockchain startup, Andrew Hinkes felt that he encountered an opportunity he couldn't ignore when he met the creators of Carlton Fields' blockchain and digital currency practice.

In March, he started working at the law firm. But that didn't mean giving up his existing job.

Hinkes maintains the general counsel role he has held since March 2018 at Athena Blockchain Inc., a professional services firm focused on tokenized investment products, while he advises blockchain, fintech and financial services clients in corporate matters with Carlton Fields.

He chose to take on the firm role, which he said the Athena partners and board support, to share his knowledge and expertise about blockchain with a broader group of clients and educate the market to prevent the spread of misinformation about cryptocurrency.

"It is a challenge that I relish," Hinkes said. "My goal since I fell in love with this area in 2014 was to do the best that I could, to help companies engage in the area, understand how the technology can be helpful for them and ultimately allow them to build businesses that benefit society and benefit the economy in compliance with the law."

Hinkes isn't alone in his thinking. Whether it's a desire to spread one's specialist knowledge, make a practice more attractive to clients or embrace a rare opportunity, some attorneys simultaneously work at firms and companies.

The arrangements differ slightly. Some firm lawyers serve as part-time in-house attorneys or as the general counsel at a small company or industry group, while others might temporarily assist a business that's short-handed with staff.

Lawyers who have taken on dual roles admit it's time-consuming and requires flexibility and organization, not to mention being mindful of possible logistical, practical challenges and potential conflicts. But they also say the commitment is worthwhile and similar to that of any attorney's typical duties.

For a number of the companies that have opted for such arrangements, outside general counsel can present a greater depth of knowledge than someone solely dedicated to the role, and are often more cost-effective than bringing a full-time general counsel on staff.

The Northwest Hydroelectric Association, or NWHA, has had its arrangement for decades, for reasons including that it makes sense economically for its legal needs.

"The board decides to [have] outside general counsel because it brings a better host of skills and capabilities to the general counsel role," said Brenna Vaughn, the NWHA's executive director. "If we hired one individual with one expertise or skill set, it [could] be a challenge to get all of the breadth and depth of needs that our organization might have."

In February, the board appointed Angela Levin, a partner in Troutman Sanders LLP'senvironmental and natural resources practice, to a three-year term as general counsel.

Vaughn said the selection team chose Levin from the pool of applicants because of her industry knowledge and ability to tap into her firm's resources and specialized lawyers when needed.

Acting as general counsel can mean a much deeper level of involvement with the company compared to an outside role, attorneys say.

Stephen Kong, who previously was a shareholder at Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth PC while also serving as acting general counsel for augmented reality company Daqri LLC, said he took on more risk as a general counsel than a typical private practice attorney. He determined legal budgets and participated in executive meetings as part of his in-house responsibilities.

"It is impossible to replicate as a purely private practice lawyer what the dynamic is like as a general counsel in terms of having access to how decisions are made, having access to the executives and just understanding the whole dynamic of how the legal role fits in with the whole overall business operation," Kong said.

He recently moved on from Daqri and left Stradling for Pepper Hamilton LLP, but is grateful for the knowledge that he gained since he took on the position in 2017.

"The company was interesting, but, frankly, what intrigued me  even more as an IP lawyer, as a technology transactions lawyer, was the rare opportunity to be a general counsel," said Kong.

It's uncommon for attorneys to simultaneously hold firm and corporate roles, according to Christie Babinski, Major Lindsey & Africa LLC's in-house practice group director in Washington, D.C., who specializes in recruiting for legal departments.

The typical lawyer in one legal role is often pressed for time, she said, while also recognizing the dual situation could shape legal professionals into well-rounded attorneys.

"As a candidate, you have your foot in two doors," she said.

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