Today we honor the general counsel and the corporate counsel, the professional i-dotters and t-crossers of the legal profession.
It used to be that the best legal minds set their sights on making partner at white-shoe law firms, while corporate legal departments were a place for the less ambitious to lay low.
Paul Dacier, the general counsel of EMC, is as far as they come from that world. In fact, the world of the in-house lawyer isn’t anything like it used to be.
This week, Dacier, becomes the first general counsel to head up the Boston Bar Association in its 252-year history. His rise mirrors the growing importance of corporate counsels in America. Over the past two decades, as business has grown more complex, CEOs find themselves leaning on in-house counsel and expanding legal departments by offering lucrative stock options to lure top-notch legal talent.
Nowhere is this more true than in the high-tech industry.
“There are a lot of lawyers who may do important things,” said Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith. But, “they might not be at the heart of the company’s strategic direction the way they are in the IT sector.”
Tech companies are all about researching and developing the next great innovation, and then they’re all about protecting what they’ve created. That’s where lawyers come in, doing everything from crafting patent claims to licensing technology.
Among IT general counsels Dacier, who at 55 years old is reachable 24/7 on his two cellphones, stands out. Smith has known him for a decade, their companies fending off legal challenges together or squaring off in court.
“He’s a great problem solver,” said Smith. “You can count on him to take a complex problem and to make it smaller.”
Dacier arrived at EMC in 1990 when the Hopkinton data storage firm had one patent, and he was the sole in-house attorney. Today the company has about 4,000 patents and another 2,700 patent applications pending. Dacier oversees a staff that includes 115 attorneys.
In the industry, EMC is known for fighting patent trolls, entities set up to buy patents and sue companies alleging infringement. A troll will sue 50 companies, and if it can collect $10,000 from each one, it’s easy money. Companies, especially smaller ones, will settle rather than go to a trial that can cost $2 million to $4 million to litigate. EMC calls it a shakedown; the trolls say they’re protecting inventors.
“A lot of people think corporate America is an easy lay-up,” said Dacier. “I don’t believe in paying for frivolous matters.”
Dacier started reading proxy statements as a 14-year-old growing up in Hudson, after his father gave him 100 shares of ITT. He received his undergraduate and law degrees from Marquette University. The high-tech industry, then as now, was thriving in Massachusetts, and he set a goal to come back.
As the Boston Bar Association president, Dacier plans to focus on issues far from corporate boardrooms. For example, he intends to push for more funding for the judiciary, which accounts for only about $580 million out of the state’s $34 billion budget. He said justice is being delayed, with some judges dealing with a backlog of 600 pending cases; ideally it should take no more than a year to go to trial.
Dacier also wants to improve the reputation of lawyers by promoting, among the bar’s 10,000 members, the virtue of civility. “Getting a law degree does not mean you can become obnoxious,” he said. Dacier, like every other bar president, gets a term of just one year. But given who he is and where he comes from, expect him to get a lot done. General counsels are like that these days.