Mark Herrmann

Rain on the Elysian plain?

Am I really mixing Homer and Lerner?

I am. (Hey, no one forces you to read this stuff.)

But to what end do I mix apples and wheelbarrows?

I live on the Elysian plain of in-house life: Freed of the demands of generating business; able to foist tedium off on the sad sacks who work at law firms; thinking strategically about the most significant issues facing the company; permitted (indeed, required) to work closely with a business. “‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

But there are occasional drawbacks to working in-house, and I try to share those with the world when I notice them. Three recently came to my attention. . . .

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Although Am Law and ATL covered the story first, the long spread in The New York Times alerted the whole world to the woes of Gregory Owens, a former Dewey partner who’s now a bankrupt non-equity partner at White & Case.

The legal blogosphere naturally lit up over this story, with Scott Greenfield dispensing his usual simple justice and the Volokh Conspirators (and their many commenters) debating Owens’ personal and professional worth.

But my emailbox filled up, too, with assorted reactions from people at all levels in the law. The most interesting rant — and the one I’m sharing with you today — came from a person who looks a lot like Owens; he or she is a non-equity partner at a Vault 50 firm who’s in his or her 50s. This person disagrees violently with the conventional wisdom about non-equity partners. My correspondent sings their praises and insists that both law firms and many law firm consultants terribly misjudge the value that non-equity partners provide to their firms. . . .

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I’ve just celebrated my fourth anniversary working in-house, and I’m now officially out of touch with law firm life.

I thought I knew all the law-firm-partnership tricks. For example, when law students ask at interviews what percentage of firm partners hold equity status, some firms answer: “At this firm, all partners are partners.” That’s true, of course, but tautological; it says nothing about the equity and non-equity ranks.

On the other hand, this non-responsive answer serves a useful purpose. It may help to convince law students (or lateral associates) that they have a real chance at making partner at the firm, even though the equity partnership ranks are tiny and getting thinner every day.

But I recently learned about a new game that law firms play. This one is aimed not at deceiving law students or lateral associates, but rather the granddaddy of law firm rankings: The American Lawyer’s profits per partner calculation.

I thought I knew all the ways law firms could try to mislead The American Lawyer. There’s the possibility of outright lying, of course, and then there’s using funky methodologies that inflate profits per partner from $1 million to $1.8 million for the year 2011. But there’s a new game in town. It may well be widespread, but I heard about it only recently….

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What’s the key to good writing?

It turns out that it’s also the key to giving great speeches.

And to making great pitches for new business.

And to impressing clients, and your boss, and anyone else who matters to you.

Now that I think about it, it’s not a bad guide to planning your business development activities, ginning up theses for your articles, and plotting your blog posts. It would be a great way to design your firm’s website, too.

Eureka! The key to all professional success on earth!

And, of course, it’s just common sense . . . .

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This is my first column of 2014, so I’m due to join the ranks of those who make predictions for the coming year.

But my predictions will be slightly different from others, because mine will be based on fact.

In the last months of 2013, I heard that two different law firms had reduced partners’ draws to offset the firms’ poor financial performance. At least one of the firms reduced draws retroactively — announcing near the end of the year that partners’ salaries would be reduced as of January 1, 2013 (which slices partners’ incomes dramatically in the last few months of the year). Both firms shared the pain among all partners — folks suffered in the equity and non-equity ranks alike. (This is a particularly nasty trick to play on income partners: “Here’s your partnership deal: If the firm does better than expected, you’re a mere income partner; of course you will not share the wealth. On the other hand, if the firm performs worse than expected, we’ll permit you to share the pain, and we’ll cut your pay. Here’s the partnership agreement! Sign right here on the dotted line!”)

I’ve now been in-house for four years, and my ear has lifted pretty far from the law-firm ground: If I heard about two law firms suffering from such terribly bad years that they were forced to reduce their budgets as year-end approached, then I’m guessing that many more than two firms suffered this fate. This means that, for many firms, 2013 was not a good year, which leads me to my predictions for 2014 . . . .

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This is as close to titillating as I’ll ever get in one of these columns:  When a senior lawyer (or executive) leaves a company in December, what does that mean?

Basically, Ecclesiastes is all about changing jobs:  ”To every thing there is a season.”

When a partner at a law firm moves laterally in January, that’s like leaves changing in autumn.  The partner waited to receive his (or her) year-end bonus from firm A and, having pocketed the bonus, then moved on to firm B.  That makes the lateral acquisition cheaper for the new firm.

The in-house world is a step slower:  When an in-house lawyer (or executive) moves to a new company in March or April, that’s like snow falling in winter.  The in-house person waited to receive his (or her) annual bonus in March (more or less) and, having pocketed the bonus, then moved on.  That reduces the hiring cost for the new company.

But when an in-house lawyer (or executive) leaves a company in December, that’s a blizzard in May!  The game is afoot!  (Blogging is so good for me.  I just learned that Shakespeare said that first, although I was thinking of Sherlock Holmes (who said it later) when I typed the phrase.)  Quickly, Mr. Watson!  What can we deduce from an out-of-season executive departure?

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I’m an honest guy: I confessed publicly when The New York Times solicited me to write a piece about the legal profession and then rejected my submission (because it had been preempted by a DealBook special).

I confessed publicly again when I submitted a second piece — this time about the future of legal education — and was again promptly rejected.

But enough of confessions: Today, I’m here to gloat! Here’s a link to “Have We Met?” which appeared yesterday in the “Sunday Review” (formerly “The Week In Review”) section of The New York Times.

Part of me says that I should end this column right here. I should say something snooty like, “Hey, Lat! I published an essay in the Times yesterday. Isn’t that enough recreational writing for a week? I’m outta here.” But Lat would probably complain, saying that I hadn’t pulled either my weight or enough people through the “continue reading” icon. What can I tuck behind that icon that will suck you through the jump?

Aha! Three things! First, how do you get an op-ed published in the Sunday Times? Second, if you pull off that feat, how much does the Times pay you for your work? And, finally, do I have a clever story linking what I wrote in the Times to Above the Law? You’re in luck! . . .

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* Friendly reminder: All your holiday card competition submissions are due at the end of the day Monday! [Above the Law]

* Congratulations to Georgetown’s Nina Pillard on her confirmation to the D.C. Circuit. That whole “no filibuster” thing is really working out for the Democrats. For now. [Georgetown Law]

* The daily trials and travails of a law grad working retail. Some day the aisles run red with the blood of the supporters of Barbara from the men’s cologne counter. [Law Grad Working Retail]

* What if lawyers created some of the greatest ads in history? Missing: “Avis: We Try Harder” vs. “Avis.” [Vice]

* An interview with a whistleblower. What happened to the man who exposed the NYPD’s practice of creating quotas for summonses and arrests? [Colorlines]

* Mark Herrmann talks about his prosopagnosia. [New York Times]

* Robbery suspect explains that the crime was committed by his alternate personality that takes over against the suspect’s will. Looks like Killer BOB is on the loose and committing crimes in Wisconsin! [Stevens Point Journal]

* We’ve discussed the chimp case, but the real question is how will this all affect Superman. [Law and the Multiverse]

How do you deal with a difficult client?

Don’t be ridiculous: I’m not a difficult client! You’re a difficult lawyer!

I’m pretty busy. So how many drafts of your brief do you think I want to review?

One, reflecting your very best work? Or six, with each version fixing a typo or massaging the language in footnote three, so that I can see your next iteration?

When do you think I want to see your draft?

The morning it’s due, so that I won’t have a chance even to read the thing and, if I manage to read it, you won’t have time to make corrections? Or three days before it’s due, so we have time to make the brief right?

Do you think I want to circle all the typos and cite-checking errors in the draft you send to me? Believe me, I do not want to do this. But I can’t help myself: I spent two years entombed in the sub-basement of the library at The University of Michigan cite-checking articles and imprinting the Bluebook on my brain. I’d be delighted not to notice your errors, but I don’t have that capacity. This stuff is hard-wired into my very core.

How about your run-on sentences, use of the passive voice, and other grammatical and stylistic errors?

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At big law firms, a few folks engage in “training,” but very few bother with “coaching.”

That is: A partner may spend a few minutes training you how to write a brief or take a deposition. But, if you prove ineducable, the partner will promptly cut his (or her) losses: He won’t ask for your help anymore; he’ll pluck you out of his life. You won’t be fired; you’ll simply be forced to solicit work from other partners. You’ll never be “coached” about what you did wrong, except (maybe) at the end of the year, when some guy you never worked with evaluates you by reading aloud a comment that “one partner said you don’t write very good briefs.”

Corporations are different. Coaching is the name of the game: You can’t think? We’ll coach you!

Can’t write? We’ll coach you!

Act like a jerk? We’ll coach you!

Break your arm? We’ll coach you!

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