Do law firms set performance objectives for their lawyers?
I worked at two different lawfirms over the course of 25 years, and I remember only one meeting where anyone sat down and talked with me about setting performance objectives. We set the objectives; no one ever followed up to see whether I’d achieved them; and the rest was silence.
Perhaps some firms regularly set performance objectives for lawyers, but that was nothing I’d experienced before I moved in-house.
Many corporate law departments set performance objectives for in-house lawyers, and many people do this poorly. “Setting objectives” is viewed as an annual chore inflicted on the supervisor that he cannot ignore; the computer system keeps nagging him about it and ratting him out to others up the ranks. The supervisor finally relents and types a few objectives into the system: “Meet budget. Work closely with business units. Negotiate alternative fee agreements.”
Now that’s out of your hair, and no one will bother you until next year.
Lawyers are great at thinking small — small picture, that is. We’re awesome at details, however painstakingly minor. We sport the “grammar police” badge proudly, even though we know that it’s the dorkiest one out there (wait, except for the “I memorized all of the two-letter words in Scrabble” badge — that one’s slightly dorkier). We find nit-picky, meaningless, hypothetical debates to be “intellectually stimulating,” while the rest of the world sees them as a complete and utter waste of time. And it’s all good. Details are essential to the practice of law. But so is seeing the big picture.
A law firm associate friend once represented a bank on a loan in which the borrower later ended up missing a payment date. Upon learning of the missed payment, he promptly drafted a default notice. When he presented the default notice to the law firm partner, the partner’s reaction was, “Whoa, Nelly… hold on there — no way are we sending any default notice.”
The associate was thinking small picture — how dare the borrower miss a payment to his client! In full gunner mode, he proceeded to take steps to ensure that the bank was paid the monies due (and, by the way, now at a default interest rate — haha!). He was only trying to zealously represent his client, right? Right? The partner, on the other hand, was thinking big picture….
The first month of the new year turned out to be a great one for lawyers, but as usual, we don’t exactly mean that in the nicest of ways. January brought us new legal controversies of all varieties, from all kinds of places.
With terroristic threats allegedly made by an associate at one Biglaw firm, and scandalous sexual allegations raised by a partner from another one, we knew that we’d have a crop of crass and sex-crazed behavior for this round of our Lawyer of the Month competition.
That being said, let’s check out our nominees for the month of January….
I wish I could name names; I really do. But I work at the world’s leading insurance broker for law firms, and I can’t go around offending the clients (or potential clients). You’ll just have to guess.
All of these interviews actually took place. I swear it.
First, there was the senior partner at a major New York firm, interviewing me at the start of my second year of law school: “You know, a lot of students want to make excuses for not having perfect grades. Sometimes, those excuses are pretty good: You hear from the single mothers. You hear from people who are working full-time and going to law school at night. The excuses aren’t bad.
“But I have to tell you something: If you have to give me an excuse, I don’t want to hear it. We have too many people who are perfect looking for jobs here. If you’re perfect, we’ll hire you. If you have to make an excuse, don’t even bother telling me. If you have to make an excuse, we’re not making you an offer.”
I didn’t say these stories were uplifting. I said only that they were true.
When I was a kid, before many of you were born, there were ads during Saturday morning cartoons for a program called “RIF” -– an acronym for “Reading is Fundamental.” Started in 1966 in Washington, D.C., it is supposedly one of the oldest non-profit educational programs in existence. I mentioned RIFs in my last column, and trust me, in the corporate world, RIFs are not altruistic attempts to get at-risk youth to read.
RIF stands for “reduction in force” — i.e., layoffs, terminations, downsizing, etc. A RIF can take various forms. For example, a V-RIF, or “voluntary reduction in force,” is when a company offers early retirement or severance packages to certain employees. These are usually offered as a first attempt to reduce work force numbers, and they are the cleanest way to lower the population. At the other end of the spectrum is the I–RIF, or “involuntary reduction in force.” The term is self-defining.
I stated before that I have witnessed an I-RIF period, and that it was awful. By “awful,” I meant that seeing people let go from their jobs was uncomfortable for me, having come from private practice where such reductions were not (at the time) as publicized as they are today. My company handled the situation with as much grace as could be expected, and I honestly believed our then-CEO when she stated that the dignity of our people was at the forefront of how the reduction would take place….
Here’s my thesis: We create rules to hedge against ineptitude, and we thus institutionalize mediocrity.
Here are the examples. First, someone — the Administrative Office of the Courts? God? — creates rules to hedge against incomprehensible judicial opinions, and we thus discourage judges from writing exceptional opinions.
When new federal appellate judges attend what is affectionately called “baby judges’ school,” the judges are told how to write opinions. An opinion should have five parts, the judges are told: An introduction (which does not have to be preceded by a separate heading); a statement of facts; the standard of review; the legal discussion; and a conclusion.
Do we impose these rules because every judicial idea is best expressed in this format? Of course not. These rules impose a basic organizational structure on decisions, so that even the worst appellate decisions will be marginally comprehensible. The rules hedge against ineptitude.
Most judges follow the rules, and society generally benefits; we understand most of what’s written. I suspect that many judges who would be capable of writing better opinions if they were not bound by the rules nonetheless choose to constrain themselves, opting to do as instructed. Society may suffer in those situations, because the opinions are not as well-crafted as they might otherwise be.
A few judges ignore the rules. Whatever your politics, for example, you probably agree that Judge Frank Easterbrook often writes great opinions; he regularly ignores the mandatory structure. (This isn’t a high crime or misdemeanor, so he’s safe.) We don’t complain when Judge Easterbrook strikes out on his own, because readers understand what he’s saying and often delight in how he expresses himself.
On the other hand, if Judge Nobody were to strike out on his own, the law might become a muddle. We try to control that judge by imposing a structure. Bureaucratic rules discourage greatness, but they hedge against ineptitude.
You may be one of those people who realized early on that law firm partnership is not for you. For me, this was the case even before I started law school. Law was going to be a second career for me, and by the day of my first 1L class, I already had two small children vying for my attention. Surprisingly, having small kids while in law school full time was not easy. You really need to be engaged in your kids’ interests, which can be hard when you’re also trying to dodge Socratic bullets for the first time. There was one semester when it literally took me an entire week to defeat the Elite Four in Pokémon Yellow. Tough times, tough times.
I later went into Biglaw with the understanding that the experience would look good on my résumé, and that I would get what people refer to as “great training.” (And, of course, the money was nothing to complain about, either.) And I actually did enjoy the work. But you can’t work Biglaw hours and expect to just breeze through all of the Pokémon versions — Gold, Ruby, Platinum, Black, etc. — there are so many of them! It’s just not possible, and I will challenge anyone who says it is.
So once you’ve decided that the in-house life is the life for you (or that there’s no way in hell they’ll make someone who’s so obsessed with kids’ games partner), when’s the best time to make the move? Well, it depends….
In the first lawsuit (during the proxy fight), the judge held that certain statements made in proxy materials were false and misleading. That lawsuit settled. In the next lawsuit (the 10b-5 class action), plaintiffs explain that precisely the same statements appeared in an annual report, and it is now settled law that those words are false and misleading. How do you avoid the devastating effect of collateral estoppel in the second case?
I solved that puzzle back in 1990. Now I’ve moved in-house, and I fear that I’ll never solve a similar puzzle again.
Have I lost my creativity? I don’t think so. Does my job still require creativity? Yes — but different kinds of creativity. This column is a requiem to a type of thinking that an in-house job — or, at a minimum, my in-house job — doesn’t seem to permit….
February 1, 2012 is a singularly important day to Rush geeks (like me). 2112, get it? I’ve been drumming for over 30 years, and was brought up on trying to play along with Mr. Peart. While I succeeded somewhat in gaining enough chops to play Moving Pictures, Side 1 (back when they had albums, which had sides), and I am proud to say I’ve played some legendary clubs in the Village, the drums never became my end all and be all. Neither did acting, which I tried when I was in my 20s.
When they learn of my distant past, people always ask if I was in anything they’d know — and the answer is that I auditioned for several things they’d know, but since I’m “happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company,” which is impressive, it obviously never panned out. So, as I gaze out my 20th floor window over the lack of snow in upstate New York, my thoughts turn to where I am and where I may be going. Obama gets to give a speech every year on the state of the country, so why can’t I muse about a much smaller universe — the state of the union between me, and others, and the law?
It’s hard to conjure up bad stuff to say about clerking. It’s an honor, and an all-expense-paid ticket on an exclusive legal gravy train. If you’re lucky enough to clerk for a federal district or circuit court judge, you can rest assured you’re looking good and feeling good.
You might even shoot the moon and sing with the Supremes. In that case, you’re good to go: You’ll never have to practice actual law again. You can sign up now to teach a seminar on “Law and Interpretive Dance” at Yale or attend sumptuous international human rights conferences hosted by African dictators. Life is good at the top. Imagine the stimulation of interacting one-on-one with the mind of a Clarence Thomas (and acquiring access to his porn collection.) You could be the clerk who builds an ironclad case striking down universal access to healthcare — or witness the day Justice T opens his mouth to speak during oral argument….
The legal industry is being disrupted at every level by technological advances. While legal tech entrepreneurs and innovators are racing to create a more efficient and productive future, there is widespread indifference on the part of attorneys toward these emerging technologies.
Ed. note: The Asia Chronicles column is authored by Kinney Recruiting. Kinney has made more placements of U.S. associates, counsels and partners in Asia than any other recruiting firm in each of the past seven years. You can reach them by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We at Kinney Asia have made a number of FCPA / White Collar US associate placements in Hong Kong / China thus far in 2014. Most of such placements have been commercial litigation associates from major US markets, fluent in Mandarin, switching to FCPA / White Collar litigation. Some have already had FCPA experience, but those are difficult candidates for firms to find (this will change in coming years as US firms are now promoting FCPA / White Collar to their 2L summers who are fluent in Mandarin and have an interest in transferring to China at some point).
Legal Week quoted Kinney’s Head of Asia, Evan Jowers, extensively in the following relevant article here.
There is a new trend in the market, though, where mid-level transactional US associates, fluent in spoken Mandarin and written Chinese, are interviewing for and in some cases landing junior FCPA / White Collar spots in Hong Kong / China at very top tier US firms.
When the LexisNexis Cloud Technology Survey results were reported earlier this year, it showed that attorneys were starting to peer less skeptically into the future, and slowly but surely leaning more toward all the benefits the law cloud has to offer.
Because let’s face it, plenty of attorneys are perhaps a bit too comfortable with their “system” of practice management, which may or may not include neon highlighters, sticky notes, dog-eared file folders, and a word processing program that was last updated when the term “raise the roof” was still de rigueur.