In-House Counsel, Old People

Inside Straight: Analyzing The Generational Divide

I’m thinking again, as I did on Monday, about why lawyers go insane over time.

Years ago (long before MapQuest was even a gleam in its inventor’s eye), an older lawyer sent me directions for driving to his home. It was pretty easy to get from my apartment to his house; I had to make only three or four turns. But the directions were several typed pages long. Why?

Because this guy had been driven insane by mistakes in the past. He had told someone to turn east on a road, and the person had turned west. So now the directions eliminated that possible mistake: “Turn east (that is, turn right as you are proceeding northbound on route 1) at the light.” Someone else had missed the turn. So now the directions eliminated that possible mistake: “If you see a shopping mall followed by a McDonald’s on the right side of the road, then you have gone too far. Turn around, go back to the light, and turn east (that is, left as you are now proceeding southbound on route 1) at the light.” Having experienced all of these mistakes, the older lawyer felt compelled to help me avoid them, which made his driving directions nearly incomprehensible.

What does this have to do with being a lawyer?

As you age, you are driven insane by mistakes that you’ve made (or seen others make) in the past. You’ve seen someone wait until 5 p.m. to call for vital information, and the person who had the information had left for the day and was now unreachable. For the rest of your life, you make your phone calls for vital information before noon, just in case.

You’ve sent an email urgently requesting information and not received a response for a week, because the intended recipient was out on vacation. For the rest of your life, when you send an urgent email, you then call the person to whom you’ve sent the email to confirm that the person is not on vacation. If you don’t reach the intended recipient, you speak to the recipient’s secretary to confirm that the recipient is in the office and will see the email. You remember that once a secretary deceived you, saying that the person was not on vacation, but neglecting to mention the person was tied up in court and wouldn’t see the email for hours. For the rest of your life, you cross-examine secretaries about when the lawyers for whom they work will next be checking emails.

You’ve put the final touches — just fixing a last typo or two — on a brief and asked a secretary to make the changes, proof the changes, and file the brief. The secretary accidentally deleted a sentence as he corrected the typos, so the final version of the brief contained a nasty error. For the rest of your life, you read, from start to finish, the final form of every brief that’s going out the door, even though the last set of changes that you made involved only fixing two typos.

Sure you’re crazy; you’ve been driven insane by events. You’re hedging against things that victimized you in the past.

I frequently hear that today’s young lawyers are different from the last generation: “I don’t get it. The kids coming out of law school today just don’t sweat the small stuff. They don’t make sure that things are perfect, and they don’t worry about finishing tasks on time. When I graduated from law school, we had a name for people who sweated the small stuff; we called them ‘lawyers.'”

I understand the criticism, but I’m not sure we’ve pinned down the cause.

One possibility is that the older lawyer is right: Today’s kids are just bums, unwilling to do what’s needed to succeed in our cold, cruel profession.

But another possibility is that the older lawyer has simply lived longer and so had the chance to be driven insane by more events. The older lawyer knows — deeply and fervently, down to his very core — that you simply must proofread the last draft of the brief before you file it, even though the final revisions did no more than fix a couple of typos. The younger lawyer thinks the older lawyer is nuts.

Although this is a generational divide, perhaps it’s the inescapable one. Young lawyers are not a new breed of human beings who simply refuse to sweat the small stuff; rather, every generation is driven insane as it ages, and the young lawyers have not yet had that pleasure.


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 inhouse@abovethelaw.com.

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