Mark Herrmann

I wrote several weeks ago about why I should waste time — why I should attend some meetings at which I’m not really necessary. I should do this to learn what folks on my team are doing on a daily basis, to have a chance to work one-on-one with more people who ultimately report up to me, and to improve employee job satisfaction by having a manager show interest in employees’ work.

To my in-house eye, that’s not “wasted” time; it’s “invested” time — time that improves our collective well-being, even though it doesn’t result in my having completed a specific task that the organization needs accomplished.

As I think about it, I see an awful lot of these things in-house that I would never have seen at a law firm. For example, several weeks ago, we decided to invite a junior in-house lawyer to attend meetings of our “Corporate Ethics Committee,” at which a fairly senior group addresses, among other things, important issues that arise through our corporation’s anonymous ethics hotline. We didn’t invite the junior lawyer because his or her attendance was important to the committee’s deliberations; rather, we thought that attending the committee meetings would provide helpful training and give the junior lawyer more exposure to senior people in the department.

At a law firm, everyone would spit in your eye if you suggested that a junior person should unnecessarily attend a meeting simply for the sake of training and exposure: This would constitute either over-billing the client or wasting potentially billable hours. . . .

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First things first: I’m heading back to the States for a couple of weeks in October, and Troutman Sanders and Miller Canfield have already asked me to take advantage of that visit by giving my “book talk” about The Curmudgeon’s Guide at those firms. That means I’ll be blowing the dust off my speaking notes and reminding myself what I say. I might as well get some bang for the dust; if you’d like me to give the book talk at your firm (or school) in early October, please let me know.

Second things second: Citi, Wells Fargo, and PeerMonitor recently released their analyses of law firm performance to date in 2013, and the pundits were all a-twitter. (Well, all a-blogger, anyway, but the pundits are so retro.)

Here’s one question the pundits posed: Why is law firm headcount up when law firms are suffering from decreased demand for their services?

That’s a pretty good question, and there’s no obvious explanation. Being a curious fellow, I used a clever technique to get to the bottom of this: I asked.

After the jump, I explain why firms are hiring more lawyers during a time of weak demand (as explained by senior partners at a couple of firms) and note an overlooked aspect of 2012 law firm performance that may affect results in 2013 . . . .

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I went through my first 360-degree review — where those above, beside, and beneath you in the organization all anonymously evaluate your performance — two years ago. Never one to shy away from abject public self-humiliation, I shared the result of that review in this column. I revealed that my biggest “blind spot” two years ago was in the area of celebrating the accomplishments of folks on my team: I thought I was pretty good on that score; those who worked under my supervision begged to differ.

I told you that I would fix that problem, and I did. During this year’s 360-degree review, my score for celebrating our accomplishments was a solid 4.0 — 0.9 better than two years ago, and precisely how I’d graded myself this time around. It had actually been pretty easy to solve this problem: I distributed emails celebrating our victories more often and to wider audiences; I stopped by folks’ desks to congratulate them on wins; and I was otherwise more sensitive to letting the world know when my merry gang of litigators did nice work.

Now that I’ve solved one management problem, however, another one naturally reared its ugly head during this year’s 360-degree review . . . .

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I’m closing in on 250 columns at Above the Law, devoting many of them to mistakes that I’ve recently witnessed (or heard about) (or, I should say to protect the privilege, simply ginned up out of whole cloth).

Remarkably, I’ve not yet written about an obvious error that occurs regularly: If you say that you will communicate with someone on a certain date, communicate with the person on that date.

Period.

Think for a minute about how often people screw this up, both in-house and at law firms.

In-house, some crisis arises. You take the helm. You send an email to the relevant folks in the organization saying, “I’ll get to the bottom of this, and you’ll know the answer by the close of business my time tonight.”

The close of business comes and goes, and what happens?

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Yeah, yeah: That title caught your eye.

I thought about titling this column “Litigation Aphorisms,” but who the heck would have read it?

So I went instead with the first of three critical things you should know about litigation, all of which I learned from Neil Falconer when I practiced at the 20-lawyer firm of Steinhart & Falconer in San Francisco back in the 1980s. (I also dedicated The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Neil. He wasn’t a “mentor”; he just accidentally taught young lawyers by osmosis what it meant to be a lawyer.)

Neil’s first aphorism was this: “Never tell a small child not to stick peanuts up his nose.”

Why does that matter?

Or maybe I should start with a more basic question: What the heck does that mean?

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Riddle me this:

Why do you send your emails about our big litigation victories to everyone in the C-Suite, Finance, the Business Leaders, and the rest of the world, with a copy to me, but you send your emails about our big litigation defeats to me alone?

Why do law firm promotional materials always describe recent cases at excruciating length and never briefly offer practical solutions? I might actually read something titled, for example, “Three Policies That You Must Revise Now That The Defense Of Marriage Act Has Been Held Unconstitutional.” (If I received that email, I must have overlooked it.)

Why does your email ask if I’m free at a certain date and time for a meeting without telling me “free for what”? Even if I’m otherwise booked or theoretically on vacation, I’m completely free for the CEO and the Board of Directors. On the other hand, I’m never free for the guy from IT who wants to drone on endlessly about user specifications for the new BPOS platform.

Why do law firms. . .

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What’s the difference between an ATL commenter and an ATL correspondent?

A commenter writes, “Screw you, Herrmann, and the horse you rode in on. And your wife, and your kids. And your grandma. And your cat.”

A correspondent writes a long, thoughtful email, like the one I received from a reader in Rochester, New York, who read my column, “On Tweedledee And Tweedledum, Esq.,” and accused me overvaluing good writing:

“In litigation, while writing is important, it is not paramount. Just as, or more, important are analyzing law and facts and knowing what claims or defenses to assert. Then developing a strategy for discovery – knowing what documents to ask for, where to search, what questions to ask at deposition – none of which requires much writing at all and certainly not great writing skill. Developing the facts – and developing them in a way to help and not harm your case – is often much more important than writing a great brief. Knowing what issues to dispute in discovery and which to cede is important. Negotiating skills are important. Legal research skills are significant. Then, if a case goes to trial, entirely different skills are needed. Using an example from your column, because a lawyer writes an excellent brief does not mean they know how to properly prepare a witness or question a witness. . . . Someone can write with great style and flair but use bad analysis, miss significant facts or fail to find an important case.”

I have two reactions: First, thanks for writing. And, second, maybe yes and maybe no . . .

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When I moved last year from Chicago to London, my morning workout changed along with my postal code: Instead of lifting weights and jogging on alternate days, I now jog every morning, plodding through my lap around Regent’s Park. Either the new exercise regime or my appetite for British food has affected me: Although I hadn’t realized it, I’ve lost a fair amount of weight this past year. (I started at only 5’10″ and maybe 175 lbs; losing 20 pounds wasn’t necessarily a good thing.)

Here’s what I noticed when my wife and I recently visited Chicago: When you’re in your twenties and lose weight, your friends say, “Hey, Mark! You’re looking good!” When you’re in your fifties and lose weight, your friends whisper to your wife: “Pssst: Is Mark okay?”

Anyway, our son, Jeremy (you remember him), recently survived his medical school boards and visited us in London for a while. He joined me for a few of my morning jaunts. I sprinted; he jogged. We both went the same pace.

All of this prompted me to reflect on the differences between the States and the Kingdom. I’ve previously noted that the United States cleans the UK’s clock in a couple of areas, such as dryer and traffic-light technology. But the reverse is also true: The Kingdom beats the States in a couple of noteworthy ways….

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Nothing you can say or do can cause me to retain you.

That’s terribly disheartening for folks who believe that business development should work, but it’s awfully close to being true.

Why is there nothing you can say that will cause me to hire you?

Because long experience (and the rules of arithmetic) have taught me that the average lawyer is average. So about 68 percent of all lawyers are within one standard deviation from the mean, and about 95 percent are within two standard deviations. And that’s roughly the mark that I’m aiming for when I hire outside counsel: Good lawyers. Really good lawyers. Maybe two standard deviations from the mean.

This means that if I picked my outside counsel randomly, I’d be disappointed 19 times out of 20. I don’t like those odds, so I don’t pick outside counsel randomly.

And if I picked my outside counsel based on which outside lawyers told me that they personally think they’re great, I’d still be disappointed 19 times out of 20. I still don’t like those odds.

I don’t know if other inside counsel view things the same way I do. But, if they do, it makes business development awfully tricky. If there’s nothing you can say or do to cause me to hire you, what forms of business development might work?

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I recently heard the managing partner of a regional law firm say that alternative fee arrangements are like teenage sex: “More of it is being talked about than is actually being done, and the little that’s being done is being done poorly.”

My corporation now uses alternative fee agreements for a large percentage of its work. All of those arrangements have worked out acceptably, and one (which I’ll discuss after the jump) has played out spectacularly. The harder question is this: How does one convince tens of thousands of readers to click through the jump (and “continue reading”) a column about alternative fee arrangements (because clicks through the jump are, after all, the relevant metric to the Above the Law gang)?

I’ve got it! Gin up a riddle, and put the question before the jump and the punch line after. What reader could resist?

So — riddle me this:

What’s the similarity between discussions about alternative fee agreements and elephantine mating?

Both take place on a high level, involve much trumpeting, . . .

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