Most lawyers do not cheat.
But a few do, and they think they’re being clever.
A cheating contract lawyer reads a novel all day, codes a couple hundred documents as “non-responsive” at ten to five, and then heads home.
Cheating junior associates record a few hours that they didn’t actually work. They assuage their guilt: “I’m more efficient than other people are, so I did this more quickly than the average guy. It’s not cheating if I write down how long it should really take to do this job.” And then the cheating associates mysteriously hit their billable-hour targets for the year.
Cheating junior partners are different. Short on work but desperate to bill time, these junior partners hoard work that they should naturally pass down to associates: “I have some free time, and I’m a very talented guy. I’ll write the brief more quickly than an associate would, anyway. I’ll just do it myself, and then I won’t have to worry about being held out of the equity ranks because I haven’t worked hard enough this year.”
But how do senior partners cheat?
I’ve heard about two senior-partner cons recently. Neither of these scams exactly cheats a client. No, it’s sweeter than that: These partners are cheating their fellow partners, or their firms.
Here’s the first story: “I was heading up a deal for a senior corporate partner who had origination credit for the client. So far as I could tell, the senior partner didn’t lift a finger on the deal. I know he never reviewed a draft. He never attended any meeting or participated in any phone call that I was on. But, at the end of the first month, the draft bill came to me and showed nearly 100 hours of this partner’s time. This was a high-priced guy; 100 hours was nearly $100,000. I asked my senior partner about it, and he said I should write off all but an hour or two. After that, the draft bills never came directly to me. The bills always went to the senior guy first, and he did a first-round edit before I saw the drafts.
“I don’t know if he was exactly inventing hours. I think he might have met the client for lunch or a drink. He’d then record that time as billable and write it off at the end of the month. Our firm never charged the client for the time, so my partner wasn’t cheating the client. But, at the end of the year, the firm thought this partner was working hard. The firm saw that he’d recorded a ton of hours, and no one saw that he’d written off most of his own time.”
Doesn’t that come back to haunt the partner when the firm looks at realization rates and sees that the firm is realizing only 70 percent of its recorded time for the senior partner’s clients?
“Nah. For really big clients, no one cares much about realization rates. And, for big transactions, writing off a quarter-million bucks is a drop in the bucket. The senior guy looks like a star for having brought in the deal, and then everyone’s doubly impressed because the senior guy is working so hard.”
That’s senior-partner cheat number one.
Cheat number two was news to me, because I was formerly a partner only at a firm that didn’t “directly” track business origination. Thus, when I was in private practice, I didn’t see guys throwing obvious elbows to land origination credit. (A system that doesn’t “directly” track origination credit poses difficulties of its own, but causing partners to scramble for origination credit isn’t on the list.)
Anyway, here’s senior-partner cheat number two, dealing with client-origination credit.
“I had lunch with the general counsel of TechCo. He hired me to do a deal. I went back to the firm and reported that I’d landed TechCo as a new client. All of a sudden, the heaviest-hitting partner in the firm announced that he’d had a cup of coffee with the CEO of TechCo a month earlier, and he’d forgotten to report about that. But he’d told the CEO that TechCo should retain us, and he’s confident that his meeting with the CEO prompted our retention. According to heaviest-hitter, he should get origination credit; I should not.
“I sure wasn’t going to pick a fight with that guy; he’d've crucified me. So he got origination credit. And he didn’t do that only to me. I swear that guy gave himself origination credit for virtually every client of the firm.”
Ah, the joys of private practice.
Does anyone else want to describe other senior-partner cheats in the comments?
Alternatively, does anyone else care to join me in-house?
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.