For as far back as I can remember, the arrival of a new year has been an occasion for me to reflect on my life, where it has gone, and where it appears to be going. Many times I would spend New Year’s Eve simply being grateful; more recently, it has been an occasion to try to see a little furthur [sic].
This year, for the second consecutive year, our firm was approached by an Am Law 100 firm to explore the potential of our being acquired or otherwise merging. These overtures are flattering. They also intensify my annual ritual of considering my path and the choices I have made.
I have written before about some of the differences between Biglaw and small. My perception of those differences, however, has changed quite a bit in the nearly four years since I left Biglaw to help start a boutique firm. Our firm also has changed so much from one year to the next that my calculus of the pros and cons of Biglaw also has changed….
It was our new receptionist’s first day at our office. I was in our kitchen, and I found a potato wrapped in a paper towel. Because it was a raw potato far in the back of one of our unused kitchen drawers, I had no idea how long it had been there. Months, maybe. So I asked Cassidy, the new employee, “Is this your potato?”
Cassidy was slouched nearly horizontal in her chair. She looked at me with an expression of vague annoyance, and reached up to remove her iPod earbuds. She mumbled a response but didn’t really answer me. So I asked again, “Cassidy, I was just curious, is this your potato?”
I repeated my question for the third time and finally she replied, “I don’t know. Maybe.”
I tried a different approach. “Let me put it this way. Have you brought a potato into the office in the six hours you have been working here?”
Progress! “Well, then I think it’s safe to say that this is your potato. Mystery solved.”
The earbuds went back in and we let Cassidy go the next day. She called our office about a week later, asking to retrieve a pair of scissors and… you guessed it, her potato….
Brian Tannebaum, my fellow small-firm columnist, recently described as silly the notion that “success in the law doesn’t come from good legal work.” I agree with Tannebaum that success requires far more than “being able to obtain a volume of calls from a fake presence, a creation of a ‘brand,’ and trying very, very hard to get our hand to the top of the baseball bat of the internet.” But I also think that success doesn’t come just from doing good legal work. In my experience, the most talented lawyers often are not the most successful, at least by traditional definitions. Nor are the most successful lawyers the best lawyers.
For Biglaw associates, success is usually defined as making partner. Anonymous Partner recently wrote that when you make partner in Biglaw, you “occupy a new professional status, and the nature of making partner is such that no matter how badly you screw up the rest of your life, you have accomplished something very rare. It is a life milestone, on par with getting married or winning the lottery in terms of its immediate alteration of your identity.”
And who makes partner in law firms? The best writers? The best oral advocates? The most thorough? The hardest working? The most efficient? Not necessarily any of the above.
Partnership decisions vary from firm to firm, and I am not so cynical to suggest that merit plays no role. Obviously, “merit” always plays a role. It’s just that what is meritorious is in the eye of the decision-maker, and that differs from what many associates might think is most important….
“I’m delighted to announce that our firm, Dewey Cheatem & Howe, has just reached a settlement of a longstanding class action on behalf of our beloved client Evilem Pire Insurance Corp. (‘EPIC’). Due to our tireless efforts reviewing documents and engaging in discovery motion practice, EPIC was able to settle the case for only $1 trillion dollars, a mere fraction of the many quadrillions sought by the plaintiffs . . . .”
If you are a lawyer in a firm, then you probably have seen a similar email more than once in your career. The victory email is a tradition at many firms, even when the result can only barely qualify as a victory. Because I think it behooves lawyers to always consider the purpose of any communication, we might wonder why victory emails are so prevalent….
One of my favorite recurring columns on Above the Law is the “Departure Memo of the Day.” Elie Mystal hit a nerve last week when he published a particularly depressing departure memo from a harried mother at Clifford Chance who was struggling, unsuccessfully, to balance the demands of parenthood and Biglaw. The departure memo lit up Twitter and even the Huffington Post decided to weigh in.
At many Biglaw firms, departure memos have become an ingrained part of the culture. Why are departure memos so ubiquitous, especially in Biglaw? The New York Times put it best:
“The ‘departure memo’ is a fixture at many large employers, and nowhere more so than at big law firms. Departures, particularly of young associates, are built into the business model. Not everyone is supposed to stay, and many never planned to stay, so leaving is often celebrated. Many of the ‘Departure Memos of the Day’ published on Above the Law fall into that category. Excitement at the next opportunity, and a little bit of glee at leaving, is completely acceptable, as is a little thumbing of the nose at the firm. Creativity isn’t unusual.”
The Clifford Chance departure memo struck a chord with many lawyers because it openly grappled with the struggle for work/life balance so familiar to so many of us. But it also raises bigger issues regarding the purpose intended by such missives….
Like millions of others, I spent Tuesday night watching television. I wished I was watching the misfit Giants win the World Series (again). Instead, I was watching America’s other favorite pastime: the presidential election. Like everyone else, I watched a giant map of the country light up in rosy red and electric blue. We tweeted witticisms to our followers, and liked our friends’ posts.
I’m sure it was nerve wracking for President Obama and Governor Romney. They had done all they could, and there was nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile. I imagine that they must have felt similar to a trial lawyer waiting for a jury to return with its verdict….
I’m always humbled when readers email me, and I try to respond to every message. But alas, not everyone is a fan. My column last week on artificial deadlines generated a long rant of an email from attorney Bob V., excerpted here:
“I was disappointed when, instead of using your column to preach about common courtesy and civility, you used it to rationalize and justify boorish attorney behavior. I thought you were actually going to condemn this kind of BS but instead you went on to rationalize it by fictionalizing a series of explanations for immature, boorish, behavior. Your rationalization about why the partner might justifiably have acted the way she did shows what is all wrong with the practice of law…”
My friend Pablo told me that when Monica, a partner, called his home at 9:00 p.m., he knew it couldn’t be good. Why not email? For an instant, he considered letting the call go to voicemail. Taking a deep breath, he answered.
Monica wanted to know “where he was” with the brief Pablo had been working on. She had not given him any particular deadline, so he explained that he expected to circulate the draft for review the following evening. The brief was a motion to dismiss, and he knew the deadline to file was still two weeks away. He was allowing the partner one week to review before she had to send to the client, who in turn would have another week to review.
The partner, however, had a different idea. “I want it on my desk tomorrow by 8 a.m.,” she told Pablo.” “Not a moment later.”
Historically, to succeed in Biglaw, associates were expected to be conspicuously present not only during the workday, but at night and on weekends as well. Meeting this expectation is generally referred to as putting in “face time.”
Face time has negative connotations. An associate puts in face time so that he will be perceived to be working as hard, or harder, than his colleagues. The implication is that the time spent at the office is strictly for show, as opposed to serving any bona fide purpose. Some attorneys are especially resentful of face-time requirements because they believe their value is easily and objectively reflected in their billable hours.
Associates, however, are now rejoicing that the face time requirement is lessened thanks to the rise of virtual offices, telecommuting, and other non-traditional remote working arrangements. Finally, binders full of women are able to hurry home to cook dinner without suffering from disparate pay or partnership prospects.
But is that really true? Is face time less important than it used to be?
A friend of mine — now a successful partner — told me a story about when he was a junior associate at a well-known Biglaw firm. Phil used to work for a superstar partner who was incredibly well respected by his colleagues and clients, but somewhat feared by junior associates. Phil told me about the time when he had to confess to the partner that he had inadvertently produced to their adversary a small number of documents that had been tagged as “non-responsive”; i.e., documents that did not need to be produced because the adversary had not requested them.
Phil expected yelling and screaming, profanity, maybe a fist pounding on the table. But instead, the partner was silent. His face showed disappointment, not anger. He slowly shook his head side to side several times, muttering to himself, seemingly unable to comprehend why fate should be so cruel as to condemn him to work with such incompetents. He rubbed at his face and eyes, first with one hand, and then the other, as if he hoped to awaken himself from a stubborn bad dream.
After several moments, he sighed loudly, and looked at Phil with seeming pity. He sighed again, to make sure my friend fully comprehended the weight of despair that he was bearing, and then once more, for good measure. Finally, the partner said simply, “We’ll have to call the carrier.”
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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 six years. You can reach them by email: email@example.com.
Deal flow has clearly picked recently up for most US associates, counsels and partners in Hong Kong/China and Singapore. We are on the phone with a lot of these folks on a daily basis, many of whom we have known for years. Further, the head of our Asia team, Evan Jowers, and Kinney’s founder and president, Robert Kinney, frequently meet in person with leading US partners in Asia to assess their needs and keep on top of the inside scoop at as many firms as possible. The need for legal recruiting help in Asia from experienced recruiters appears to be live and well. In March, Evan and Robert were in Beijing at such meetings, in April, Evan was in Hong Kong, and for half of June Evan will be in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Thus its pretty easy for us to tell when there has been an across-the-market pick up in capital markets and corporate work.
On an average day in Asia when Evan and Robert visit firms, they typically have 5 to 9 meetings a day, mostly with US partners in the market. The reason they have these meetings is not simply because Kinney makes a lot of US attorney placements in Asia and that a particular firm may have openings; instead these are just visits with friends. After years of working together as business partners, the folks at Kinney are actually these peoples’ friends. The firms Kinney work closely with in Asia (which is just about every law firm – call us if you want to know the one firm in the world we will never place anyone with again, ever, and why) look forward to the visits, or at least act like they do. After seven years in the market, many of the client partners are former associate candidates. Also, these US partners see Kinney as a very good source of market information as well, because they know how deep their contacts are in the market and how frequently they are speaking to counterparts at peer firms.
In a land that is right here and in a time that is right now, a technology has arisen so powerful that it can replace basic human document review. Is it time to bow down before our new robot overlords?
First, here’s a little story about me: my life in the legal world began as a paralegal. My first case was a GIANT patent infringement case that was already six years old and had involved as many as five companies, multiple US courts, the ITC and an international standards committee. I knew nothing about any of this.
On my first day, my supervisor (a paralegal with at least eight other cases driving her crazy) sat me down in front of a Concordance database with a 100,000+ patents and patent file histories. “Code these,” she said. I learned that “coding”, for the purposes of this exercise, meant manually typing the inventor’s name, the title of the patent, the assignee, the file date, and other objective data for each document. I worked on that project – and only that project – for at least the first six months of my job. After a week or so, time began to blur.
What I know, in retrospect and with absolutely certainty, is that as time began to blur, so did my judgment. So did my attention to detail. If you could tell me that I did not make at least one mistake a day – one inconsistent spelling, one reversed day and month, one incorrectly spaced title – I frankly would need to see your evidence. I would not believe it. The human mind is trainable but it is not a machine.
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