Inside Straight

I reported back in October that the New York Times had asked me to write an op-ed piece about the future of big law firms, but a Dealbook special unceremoniously preempted my piece.

I figured the editor at the NYT might think she owed me one, so I cranked out a replacement piece proposing to reform legal education. I’m pleased to report that this op-ed piece was not preempted! No, no, no: It was rejected on the merits. The editor said that my article made too many points and felt like a “report, rather than an opinion piece.”

But she was wrong. And, in any event, you should judge for yourself.

So here’s my recently rejected op-ed piece proposing how we should reform legal education. (I do believe this is the last in my short-lived series of “crap I wrote for the Times that the Times didn’t publish.” It’s an awful lot of work to produce 1,200-word pieces that become mere fodder for another column here at Inside Straight.) . . .

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You really don’t want to be sued in a corrupt, backwater swamp.

No, no! I don’t mean Louisiana! I mean a truly corrupt backwater swamp like, say, Sudan.

(I pick Sudan because it’s subject to sanctions by most first-world countries, so I don’t have to worry about someday being dragged before a Sudanese judge who isn’t tickled by my having called his country a “corrupt, backwater swamp.” I may well pay a price for having tarred Louisiana with that label, but my opening two sentences just wouldn’t have been funny if I hadn’t named a specific state. I’ll have to hope that judges in Louisiana have a sense of humor.)

You get sued in Sudan. You hire Sudanese counsel. You probe him about Sudanese substantive law, Sudanese procedure, and whether the Sudanese judicial system can be trusted. He answers your questions about corruption with vague assurances about how he’s a pretty well-connected lawyer, and most judges aren’t too bad, and corruption isn’t quite as rampant as outsiders seem to think. Then he goes on to explaining how he’ll defend your lawsuit.

That advice may be okay as far as it goes, but it’s missing the global perspective. Here’s one place where in-house lawyers — and sophisticated outside counsel — can add real value in litigation….

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I’ve been living in London for almost three months now, so it’s time to declare myself a native. What do natives know about the City?

First: Dryer technology is apparently too tricky for this country. Listen, chaps: A dryer is supposed to dry your clothes.

These folks don’t get it. They’ve invented a washer/dryer thingy: You put your clothes in the machine, press some buttons, and the machine washes your clothes. Without moving your clothes, you then push some more buttons, and the machine spins and makes some noise. At the end of the so-called “dry cycle,” you remove your clothes from the washer/dryer thingy and hang your clothes in the living room to dry.

The United Kingdom is one of eight countries in the world that has successfully detonated a nuclear weapon, but these boys can’t crack dryer technology? What’s up with that?

Hey, maybe that’s an answer! Nuke the friggin’ clothes! They might come out a tad radioactive, but at least they’d be dry, and they wouldn’t be hanging in my living room. Or maybe you could import some dryers from the United States: We’ve got a bunch that work, and we could use the export business.

But dryers are the least of it . . . .

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This week marks the second anniversary of my “Inside Straight” column at Above the Law.

Two years. Two hundred columns. One book. And 1.5 million clicks through the “jumps” to “continue reading” my silly little ditties. Your favorite columns were here (but it was a fraud, and I admitted as much), here, and here (and the kid landed a great job within weeks after the post went up!). I’ll lift my exhausted typing fingers to crank out these words: Thank you!

But back to business.

Oooh, oooh, oooh.

I wrote back in September that clients don’t prompt law firms to open new offices by insisting on one-stop shopping, and I suddenly became a popular guy. The letter carrier was exhausted, schlepping all those e-mails to my e-mailbox.

Remarkably, few people fundamentally disagreed with my thesis. I wrote that clients don’t insist on one-stop shopping, and I expected to hear that my experience was limited, my evidence anecdotal, and my position ridiculous. Instead, I heard largely that law firms open new offices for many and varied reasons, but client insistence on one-stop shopping is far down the list.

So why do firms launch new offices?

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An old Arab proverb says that there are four types of men:

“He who knows not and knows not he knows not; he is a fool — shun him.

He who knows not and knows he knows not; he is simple — teach him.

He who knows and knows not he knows; he is asleep — wake him.

And he who knows and knows he knows; . . .

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What was the most anxiety-ridden ten minutes I’ve experienced under an editor’s gaze?

I had finished the manuscript of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law. My then-15-year-old son, Jeremy (who, like any teenager, would as soon spit in his father’s eye as praise him), said: “So, Dad, you wrote a book, huh?”

“Yes, Jere.”

Long pause. “Let me see the first chapter.”

I knew exactly what the kid was thinking: “I guess, if my Dad wrote a book, I should take a look. But this is going to be unbearable. So I’ll read a few pages and be done with it.”

Jeremy sat in the family room reading chapter one. I paced anxiously in the kitchen. My wife didn’t understand my anxiety: “Why are you so nervous? It’s only Jeremy.”

“Don’t you see? Jeremy’s my first truly neutral reader. He’s not a lawyer. He’s not inclined to read the thing. He won’t cut me any breaks. If Jeremy likes it, there’s a chance there’s actually an audience for this thing.”

After a few more anxiety-ridden minutes, Jeremy walked into the kitchen. After a seemingly endless pause: “Let me see chapter two….”

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During the decades that I worked in Biglaw, I occasionally felt put upon by clients.

“You won’t pay for travel time? Why not? I’m not flying to Philadelphia for my health. And I’m sure not on vacation. If you want me to travel to Philadelphia, then you pay for the time I kill making the trip.”

But many clients felt very differently about it.

“If you’re doing productive work on my matter, then I’ll pay. If you’re flying around the country reading a novel, then I won’t pay. You surely don’t expect us to pay for time that you choose to make unproductive?”

[Or, in some situations: "If you want to handle a matter that's based in Philadelphia, then you eat the time (and travel costs) of getting there. If that's not acceptable to you, then we'll hire a Philadelphia firm. Do you want the matter?"]

These discussions strike me as fair fights. There are things that law firms plainly should not charge clients for, things they plainly should, and the middle ground, where fights are arguably fair. Today, I’m walking the middle ground . . . .

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I reported several weeks ago that I had been solicited to write an article about the future of Biglaw firms. But it was actually better than that: The invitation came from the “Sunday Review” (formerly “The Week In Review”) section of The New York Times, which is a pretty cool place to ask you to write.

Unfortunately, and apparently unbeknownst to the editor of the “Sunday Review” section, the Times ran a “DealBook” section on the fate of large law firms before my ditty could appear in print. This preempted my article (or at least that’s what the editor said, although maybe she was just sparing my feelings). So instead of having a piece in the NYT, I’m just another schlub typing away at Above the Law.

But if I took the time to write a 1,200-word piece on the future of big law firms, then I’m sure as heck going to get some use out of it. So here you are: “The Assault on Biglaw,” by yours truly, which damn near appeared in the Sunday Times….

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Life in a service profession — there’s nothing to it!

When you’re asked to do something, think about how you can make the other guy’s life as easy as humanly possible. Then, do precisely that. Presto! You’re a star!

When a client asks you to do something, do it. On time and right.

When a partner asks you to do something, do it. On time and right.

“On time” is typically pretty easy to understand: That means “on or before the established deadline.”

“Right” is slightly trickier: It certainly means, at a minimum, “done to the absolute best of your ability.” (There’s a chance that “the absolute best of your ability” won’t make the grade. That’s an individualized issue, not capable of being resolved in a blog post. But it’s a lock-cinch that you won’t make the grade by “submitting a crappy first effort, riddled with incomplete research, barely literate, and filled with typographical and grammatical errors, because all I’m really trying to do is get the client/partner off my back.”)

Now I’ve moved in-house, and life in an in-house service profession is just like life at a firm — there’s nothing to it! . . .

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As careful readers of this column know, my daughter just started business school in Chicago. (As particularly careful readers may have deduced, Jessica moved to Chicago just as I was being transferred to London. The kid inherited the finest dorm room in the history of The University of Chicago.)

What’s the first thing you do at business school — before classes start, before orientation, before anything?

Draft your résumé. And then give it to an advisor who helps you polish the thing. And then go through several more iterations before you submit the final form to “the first of three résumé books,” as Jessica’s email explained, although I don’t quite understand what the words mean.

(Unless times have changed in the last 30 years, law schools are not nearly as aggressive as business schools in immediately preparing students for the job market. Perhaps that’s an institutional failing. Or perhaps law school runs for three years, so students have two summers available for internships, while business school lasts just two years, which places heightened importance on the recruiting season in the fall of year one — before students have finished a single course.)

Jessica asked me to take a look at the original form of her résumé, which she prepared, and she later sent me (for the customary Dadly-proofreading) the final version — which was much, much better.

I haven’t prepared a résumé for myself in more than two decades, and, mercifully, I’m forced to look at relatively few résumés these days. But I learned a few things from watching my daughter’s résumé pass through the belly of The University of Chicago beast. And this experience prompted me to think about the difference between preparing a résumé when you work at a law firm compared to preparing one when you work in-house . . . .

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