Buying In: O What A Night…

Silly season is almost upon us. I am not a big fan of Biglaw holiday celebrations. As readers know, Above the Law loves holiday parties, which often lead to good stories. But what is good for ATL sometimes does not match up with what is good for Biglaw.

I have never had a good time at a firm holiday party. You end up seeing things you can’t unsee. Like the weird guy from tax trying to hit on one of the marketing girls. Or your managing partner dancing. Horrible sights. For no reason. Thankfully the Biglaw Breakdown has led to a scaling back of firm holiday parties. Mostly.

In some ways, the amount of money your firm spends acts as a sort of prestige barometer. A black-tie night, with plus-ones invited, at a ritzy hotel? Congratulations — your clients are not cheap and get into a lot of legal trouble. Some cheap champagne, beers, and low-grade sushi in the big conference room? Welcome to Biglaw 2012. If the party is going to be worse that a night at a restaurant, why bother? At least at the restaurant I get to choose my wine, my food, and my company….

Generally though, holiday parties are a waste of money. No one up to any good really wants to be there. Sure, some of the staff may like the free fancy night out, but handing them $100 gift cards is just as good and cheaper. The staffers generally feel overworked and underpaid. No bonuses again this year. Less job security. Working for the same clueless, or abusive, or generally unpleasant bosses. Who can blame them for cutting loose on the firm’s dime? Damn right they will eat, drink, dance, and otherwise have the time of their lives. But again, most would prefer some extra cash.

Associates? They should be billing. They get paid plenty — at least for now — and they can celebrate the holidays on their own dime. Litigators in particular tend to avoid holiday work emergencies like the plague, so there is no reason for associates in that kind of practice not to take vacation or visit family.

But many firms continue to hold holiday parties, and smart associates need to game plan. The following advice is for associates hoping to make partner. (Slacker associates with your eye on the door, feel free to drink yourself into oblivion and make the partners you hate very uncomfortable by subjecting everyone to your drunken humor and inappropriate invasions of personal space.)

First off, you should show up, preferably a little late, and straight from completing a work assignment. Used right, parties can be valuable intra-firm networking opportunities. Under no circumstances should you be there for more than an hour or two, max. The goal is for the people that need to see you, to see you, and for you to make your rounds looking chipper despite your heavy workload and manifold contributions to the firm at all levels. My strategy was always to concentrate on powerful partners who I did not work with regularly. (Generally the more powerful the partner, the more pressure they are under to act as a kind of “host” for the party. They know how much the damn thing is costing, are worried about something bad happening, and want people to have a good time while looking happy to be there. Work with that.) There is no sense in spending time with your normal work crew — you see plenty of them. This is the time to get on the radar screen in a positive way with the head of your group (if you don’t normally work directly for that person), or the managing partner of the office, or some other firm big shot. Bonus points if you can make a positive impression on a visiting big shot from another office. (Associates would be very, very nice to visiting partners if they knew how much outsized weight is given to cross-office comments about them — either favorable or negative.)

You will kick out a bit early, apologetically, because you have a family (and are thus stable partnership material) or some client business (ditto) to attend to. You love working at Biglaw firm X, and wish everyone continued success and joy. Even if you just end up meeting some friends for a little private after-party, you have used your holiday party time wisely, and have turned an obligation into a positive. If you find yourself in any form of physical contact with a colleague or firm staff member, chances are you have turned an obligation into a very big negative. At least you won’t need to worry about next year’s holiday party — most likely.

Partners? These parties only cause trouble. Married partners have to deal with spouses unhappy not to have been invited, or if invited, unhappy at having to go and make nice with lawyers and their insufferable spouses. Unmarried partners normally have better ways to spend their time. At least they should. If they can, partners forced to go to holiday parties should run a version of the associate game I outlined above. A little glad-handing, demonstration of good citizenship, and an apologetic early exit.

Holiday parties are a bonanza for the perverts and alcoholics in the partnership, though. Nothing like getting your kicks by leering at (for the rehabilitated lechers) your co-workers, or making that move on one of your associates. It’s a party! Just having some fun, no hard feelings. And we all know that the drinkers would “celebrate” anything by imbibing a few liters of moonshine. Especially if it is free. Impulse control is a challenge for some partners. Probably because they were unpopular geeks when it mattered, or they realize that they have squandered their primes working. And that they have a decade or two to go.

I say get rid of the holiday parties. Instead? Set up an end-of-year Chinese auction for the office, with nice prizes that everyone can try for. Set it up in the conference room. Invite clients to join the festivities. Staff gets free coupons to try for the prizes, lawyers get to buy them with the money going to charities — preferably ones run by large clients. Give away tickets, a vacation, some jewelry, and some electronics. Have a rule that if a partner wins a prize, he or she either needs to gift it to a staff member, or let it go back into the pot so someone else can win. Spend a minimum of 25 percent less than what last year’s party cost your office — preferably, save as much as you can. Maybe hit up some clients for discounted merchandise. Make it classy, tasteful, and fun. Hold it from 5:30 to 7 p.m., one night after work. Give the staff the $100 gift cards as a surprise parting gift. A good time for all, some positive marketing out of the night, and money saved — a holiday trifecta. But why do what makes sense, when you can waste money on an expensive “event” that no one wants to be at, doesn’t involve clients in a positive way, and can be a magnet for bad press?

What do you think of holiday parties? Any interesting experiences? Let me know by email or in the comments…


Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at [email protected].


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