Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Old People, Practice Pointers, Screw-Ups

Inside Straight: The Ghosts Of Incompetents Past

There’s a reason why people get crotchety when they get old. People forget about things that went right in their professional lives; that’s like water off a duck. But people remember things that got screwed up; that’s what sticks in their craws.

You personally are not necessarily incompetent. But you’re tarred by the ghosts of incompetents past. When your elder — a partner, a boss, a client, whoever — asks you to do something, the boss assumes that you won’t do it. The boss doesn’t assume this because she knows that you’re irresponsible; she assumes it because the clown she asked to do something six months ago was irresponsible, and she has to hedge against you being an irresponsible clown, too.

How do you prove that you’re not irresponsible?

At the outset, remember that the working presumption is against you. The elder will remember (whether correctly or not) that she has for decades been disappointed by everybody she has ever asked to do anything. Everybody has blown off assignments or completed them poorly. The elder is asking you to do something, so you’ll naturally blow it off, too. That’s the assumption; you bear the burden of disproving it.

You don’t carry that burden by promising to do things. The clown from six months ago promised to do things, too — and then he didn’t follow through. The clown from six months ago received the e-mail asking him to draft and mail a letter, and the clown immediately e-mailed back, “Will do.” Then, despite the promise, the clown didn’t follow through; he dropped the ball. Your similar e-mail — “will do” — doesn’t mean anything either.

You carry the burden of proving that you’re responsible by proving that you’re responsible. When you’re asked to draft and mail a letter, you send a blind copy of the mailed form of the letter to the elder. The elder sees the copy and thinks, “What a pleasant surprise! This person actually did what was asked of him!”

If you do not send a blind copy to the elder, then, a week later, the elder wakes up with a start in the middle of the night and thinks, “Shoot! I asked that young whippersnapper to send a letter, and I haven’t yet seen it go out. So he probably blew off the project (just like the clown from six months ago did). I have to remember to remind the young whippersnapper to send out the letter.” The elder turns on the light on his nightstand, waking his spouse, and writes a note to himself to confirm in the morning that you did what you were asked.

In the morning, the elder calls to ask if you did the job. You say that you did. The elder is comforted, but the process was wrong. Your failure to prove that you were doing things caused the old coot to wake up in the middle of the night and bother his spouse. You could (and should) have done better.

If you’re asked to do something, (1) do it (on time and right) and (2) simultaneously prove that you’ve done it. Send out the promised e-mail, and blind copy the elder with the e-mail. The elder will see that you’ve done your task, and he won’t fret that you were irresponsible.

If you prepare a report for a third party, copy the elder with the transmittal letter or e-mail. The elder will see that the report actually went out, and he’ll calm down.

If a client sends an e-mail to three lawyers — you, elder, and eldest — asking for something, then you respond. You transmit the requested information, and you copy elder and eldest, so they see that the information went out. If elder and eldest don’t see that you sent the information, the next day elder will silently curse you, root around through his office to find the requested information, and send it himself (copying you and eldest, so that everyone sees that the client got the requested information). When you e-mail back that you already sent the information to the client, elder will not think: “What a fine, competent person. He promptly provided the requested information.” Rather, elder will think: “What a damned fool! Why didn’t he send me a copy of the transmittal message? Then I wouldn’t have wasted time looking for the information, and we wouldn’t have embarrassed ourselves by transmitting the same information to the client twice.”

When asked to do something, do it (on time and right) and simultaneously prove that you’ve done it. That is the only way to comfort your bosses. Over time, the crazy old coots may actually calm down and tell you not to copy them with every transmittal message. But that time may never come. In any event, the choice is the old coots’, not yours.

This rule sounds as though it’s aimed at young people, but it’s not. How does a partner at a law firm convince another partner that she’s responsible? By doing things (on time and right) and simultaneously proving that she’s done them. How does the new general counsel prove to the CEO that the new GC is responsible? By doing things (on time and right) and simultaneously proving that he’s done them.

You — like everyone else — must overcome the starting presumption that you’re inept, which is the lingering gift bestowed on you by incompetents past. If you understand the starting presumption, you’re far more likely to cause your elders — partners, bosses, clients, whoever — to trust you, which is ultimately the name of the game.

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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