First, an offer: I thought I had retired my “book talk” about The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law when I moved to London last fall. But I’ll be in the States for a few weeks in late May and June, and I’ve been asked to dust off the talk and give it a few times — at the annual meeting of the Association of Defense Trial Counsel in Detroit, and again in Chicago for Kirkland & Ellis and Greenberg Traurig. So long as I’ll have to flip through my notes and re-learn the talk, I might as well give it for your group, too. Please let me know by email if your law firm is interested.
Second, today’s thesis — and it’s a backwards one: Law firms think more highly of you for the years when you’re not working at the firm.
I’ll start with the easy example: I moved as a sixth-year associate from a small firm in San Francisco to a huge firm in Cleveland. When I arrived at the huge firm in Cleveland, partners treated me surprisingly well. Why?
If you’ve ever met me, you know that it’s not because of my good looks and charm. I think they treated me well because I had not worked at the big firm for the previous six years.
My absence from the firm did two things: First, when I arrived at my big firm, I was a fully functioning lawyer. My contemporaries — people who had been at the firm from their first day out of school — had arrived at the big firm as baby lawyers. They couldn’t do anything, and they asked silly questions. But I had somehow mysteriously arrived at the firm fully functioning, like Athena sprung forth fully formed from Zeus’s brow. I could write briefs, take depositions, and act like a lawyer. Because I arrived at my new firm six years out of school, partners never formed the bad impressions of me that they had formed of my peers.
Second, since I had worked at a small firm, people at the big firm assumed (correctly, in fact, but that’s beside the point) that I had done real things: I had handled arbitrations, argued appeals, and tried cases during my early years as a lawyer. Everyone knew full well that lawyers who had grown up at the big firm had not yet done those things, so I was treated with respect: Not being at the firm was worth more to me than having been at the firm was to others.
That odd truth — not being at the firm can be worth more than being at the firm — extends up into the partnerships ranks.
Suppose a lawyer leaves Bigg & Mediocre for three years to take a government job — to serve perhaps as the Assistant Associate Deputy General Counsel of the United States Department of Doublespeak. When the lawyer returns to the firm, he’s a star! He’s worked at a government agency! He’s presumed to have vital contacts within and without the government! He knows more about Doublespeak than even the firm lawyers who toil away in the firm’s Doublespeak practice!
When the firm decides who will attend beauty contests, the lawyer with the shorter tenure at the firm — the person who took three years off to do government work — is disproportionately likely to be invited to participate. The firm wants to show that it has lawyers with government experience, who know how insiders at the government perceive Doublespeak issues. And the firm assumes (rightly or wrongly) that the years of government work have been a great education — a better education, in fact, than merely slaving away at Bigg & Mediocre.
The firm thus places a higher value on people who have not been at the firm than it places on those who have stayed put throughout the years.
Here’s another example: Your firm is trying to expand a particular practice. An existing partner offers to take the lead on the initiative; to that end, he asks colleagues to provide introductions and otherwise cross-sell his services to existing clients.
Unless your firm is unusual, good luck with that. The partner can beg, cajole, and threaten, but it’s quite unlikely that anyone will arrange introductions for him.
What does the firm do after the existing partner is unable to expand the desired practice? Hire the magic lateral, of course! And the lateral partner — despite being new to the firm, not yet having shown any loyalty, and not necessarily being a particularly good lawyer — is likely to get the introductions, because the managing partner wants to integrate the new guy and help build the practice.
Remarkable: If you’re at the firm, you’re worth little. If you’re not at the firm, you’re valuable.
Law firms shouldn’t automatically conclude that time spent away from the firm is more valuable than time spent at it. A stint in the government could reflect a tremendous education, or it could reflect years mired in meaningless meetings dealing with bureaucratic minutiae. Government work could be more valuable than firm work, or it could be less valuable. So, too, with time spent at other law firms.
Firms should be wary of giving too much respect to people who have arrived late to, or chosen to leave, the firm. If firms overvalue time spent away from the joint, then lawyers will eventually learn that the way to succeed is to move on. That may not be a lesson firms want to teach.
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer 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 and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.