The “commenters” at Above the Law are — as you know if you’ve ever looked — a tough crowd. If you’re a partner at a big firm, then you’re a loser, because you’re a workaholic stiff with no life. If you’re a partner at a small firm, then you’re a loser, because you couldn’t succeed at a big firm. If you’re an associate at a big firm, you’re a loser, because you’re a lifeless drone who doesn’t have the courage to pursue your dreams. If you’re a scholar, then you’re a loser: Those who can’t do, teach. If you’re a judge, then you couldn’t cut it in private practice, so you had to bail out.
You get my drift.
The correspondents who choose to write to me personally (by clicking on this link) are an entirely different breed. (Perhaps it’s because they’re not anonymous.) My correspondents have been consistently civilized and reasonable, and often quite thoughtful. But I recently received a well-crafted, nicely written email from a law student who utterly missed the boat. I devote this column to that correspondent, and to others who might be suffering from a similar misconception.
Here’s the backstory: I wrote a column about how improving the quality of law firm interviews might improve the quality of associates that a law firm hires. A law-student-correspondent suggested that law firms might in fact not care about the quality of associates. To paraphrase: “Law firms count on having high attrition in the associate ranks. So you need a fair number of associates who will either leave on their own or have to be shown the door. And law firms make very few partners, so, after an entering class has been winnowed down over the course of a decade, the firm is likely to have one or two remaining candidates who can be offered partnership. That’s true regardless of the quality of the entering class.”
That email is proof that insanity can be made to sound plausible . . .
Law firm partners don’t care about the quality of their associates? Are you nuts?
If a partner is supported by decent associates, then the partner is like Superman. The partner receives glittering draft briefs that can be sent to clients for review and then filed without editing a word. The partner gets to work from perfect deposition transcripts, filled with clean questions and answers that will support motions for summary judgment or devastating cross-examination at trial. Legal research is comprehensive and conclusions thoughtful, so the partner can rely on spadework done by others. This is bliss!
What’s the alternative? A partner cannot permit poor quality work to go out the door. If the partner receives crappy draft briefs, the partner will be forced to devote nights and weekends to burning the associates’ drafts and then re-writing the damned things. If associates can’t be trusted to take depositions, then partners fly around the country like lunatics covering for their colleagues’ failings. If research can’t be trusted, then the partner must duplicate it himself or risk drawing wrong conclusions. If a partner had an infinite number of perfect associates, then the partner would be able to handle an infinite amount of work. Partners care very, very deeply about the quality of the associates with whom they work.
What about the supposed need for associate attrition to make the big firm model work? That’s a straw man. First, if a startlingly good number of associates were top-notch, I suspect that most firms could handle that “problem.” Those firms would, after all, be able to handle more business more efficiently, which would presumably support the load of retaining more associates. But, on the off-chance that didn’t work, then it’s easy enough for a law firm to induce attrition: Tell the unnecessary associates that it’s time to leave. Law firms are not going to be threatened by a lack of associate attrition.
So, too, for the straw man about needing only a very few qualified candidates for partnership at the end of the associate gauntlet. (On a Sunday morning talk show in December, George Will accused another panelist of being a “pyromaniac in a field of straw men.” I swore that I’d find a place to steal that line and use it in this column. Done!) If a firm has too many truly outstanding candidates for partnership, then the firm certainly should find a way to accommodate a few extra brilliant partners, thus improving the quality of the partnership overall. But, on the off-chance that wasn’t possible, then it would be easy enough for a law firm to avoid being swamped by having too many new partners: Simply don’t offer partnership to most of the outstanding candidates. Law firms are not going to be threatened by having too many extraordinary candidates for partnership.
In an odd way, I enjoy the commenters at Above the Law. After a couple of decades as a law firm partner, I became unaccustomed to being savaged in public; the commenters fixed that problem. And I enjoy my correspondents in a more traditional way: They have educated me, challenged me, and provided some of the pleasure that comes from writing these twice-weekly ditties. But thinking that law firms don’t care about the quality of their associates would be a grave mistake. Please don’t fall into that trap.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.