Wednesday, May 31, 2006

I received an e-mail from a reader the other day, "True story at a large law firm (not mine) -- associate tells a partner that he has laser eye surgery scheduled in three weeks. The week of the surgery approaches, associate reminds partner. The day before the surgery -- which is to be on a Thursday -- associate again reminds partner that he will be leaving Thursday afternoon and taking Friday off. Dealing with a self-imposed deadline on getting meaningless documents out the door to impress a client, partner says, 'I know someone who returned to work 2 hours after his laser eye surgery.'"

I wanted to point out a couple of things about that story that bother me. First, I'm confused why an associate would need laser eye surgery. All of his work is in front of a computer, and as long as he can see the screen, there's no reason to get eye surgery. If he's a professional ballplayer, fine. But he's a lawyer. What does he need perfect vision for? Let him wear glasses. I just hope the insurance plan wasn't covering it.

But second, and more important than the eye surgery itself, documents are never meaningless if they're going to impress a client. Clients need to be impressed. That's how we get them to pay us money and keep hiring us. So if getting some documents out the door quickly is going to impress a client, even if those documents don't have much use outside of that purpose, it's still worth it. We do lots of things of questionable outside value to impress clients. We yell at people during meetings to impress clients about how demanding we are and how committed to their case we feel. We spend extra hours on tasks that don't take that much time in order to demonstrate to clients how important those tasks are, and how we have to triple-check every citation just to make sure there aren't any mistakes, even if it takes a few more billable hours. We assign associates from prestigious law schools to the matter, not because they're competent but because telling the clients there are Yale-educated lawyers working on the case impresses them. We take them on expensive lunches, which they end up being billed for somehow anyway, to prove how prestigious we are as a firm. Lots of things to impress clients.

Impressing clients is our business. Not legal work. It's a fallacy people have. Like television networks. The business there is selling advertisements. In order to do so, they need to have programs people want to watch. So they spend a lot of money and time developing programs. But that's just to sell ads. And when people forget that, and complain about the quality of programming on TV, as if the networks care about the quality independent of how much they can charge for the ads they're selling, that's when things get silly. Same thing with us. Our business isn't winning cases and helping our clients navigate the sophisticated landscape of the legal system, or whatever the marketing brochures say. Our business is impressing them enough that they keep paying us money. Whether we do that by helping them win their disputes, or we do it by getting them useless documents as fast as we can, it doesn't matter. They're both legitimate ways to spend our time.

My firm just relaunched our website this morning. I consulted on the site and pushed us to forget about listing the cases we've won and the matters we've settled. The website, like everything else, is about impressing clients. And about impressing law students. The details about legal work don't matter. Throw in a robust recruiting FAQ, some pretty pictures, and everyone's happy. I'm annoyed they decided to give the associates profiles on the site. I've said this before -- associates come and go, why even mention them, it's just more work to pull down their pages every time someone decides to leave to go "pursue their dreams." Pathetic. They're interchangeable parts. Like clients. One's the same as the next, as long as they pay the bills.

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