Mark Herrmann

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 inhouse@abovethelaw.com.

Posts by Mark Herrmann

I’m an honest guy: I confessed publicly when The New York Times solicited me to write a piece about the legal profession and then rejected my submission (because it had been preempted by a DealBook special).

I confessed publicly again when I submitted a second piece — this time about the future of legal education — and was again promptly rejected.

But enough of confessions: Today, I’m here to gloat! Here’s a link to “Have We Met?” which appeared yesterday in the “Sunday Review” (formerly “The Week In Review”) section of The New York Times.

Part of me says that I should end this column right here. I should say something snooty like, “Hey, Lat! I published an essay in the Times yesterday. Isn’t that enough recreational writing for a week? I’m outta here.” But Lat would probably complain, saying that I hadn’t pulled either my weight or enough people through the “continue reading” icon. What can I tuck behind that icon that will suck you through the jump?

Aha! Three things! First, how do you get an op-ed published in the Sunday Times? Second, if you pull off that feat, how much does the Times pay you for your work? And, finally, do I have a clever story linking what I wrote in the Times to Above the Law? You’re in luck! . . .

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How do you deal with a difficult client?

Don’t be ridiculous: I’m not a difficult client! You’re a difficult lawyer!

I’m pretty busy. So how many drafts of your brief do you think I want to review?

One, reflecting your very best work? Or six, with each version fixing a typo or massaging the language in footnote three, so that I can see your next iteration?

When do you think I want to see your draft?

The morning it’s due, so that I won’t have a chance even to read the thing and, if I manage to read it, you won’t have time to make corrections? Or three days before it’s due, so we have time to make the brief right?

Do you think I want to circle all the typos and cite-checking errors in the draft you send to me? Believe me, I do not want to do this. But I can’t help myself: I spent two years entombed in the sub-basement of the library at The University of Michigan cite-checking articles and imprinting the Bluebook on my brain. I’d be delighted not to notice your errors, but I don’t have that capacity. This stuff is hard-wired into my very core.

How about your run-on sentences, use of the passive voice, and other grammatical and stylistic errors?

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At big law firms, a few folks engage in “training,” but very few bother with “coaching.”

That is: A partner may spend a few minutes training you how to write a brief or take a deposition. But, if you prove ineducable, the partner will promptly cut his (or her) losses: He won’t ask for your help anymore; he’ll pluck you out of his life. You won’t be fired; you’ll simply be forced to solicit work from other partners. You’ll never be “coached” about what you did wrong, except (maybe) at the end of the year, when some guy you never worked with evaluates you by reading aloud a comment that “one partner said you don’t write very good briefs.”

Corporations are different. Coaching is the name of the game: You can’t think? We’ll coach you!

Can’t write? We’ll coach you!

Act like a jerk? We’ll coach you!

Break your arm? We’ll coach you!

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Suppose your company has a system: All payments are run through the finance center in New York; all emails are encrypted by a certain process; all reports on a certain subject contain items 1 through 10.

As sure as I’m sitting here, someone on the sales side of your company will tell you that we must make an exception for his new client. For this client only, we should run the payments through Canada, use a different encryption service, or delete item 5 and add items 11 through 14 to the report.

Because you’re reasonable, you’ll explain that this isn’t possible: “We have a system that is hard-wired into the computers. We have 3000 different clients. We are able to offer clients only what the system permits. If we start making exceptions for particular clients, then costs will escalate and we’re sure to make mistakes. Please don’t ask us to tailor our systems to fit your client, because we just can’t.”

The sales guy will then sputter and turn red in the face: “But this client is different! This is the firm’s biggest client! And the best! And the one with the highest margin!” . . .

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My column at Above the Law turns three today. Let’s celebrate!

What are the coolest websites for you to visit?

If you never watched this episode of “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” then you missed a treat. Turn down the volume and click through; it’s my birthday!

If you’re not a connoisseur of lowbrow humor, then click here and play the geography game instead! If you’re even slightly nerdy, it’ll entertain you for hours. Go ahead, it’s my birthday!

If you don’t like jokes or games, then you’re a stiff. No matter; you can join the party anyway! One website guaranteed to fascinate stiffs has created some remarkable maps; I’ve linked here to one showing all nuclear explosions since 1945. If that map doesn’t tickle you, click through the categories and find others that do. Go ahead; it’s my birthday!

Where else? Click here . . . .

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Would you rather be a great lawyer or be perceived as being a great lawyer?

For many people, I think the answer to that question varies over time: At age 30, you’d rather be a great lawyer. At age 60, you’d rather be perceived as being a great lawyer.

Why?

Because, over time, your reputation may come to track reality. If you’re perceived as great when you’re 30, but you’re actually no good, that truth may out over time. As you age, your reputation may catch up with you.

By the time you’re 60, your professional horizon will have shortened, and it’s less likely that the world will unearth your incompetence. If you’re perceived as being a great lawyer when you’re 60, you may well make it to retirement unscathed.

What of law firms? Would you rather that your firm be great or be perceived as being great?

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I typically limit myself to one rant per column; today, I’m letting fly with two.

My first (narrow) rant is aimed at the Supreme Court of the State of Ohio: Hey, guys, have you heard? It’s the 21st century!

I have the misfortune to live overseas (in London) while maintaining licenses to practice law in three states — California, Illinois, and Ohio. California and Illinois give continuing legal education credit for courses taken by webinar, which seems entirely reasonable in today’s world. Ohio alone opts against reason; for standard CLE credits (as opposed to self-study or publication credits), you must attend a CLE class in person. Riddle me this: Where do you find a live, in-person CLE class in London, England, that’s approved for Ohio CLE credit?

When I was recently back in the states, I was forced to endure 2 1/2 consecutive days of live CLE courses, which will keep me in the Ohio bar’s good graces for the next couple of years. But now I’m throwing down the gauntlet, Ohio: I’m not doing this again in 2015! Give CLE credit for webinars, or I’ll go inactive in Ohio, survive on my California and Illinois licenses, and you’ll be out the $350 registration fee! Not only that — I’ll lobby every other similarly situated person to do the same! It’ll cost you millions! (Shhhh! Please don’t tell the folks at the Ohio bar that I’m probably rallying a group of one: All lawyers licensed in both Ohio and another state — so they can go inactive in Ohio and keep on practicing — while living overseas. If I don’t tell the Ohio bar folks and you don’t tell ‘em, they’ll probably never figure it out. After all, these are the clowns who didn’t think to give CLE credit for webinars.)

But that’s all process; now I’m moving on to substance. The CLE presentations themselves provoke today’s second rant. What mistake, I ask you, do you see made by just about everyone who teaches CLE courses (or, indeed, gives any presentations to live audiences)? More to the point, how can you avoid embarrassing yourself publicly when you speak?

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If you’re hiring a lateral partner at this level, then quality is assumed….

If you’re using Bigg & Mediocre, then quality is assumed….

If you’re hiring only from the top ten percent at the top ten schools, then quality is assumed….

Let me start again:

By the time you get to major league baseball, quality is assumed.

Right. But I’d rather have Babe Ruth than a journeyman outfielder.

We instinctively realize that, in every endeavor known to man, there are true superstars. But, when we talk about lawyers, we somehow assume that they’re all fungible. Or, in the examples I just gave, that all the lawyers within a certain rarefied group are fungible. That’s just not true. There’s quality, and then there’s real quality. In the words of Arthur Schopenhauer: “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” Talent is nice; genius is better.

If you’re with me so far, then you don’t believe that all law firms are created equal; you don’t believe that all lawyers (or partners) within a single firm are created equal; and you understand that many law firms are basically incapable of true quality control….

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When you’re a real litigator — at a firm, in the trenches, arguing stuff and getting your hands dirty — you see and hear the coolest things.

So I’m sharing a couple of litigation war stories with you today, and soliciting you to share others in the comments.

I’m in the California Court of Appeal in San Francisco. My case is third or fourth on the calendar, so I’m watching the arguments before mine. In the first case, the appellant had been convicted of a bunch of gruesome crimes. It was hard to tell without having read the briefs, but the litany plainly included rape, murder, and the desecration of a corpse. Defense counsel had not exactly lucked out in the selection of an appellate panel: He was arguing to three female judges, all of whom had formerly been prosecutors.

For reasons not entirely clear, counsel was trying to reverse the conviction for desecration of a corpse. He insisted that no evidence supported the verdict, because there was no evidence (I kid you not) that the defendant had jammed the stones inside the victim after she had died. As one of several arguments, counsel tried an appeal to reason. He asked the (seemingly) rhetorical question: “But why would my client have shoved rocks inside the body after she was dead?”

The question wasn’t so rhetorical, after all. One of the judges leaned forward incredulously and asked, with a snarl: “Excuse me, but . . .

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Alright, alright: At one level, it is about the money.

If you’re saddled with $100,000 in student debt and you’re unemployed, some money would help.

But if you’re making $160,000 in your first year out of law school, it’s not about the money.

When I entered the legal workforce, the “going rate” and terms of employment varied regionally in the United States. I chose to work in San Francisco — earning less than the going rate in New York and being entitled to only three weeks of vacation each year, instead of the four offered elsewhere — because I preferred San Francisco to New York. It wasn’t all about the money.

I chose to work at a small firm (I was the 21st lawyer at the joint) — knowing full well that my annual raises would be less at my small firm than they would have been at a large one — because I wanted real responsibility early in my career. It wasn’t all about the money.

When I later moved to one of the biggest firms in the world, it still wasn’t all about the money . . . .

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