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

Let’s assume for a moment that arithmetic is true.

This means that the average lawyer is average.

And average is actually pretty bad. (As one of my co-clerks said during the first week of a clerkship, reading a Ninth Circuit brief several decades ago: “This is great!”

“What? Is the brief good?”

“No! The brief is terrible. We are not gonna starve!”)

The average lawsuit thus pits Tweedledee against Tweedledum, and, sadly, they can’t both lose. After the verdict comes down, Tweedlewhoever boasts on his website of another great victory and yet more proof of his talent and expertise.

Twenty years later, what does that look like?

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Years ago, I knew a lawyer who thought that business entertainment worked. He was a plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyer: “I treat a doctor to a $50 lunch, and the next day he refers a case to me. I make one phone call and settle the case for $9,000, netting a $3,000 fee. And the doctor thinks we’re even! It’s unbelievable! I can’t eat enough lunches!”

Good for him. But does it work for anyone else?

I certainly treated clients to dinners and sporting events in my day, but none of those clients (or prospects) ever hired me in return for that entertainment. I didn’t expect them to, and I’d be terribly disappointed in them if they did. My having treated a guy to a dinner doesn’t make me the best lawyer to handle his case, and he’d be nuts to hire me because the caviar was beluga.

The reverse is also true. Lots of people want to meet me, buy me a meal, or take me to a cricket match (I’m now based in London, remember?) since I’ve gone in-house. A few of the folks who buy me lunch even follow up with e-mails expressing their unhappiness that I haven’t promptly retained them: “Was it something I said? Why haven’t I heard from you, other than the thank you note?”

It was nothing you said. But why should I possibly hire you simply because you bought me lunch?

I have my own theory about why firms create large “client entertainment” budgets . . .

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People are idiots. Maybe that should be the official motto of this column.

(Maybe, given what I wrote in The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, that should be the official motto of my life.)

Today’s column draws, as always (except when I’m making stuff up), on true life.

A friend at a London law firm wanted to meet a senior executive at my company. I asked the executive if he cared to join my friend and me for lunch. I naturally placed no pressure on the exec: “I’m happy to have lunch with this guy alone, or I’m happy to set up something for the three of us. What do you prefer?”

Somewhat to my surprise, the exec accepted the lunch date. I told my friend. And my buddy promptly sent an invitation for the appointed date and time scheduling lunch in a conference room at his law firm, halfway across London from our corporate offices.

Get our your Bluebook and start spotting issues!

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Partner asks for a draft brief by Wednesday. It doesn’t arrive on time. Partner asks Associate about the brief: “I wrote it, but the dog ate it. I’ll get you a draft next week.”

On the next assignment, Partner asks for a draft brief by a deadline. The brief doesn’t arrive on time. Partner asks about the brief: “I left the finished draft in a briefcase in my car, and a thief broke into my car and stole the briefcase. I’ll get you a draft next week.”

On the next assignment, the computer crashed at the last minute. And on the assignment after that, a junior lawyer doing some research for the brief fell ill, so it wasn’t possible to get the brief written on time.

For Partner, the solution is easy: “This clown is irresponsible. There are other associates around here who actually do things on time. I’ll stop working with the clown, and my life will be much easier. And I’ll report on the clown’s annual review that he’s irresponsible.”

For Associate, the situation is baffling: “I do great work, and I turn things in late only when fate interferes. Why doesn’t Partner work with me anymore, and why did he unfairly say on my review that I’m irresponsible?”

Another example; the corporate analogy to law firm life; and my stunning conclusion all after this enticing ellipsis . . .

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I love it: Law firms send us brochures and offer us free CLE programs about all the things that smart corporations should do.

We should protect data privacy. We should have written policies that require pre-approval before our sales folks entertain clients at fancy events. We should train our employees about “intelligent business communications,” so that no one writes stupid e-mails. We should train everyone about conflicts of interest, avoiding discrimination or harassment in the workplace, and insider trading. We should establish systems to confirm that any person or entity that needs a license is in fact licensed.

And then what do law firms themselves do? The firms blithely ship personal information from office to office around the world — because the folks in the U.S. need information about the plaintiff suing for personal injuries in France. The firms have no rules at all restricting how lawyers entertain their clients. Lawyers at the firms write stupid e-mails. [Note to David Lat: Please do not add a link to the preceding sentence about stupid e-mails. You'll link to an article about some law firm in particular, and lawyers at that firm will write to me accusing me of having slung mud at their firm. I'm not slinging mud at any one particular law firm, by God -- I'm slinging mud at all of them!] What else do firms do? Corporate lawyers move from New York to California and never bother to take the California bar exam, because it’s such a pain in the neck, and no one will ever know, anyway.

Corporate Counsel recently investigated this issue, asking major law firms about their compliance programs. The conclusion? Law firms generally either don’t have compliance programs or choose not to discuss the issue (because, I’ll speculate, they don’t have compliance programs, and prefer not to admit this publicly). Isn’t it time for the shoemaker’s children to be shod?

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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?

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Although I won’t name names here (because my employer is, among other things, the insurance broker to the stars, and I can’t afford to offend clients or potential clients), I just stumbled across an article that indirectly told me how to pick outside counsel.

In a relatively high-profile situation, a government entity recently had to retain an outside law firm. The government naturally retained an outside adviser to help the government make its choice. (How else could one possibly pick counsel?)

The outside adviser — I think you’d call the outfit a management consultant, although the website left me a little confused — has lots of MBAs on staff, but there’s not a lawyer to be seen. No matter: The MBAs created a questionnaire for the law firms to fill out, and the law firm that accumulated the most points won the business.

This is great! It’s time (once again) for me to stop thinking and start copying! We’ll revamp our whole system for choosing counsel! In the future, we’ll give the law firms who want our business a form to complete. We’ll add up the points — even I can do that. And then we’ll choose the law firm with the most points, thus retaining the best firm in the world to handle our matter through an objectively defensible selection process, in case anyone ever wants to second-guess our choice of counsel.

Shoot! If only I’d gone to business school, I could have been this smart! Let’s take a look at the questionnaire, so I’ll know the form that I’m copying to choose counsel for my next case . . . .

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Sometimes, we care about questions. Sometimes, we care about answers. Sometimes, we care about both.

When you’re reporting on a situation, remember that.

I see many, many interview reports that unnecessarily include questions when the reader cares only about answers. If you’re interviewing a witness, and the witness lived the facts (and you personally know bupkis), then we really don’t care about your questions; we care only about the witness’ answers.

So, when you’re reporting on your interview of the witness, do not assign an abbreviation to your name (Mark Herrmann, hereinafter MH), an abbreviation to the witness’s name (The Witness, hereinafter TW), and then report on your questions as though they mattered:

“MH asked . . . . TW responded . . . . MH followed up by asking . . . .”

We care only about the facts — which the witness knows, and you do not — so report only the facts:

“According to the witness . . . .” Your name should appear no more than once in the entire report, so we know who conducted the interview.

That’s a situation where we care only about answers. But there are other situations where we care only about questions . . . .

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Here’s one great benefit of blogging: Publishers send you free copies of books, hoping that you’ll review them!

I received and read, but now choose not to review, Steven J. Harper’s valuable new contribution to the literature: The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession In Crisis (affiliate link).

I’m not reviewing the book, but instead using it as a jumping-off point to discuss a tangent. Harper explains in his book two things that every sentient lawyer has noticed over the past several years: (1) students are graduating from law school buried under a mountain of debt, and many of those students can’t find jobs, and (2) many law firms have lost sight of the law’s noble history as a learned profession and are now obsessed with maximizing their profits per partner in the coming year.

Harper’s right about these things, of course, and this isn’t exactly late-breaking news to anyone who’s been following either Above the Law or Harper’s blog, The Belly of the Beast, for the last few years. Harper’s book advances the discussion, however, by exploring these issues in more detail than others have. He also proposes possible solutions to these problems, including “allowing the federal government to recover [law school loan] guarantees from a law school (and its university) whenever a student loan became the principal contributor to an alumnus’s later bankruptcy.” (Page 159.) Or encouraging law firms to release their “Working Culture Index,” which would show the percentage of lawyers billing more than 2000, 2100, 2200, 2300, 2400, and 2500 in the previous year (perhaps with separate totals being released for partners and associates). (Page 173.)

These ideas are well worth discussing, and I’m glad that Harper has taken the time to analyze these things. But I have another topic to highlight, which is an odd tangent to Harper’s two issues . . . .

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I’ve finally plucked “big firm mediocre” out of my life.

First, I left Biglaw, so I’m no longer revising lifeless drafts that arrive either up through the ranks or from co-counsel.

Then, my corporation entered fixed fee deals for virtually all of its litigation work. We invited only firms that do good work to compete for our business, and the winners have performed as expected: No brief arrives at our doorstep until it’s been reviewed by someone who can write.

But we still have a few strays: There are cases in oddball jurisdictions or involving unusual specialties where we select counsel on an individualized basis. And we still have old cases lingering from before our fixed-fee days staffed by an assortment of counsel. Once in a long while, I still run into briefs written in the “big firm mediocre” style.

What’s funny is how consistent it is. Although the briefs address different subjects in different jurisdictions, and they’re written by different people, “big firm mediocre” constitutes its own distinct literary genre. Care to write in that genre (or assess whether you already do)? Here are the characteristics:

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