Inside Straight

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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* OMG, you guys! Michael Jackson just died. At least according to concert promoter AEG Live, whose lawyer FINALLY conceded to the claim that Jackson had passed. [CNN]

* The new NRA President is a tool lawyer! [Washington Times]

* Jim Beck reviews the works of our own Mark Herrmann: Inside Straight(affiliate link) and Drug and Device Product Liability Litigation Strategy [Drug and Device Law]

* Quinn Emanuel announces its spoils following up on the departure of Michael Lyle and Eric Lyttle from Weil. [Quinn Emanuel]

* Studies suggest that the more elite the school, the more likely its female graduates drop out of the work force after getting married and having kids. Women who run in elite circles and are therefore more likely to marry into financial secure partnerships are also less likely to keep grinding away at a job in order to put their kids through school? No kidding. [The Careerist]

* Administrative Law Judges file suit over perceived quotas that they claim trigger the depletion of Social Security. Cost-cutting legislators think the ALJs should be depleting the fund more. Blerg. [Washington Post]

* Check out the T-shirt sold at Santa Clara University. The proximity to the Santa Clara Law shirts is… fitting?

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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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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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Folks (including those who wrote the Federal Sentencing Guidelines) think that “tone at the top” matters. And those folks are right: If senior executives include the words “with absolute integrity” in their elevator speeches about the company, other people in the organization will catch on. People will come to believe that ethics matter, and ethics will thus come to matter.

But there’s another aspect of “tone at the top” that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines don’t compel: What are we trying to achieve as an institution? What’s your organization’s “tone at the top” on issues apart from obeying the law?

Does a drug company want to “discover and manufacture new substances to help people live longer, healthier lives”? Or does it want to “deliver maximum return to shareholders”?

Or maybe it’s all the same thing. As the (perhaps apocryphal) story goes: An interviewer asked Itzhak Perlman what he wanted out of life. Perlman said he wanted to play the violin. The interviewer was shocked: “Don’t you want to be happy?” “I want to play the violin. If I play the violin, I’ll be happy.”

Maybe if you develop drugs that improve and prolong lives, your shareholders will be rich. (And you’ll probably be happy, too.)

What’s the goal of your professional services firm: Do you want to strive for perfection? Or do you want to generate revenue? Or do you bill by the hour, so it’s all the same thing?

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My daughter — you remember her — recently chose her job for the summer after her first year of business school. She was so earnest and diligent about it; it makes a Dad proud.

Choosing a summer job is a huge event in the life of the student: This is, after all, the place where you’re likely to work for at least the first several years of your professional career. A summer job is a big deal.

But consider how things look from the other side of the table: Yet another crop of summer kids appears at your firm for a fleeting moment and promptly vanishes, perhaps to return 15 months later when there’s a chance one of them might help in a real way with some case. Or maybe they won’t come back. Or be any good. Could you remind me again what city I’m flying to tonight, and what motion I’m arguing tomorrow?

Don’t get me wrong: A fair number of lawyers pal around with the summer folks, because (1) those lawyers enjoy spending time with the newcomers, (2) it’s important to the firm to recruit the summer class effectively, and (3) the firm has a budget for entertaining summer associates, and you might as well get your fair share of free lunches and drinks after work.

Eating lunch with a summer associate isn’t a bad deal. But work with one of ‘em? That’s a very different story….

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