Biglaw, Billable Hours, In-House Counsel, Pro Bono

A Little Chat

Ed. note: This post is by Will Meyerhofer, a former Sullivan & Cromwell attorney turned psychotherapist. He holds degrees from Harvard, NYU Law, and The Hunter College School of Social Work, and he blogs at The People’s Therapist. His new book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy, is available on Amazon (affiliate link).

Some big law firms are like the mob. They do ugly things, but prefer to avoid “ugliness.” The partners, like the capos of major crime families, have delicate constitutions.

Ugliness could result from ill-considered communication. For that reason, a capo – or a partner – isn’t going to tell you what he really thinks. That would be indelicate. It could lead to misunderstandings.

You, in turn, shouldn’t tell a partner what you really think. That could lead to sleeping with the fishes.

My client recently received a lesson in partner communication…

The firm was dead slow, and she was dedicating her time to a big pro bono case. An email suddenly arrived announcing a new policy: you now needed special permission to bill over 250 pro bono hours annually. In two months, she’d billed 220, and the case was coming to trial.

She called the pro bono partner.

“You’re close to the limit,” he noted.

Last week, there was no limit, she explained. This is an important case, coming to trial.

“You’ve nearly exceeded the cap on hours,” he helpfully re-noted.

She inhaled deeply, and re-explained the situation.

He ingeniously pointed out that the 250 hours cap was the firm’s new policy…

…at which point she snapped, and did the unthinkable: she said what she really thought.

“I didn’t know there was a new policy. No one communicates at this place. And what is the point of this crap? Look at my hours – it’s not like I have anything else to do!”

There was a lengthy pause.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said the partner.

He hung up – and she began to harbor second thoughts.

I’m sorry to hear that.

Behold, a singularly dreaded phrase. It is not good news, at a law firm, when you hear “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Generally speaking, when you hear “I’m sorry to hear that,” at a law firm, it means “you will soon be fired.”

There is something worse you could hear – worse than “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Continue reading at The People’s Therapist…

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