Associate Advice, Biglaw, General Counsel, In-House Counsel

Inside Straight: A Disquisition On Pile-O’-Crap Syndrome

Pile-o’-crap syndrome: We’ve all been victimized by it.

In private practice, it arrives in the form of four boxes of documents (containing about 2000 pages each) delivered to your door with a single handwritten note of explanation: “Here are the documents you’ll need to prepare Smith for his deposition on Wednesday.”

What does that note really say? “Here’s a pile of crap. I can’t be bothered. You deal with it.”

For an in-house lawyer, the pile o’ crap arrives in the form of a one-sentence e-mail responding to your request for a brief description of a particular lawsuit that’s headed to trial: “As you requested, I’ve attached my 100-page, single-spaced summary of the discovery record in this case.”

What does that e-mail really say? “Here’s a pile of crap. I can’t be bothered. You deal with it.”

In business environments everywhere, pile-o’-crap syndrome arrives in the form of e-mails that say only either (1) “see attached letter” or (2) “see attached chain of e-mails.”

What do those communications really say? “Here’s a pile of crap. I can’t be bothered. You figure it out.”

Why do people do this?

Some surely do this because they’re thoughtless. These are the folks who don’t give a second’s thought to what the recipients of their communications really need and so deliver messages that aid the sender, but burden the recipient.

Other people suffer from pile-o’-crap syndrome because they’re lazy. These folks understand that the recipient of a communication needs a short, cogent explanation of the relevant topic, but also realize that it would take time and effort to provide something useful. Those folks are too lazy to create something helpful.

What’s the alternative to pile-o’-crap syndrome?

As always, it’s the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Think for a minute about what the recipient of your communication needs. Create that, and then send it.

Turning this pile o' crap over to your boss is not helpful.

The partner who’s preparing a witness for deposition doesn’t need an undifferentiated mass of 8000 pages of documents. The partner needs a short outline that sorts information by topic, identifies key issues and documents, and provides tabbed and highlighted copies of the stuff that matters, along with background information that may be necessary to understand the whole situation. Provide the 8000 documents if they may be needed for background information, but explain what they are and why they matter; don’t unload a pile o’ crap.

The in-house head of litigation needs a summary that explains, in a few cogent paragraphs, who’s suing whom for what, the strengths and weaknesses of the case, key documents on both sides, and a little intelligent commentary. It’s okay to attach the 100-page outline, which may in fact edify the truly curious, but explain the essence of the issue first; don’t unload a pile o’ crap.

Don’t send an e-mail attaching an unexplained letter or chain of earlier e-mails, forcing your reader to sort through a mass of material to figure out what the reader is being asked. Explain that the attached letter is from someone to someone and requires attention because, on page two, the letter asks the following question as to which only you, the recipient, knows the answer. Explain that the attached e-mail chain relates to issue X, and the question that the recipient is being asked to answer is Y, and you’ve attached the whole e-mail chain in case the recipient requires more information. Don’t just unload a pile o’ crap.

How do you avoid becoming a sorry carrier of pile-o’-crap syndrome? Think before you write: Am I about to unload a pile o’ crap on someone? Is there any way that I could make the recipient’s life easier by providing an executive summary or otherwise explaining the materials that I’m sending? If you can make the other person’s life easier, do.

To whom does this rule apply? To everyone. In law firms, legal assistants should not inflict piles o’ crap on associates; associates should not inflict them on partners; partners should not inflict them on clients. (It works the other way, too: Partners should not unnecessarily inflict piles o’ crap on associates or associates inflict them on legal assistants. The exceptions include, of course, when the project for which we’ve been retained is to sort through a pile o’ crap: “A potential new client came in yesterday and handed us ten boxes of unsorted financial records. Please make sense of that pile o’ crap.” Or: “A client came in and left us three full-sized suitcases stuffed with handwritten notes, crumpled photocopies, flash drives, and cassette tapes that supposedly prove the conspiracy. Please make sense of that pile o’ crap. (And keep your eye on the relevant wiretap laws.”))

The “no piles-o’-crap rule” also applies to everyone who works in-house. Don’t inflict a pile o’ crap on your boss. Your boss shouldn’t inflict a pile o’ crap on his or her boss. The boss’s boss shouldn’t inflict a pile o’ crap on the CEO. The CEO shouldn’t inflict a pile o’ crap on a customer. And down the ladder, too: Your boss shouldn’t inflict a pile o’ crap on you.

Let’s make each other’s lives easier: Think before you hit “send.” Let’s eradicate the plague of pile-o’-crap syndrome.

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 (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at

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