Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s new column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

When you write for as large an audience as reads “Above the Law,” you get a huge variety of responses to your posts. But two recent posts illustrated that point in a remarkable way.

Last month, I published one post about the care with which I edited bills (that is, daily time entries) that I sent to clients when I was in private practice. And I later published a post about how lawyers could improve communications by taking a moment to reflect on the “subject” lines of e-mails before hitting the “send” icon.

The response to those posts was fierce and immediate. Folks who published “comments” to those posts overwhelmingly reacted negatively: “What kind of idiot spends several hours a month editing time entries to ease a client’s life? This guy was a typical big firm drudge!” (I’m paraphrasing here, because some of our readers may be minors.) And, “He’s writing about the ‘subject’ lines of e-mails? What comes next — a post about the quality of the office staplers or the tissue in the restrooms?”

Simultaneously, I was receiving a host of e-mails — not anonymous comments, but signed e-mails — from folks saying that they were sharing the posts with other lawyers in their offices or asking permission to reprint the posts in internal newsletters.

This caused me to wonder: Why the divide?

Perhaps personal biography matters. I practiced at a small firm in San Francisco in the 1980s, and the firm’s mantra was “perfection.” (“We’re competing against Pillsbury and MoFo. Clients are taking a risk when they retain a small firm instead of a huge one, because, if we suffer a bad result, the in-house lawyer will be faulted for not having gone with a better-known quantity. We must be better than the other firms. Return phone calls immediately. No typos. Perfection. It’s the only way to survive.”)

From 1989 through 2009, I worked at one of the largest international law firms in the world. And the firm’s mantra was again “perfection.” (“We’re competing against Paul Weiss, Sidley, and Skadden here. If their work is perfect and ours is not, they’ll get more cases, and we’ll get fewer. Return phone calls immediately. No typos. Perfection. It’s the only way to survive.”)

No one is perfect, of course. We’re so far from perfect that it makes you want to break down and cry. But, in the fiercely competitive world of law, firms strive to deceive their clients into thinking that the firms are perfect. You don’t send out drafts that aren’t yet final, send e-mails that are filled with typos, or do anything else that might destroy the illusion of perfection.

It doesn’t stop there; you do everything you can to reinforce that illusion. If the other firm sends out unintelligible bills, and you send out edited bills, the client is unlikely to thank you and may notice the difference only subconsciously. But that doesn’t matter; you’ve reinforced the illusion of perfection.

If the other firm sends e-mails that all have the subject line, “See attached,” and you send e-mails with subject lines that actually convey information or give a sense of comparative urgency, the client will never thank you and may notice the difference only subconsciously. But that doesn’t matter; you’ve reinforced the illusion of perfection.

Eventually, at least for me, the mind-set of “perfection” became ingrained. It’s hard to ignore even when you want to.

But I’ll go beyond that — which will cause me to take a beating in the comments to this post and receive congratulatory e-mails from partners at major firms around the world: This mind-set is not simply ingrained in me; it is also right.

We live in a world of free markets. And free markets are tough things. If you plan to compete effectively at the highest level in a professional services environment, you must produce the highest quality work and pursue the illusion of perfection. That’s the route to success.

Why will the preceding two paragraphs cause such a stir? Why will they simultaneously prompt cheers and jeers?

Is this a generational thing? On the one hand: “Those spoiled youngsters don’t know anything about client service. Only the older generation does.” On the other hand: “Those old codgers are padding bills, fixing mistakes that no one would ever notice or care about.”

Or does this turn on practice area? “People doing high-volume, low-margin work for legally unsophisticated clients properly don’t worry about the details of client service. Those clients won’t notice the difference, and the charges for those legal services won’t carry the freight of slowing down. People doing bet-the-company cases for sophisticated corporate clients live in a different world.”

Or is this a technological divide? “Above the Law” focuses on a relatively young demographic, because it disproportionately covers job prospects for new lawyers and bonuses paid to associates. (Older folks visit ATL, too, in numbers that would surprise you — although some of them might deny it when asked, or claim that they’re just monitoring what the associates are thinking.) Perhaps the vocal piece of the readership at “Above the Law” skews particularly young (or disaffected) because those folks are accustomed to participating in an on-line discussion, and the old timers don’t live that way (or can’t yet figure out how to post a comment).

I really don’t know the answer to this, although the existence of the divide is unmistakable. I typically write these columns at ATL for the benefit of readers; this time, I’ll be intensely curious in your reaction.

Earlier: Prior installments of Inside Straight


Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law.

You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.


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