Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Litigators

On Dr. Dolittle And The Law: Learning To Advance The Cause

Remember the pushmi-pullyu?

It can teach you a lesson about the law.

Years ago, I heard the frustrated 60-year-old head of an IP department at a big firm complain: “Aren’t there any other IP lawyers at this firm? Why do I have to decide everything?”

The problem, of course, was that his subordinates were on the wrong end of the pushmi-pullyu: They were pulling the senior guy back instead of pushing him forward. My sense is that the average lawyer, either at a firm or in-house, suffers from the same affliction: The average lawyer stands at the . . . er . . . back mouth of the beast.

I recently published a self-assessment test to help you learn whether you were a bad litigator. I’ve cleverly designed another self-assessment test, this one to gauge whether you advance the cause or obstruct it when you work on a legal matter. Here’s the test:

Look at the last email that you sent reporting on a legal development and seeking guidance on the next step forward. How does that email end? For many of you, the last sentence includes one of these two phrases, which prove that you stand at the pullyu end of the beast . . .

Your email ends one of these two ways:

“What are your thoughts?” or “How do you suggest we proceed?”

If your email ends that way, then you’re abandoning your responsibility and forcing the senior lawyer to do the thinking. That’s no way to impress people or advance your career.

If the matter you’re working on has reached a decision point, then think. Decide the appropriate route to take, and suggest it.

That (1) proves to the senior person that you’re a sentient being and (2) makes the senior person’s life easier by giving that person the answer, rather than simply posing the question.

Thus, the pullyu version of an email says:

“The bad guys just stole six of our employees. Three of them are bound by non-competes. It looks as though this gang is improperly stealing $2 million of our revenue. We could file a lawsuit to try to stop them. What do you think?”

But the pushmi version of the same email continues:

” . . . could file a lawsuit to try to stop them. We think we’re more likely than not to prevail in that lawsuit if we file it. The cost of prosecuting the case is likely to be $X. The folks in the business unit are anxious to file suit, and I’m concerned that, if we don’t file this case, our competitor might be tempted to steal more employees in the future. Thus, I recommend that we file this lawsuit. Let me know if you disagree. (Given the time sensitivity of this, if I don’t hear from you within 24 hours, I’ll interpret your silence to imply consent.)”

Or some such thing.

The pullyu version of the email could have been written by the kid down the block. It simply reports on events; it adds no value. In contrast, the pushmi version shows competence; it seeks to move the ball. It’s that contribution that your superior — the partner supervising the case; the person to whom you report in-house; the CEO — needs and craves; your superior does not need yet more questions, unaccompanied by proposed answers, being unleashed on him.

The pushmi-pullyu problem of course extends far beyond emails. What does it mean when a client calls the day after a hearing to ask, “How did it go?”

It means that you’re a pullyu.

You should have called (or emailed) the client immediately after the hearing, so the client wouldn’t be forced to remember that the hearing had occurred and you hadn’t yet reported on the result.

What does it mean when your boss writes to ask, “Have we yet changed the form contractual terms in the way that you and I discussed last month?”

Pullyu city. The boss is worried that you didn’t do the assigned task, and she felt compelled to follow up. You should have performed the task and confirmed that it was done.

I understand that you’re reluctant to take the lead on things: The boss might disagree with your proposed course of action. The boss is a smart person who can decide things on her own. The boss is older and wiser and doesn’t need your input.


If you don’t propose a course of action, then the boss assumes that you have no ideas. That’s much worse than having the boss occasionally reject the ideas that you do propose. And even the smartest and oldest and wisest person in the world is delighted when you help the smart, old, wise one do her job, and you coincidentally prove that you’re a competent, industrious junior person.

Don’t let your career get stuck in Puddleby-on-the-Marsh.

Instead, ride the giant lunar moth to the heavens.

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

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