Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Job Searches

Inside Straight: In Praise of Cronyism

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

I was always offended by cronyism.

The new managing partner, or CEO, or whoever, comes on board, and he throws out the old guard and brings in his new guys — blatant cronyism. This always bothered me.

I was wrong. I’ve recently become a big believer in cronyism.

But perhaps that’s because I’ve recently changed my perspective.

I’ve now lived a fairly long legal life, and I’ve seen an awful lot of lawyers in action. Let’s say that, over the course of a few decades, I’ve worked sufficiently closely with 1,000 lawyers to be able to assess intelligently which of the thousand are good and which ones aren’t.

Of the thousand lawyers, 200 suck. They’re just abysmal, and you wouldn’t use them for anything….

And of the thousand lawyers, maybe 600 are run-of-the-mill. They’re perfectly good lawyers, but basically indistinguishable from the masses.

Of the thousand lawyers, there are 200 really fine lawyers. These are the people who are noticeably better than the rest of the pack. You’d be perfectly happy working with, or retaining, any one of them.

But of those 200 fine lawyers, twelve are breathtaking.

Twelve are the whole package. They think both quickly and deeply. They understand a client’s needs. They spy issues (and solutions) everywhere. They write with grace and ease. They’re well-spoken and thoughtful, not merely glib. They get personally involved in the matters they’re working on; they’re not scrambling around the day before a client meeting, desperately preparing to bluff their way through. They staff matters leanly, knowing that “the few men, the greater share of honour” (and lower bills). They’re the real deal.

Now suppose you’re going through one of the two selection processes that regularly confront in-house lawyers: You’re either retaining outside counsel (the more frequent task) or hiring a new corporate employee (the less frequent task).

Whom do you want to retain (or hire)?

Do you want to retain some random lawyer about whom you know nothing?

Of course not. Sadly, the average lawyer is . . . well . . . average. Simply retaining a random person is unlikely to yield a satisfying result. And the odds are an overwhelming 988 to 12 that you’re not going to be blown away by your selection. (Calling references doesn’t really help. Who’s to say that the person giving the reference isn’t average, so a glowing endorsement doesn’t mean much? And how do you know that the person giving the recommendation is speaking the unvarnished truth?)

Do you want to retain some perfectly nice person who recently invited you to lunch, or who came in to give a half-hour pitch to your in-house legal team?

Of course not.

If you work with a person — really work with the person, jointly attacking a tough legal issue for a few hours or a few days — you can often begin to tell a good lawyer from a bad one. But unless your ability to discern true talent based on a short, social conversation is a whole lot better than mine is, picking a lawyer based on an hour-long chat over lunch is basically a crap shoot. Many perfectly nice people are not very good lawyers, and it’s basically impossible to judge quality from a one-time meeting that involves essentially no substance.

So whom do you want to retain (or hire)?

Your cronies!

You want to reflect for a while on all the lawyers you’ve worked with (or against) during the course of a career, and you want to retain the folks who are breathtaking. That guarantees that you’ll be satisfied with the quality of lawyering, and it guarantees that your corporation will be well-represented.

You don’t want to retain these people because you know them; you want to retain them because you know them to be good.

Is this grossly unfair?

Maybe.

But it protects you from the pain of working with inept counsel, and it protects your corporate client against receiving poor representation.

I never thought that I’d ever write these words: Long live cronyism!


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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