One of the side effects of lean economic times at Big Law is an increase in internal competition for work and hours. In the boom times, there was more than enough work for all of Big Law's worker bees.
Partners staffed their matters with Cogs. Cogs billed away the days researching and writing. Secretaries helped ease the workload by drafting letters and filing papers. Paralegals chipped in to review documents and organize deal rooms. The caterer ordered nice box lunches for noon meetings.
But when the work gets slow, and everyone needs to fill their own billable-hour quotas, the machine gets thrown out of whack and everyone starts scampering. Partners stop staffing their matters with so many people and start writing their own letters. Cogs stop delegating to paralegals and bill the hours themselves. And secretaries order box lunches because the caterer was laid off.
Because it's a challenge to survive at Big Law when everyone is competing for work and hours, I thought I would answer a few of your letters on this topic.
Wait -- you never actually ask me questions -- so I will answer the questions that I know you wish you could ask.
I am a Third-Year Cog at Big Law. I do all of my work for one partner who handles one of the firm's most important and long-standing clients. Recently when Partner was out of the office at a power lunch with a few of his law school classmates, the client called Partner's office number with an emergency question.
Partner's secretary patched the client through to me because I had handled the matter and knew the answer. Even if Partner had been there, he would have called to ask me the answer. The only difference is that he never lets me actually speak directly to the client. I introduced myself to the client and answered the question.
I told Partner about it upon his return, and his face got all red and patchy. He has not spoken to me since and now he has stopped giving me work. I don't understand -- I thought he would be pleased that I helped the client? What gives? I need hours!
Thanks for your help,
Cog in Crisis
I know it doesn't seem to make any sense. You would assume the client's needs come first. But even in strong economic times, some Partners like to protect their relationships with coveted clients by never letting the clients know any of the interchangeable Cogs who work on their matters.
These Partners are worried that if Cogs stick around the firm long enough to become Partners themselves, they can win the roles as clients' go-to-lawyers -- especially if they develop specialties that help the clients and start getting buddy-buddy with the new in-house counsel.
Now that you have introduced yourself to the client and been helpful, you are a threat. I am afraid there is nothing you can do. The Partner may cool off and start letting you work on his other matters again. If you are actually useful and do good work that makes him look good, he will come back and maybe let you work on other clients' work. If not, you will need to start looking for work elsewhere because the damage is done.
Recently a college sorority sister of mine e-mailed me to see if I knew lawyers who handle child custody matters in Atlanta. I sent out a firm-wide e-mail asking if anyone had any recommendations for child custody lawyers and got this nasty reply from our managing partner:
"We are a multinational mega-firm with hundreds of capable lawyers. Why would you ever turn away business? Look on our Web site -- we have a litigation team! If they can litigate major corporate lawsuits, they can handle some little child custody matter."
My sorority sister is a school teacher and can't afford to pay $400 an hour for someone to handle this issue for her. Isn't that obvious? Two years ago I would have been turned away if I had even asked one of our litigators to look at this problem. What should I have done?
You are right to be confused. Big Firms have lost some perspective in these lean times. All you can do is tell the managing partner that your friend can only afford to pay $500 total, and he will likely forgive you. But you must be careful about firm-wide e-mails. If you actually ask who at the firm handles a specific type of matter, you are likely to get a lot of desperate Big Law partners and Cogs claiming expertise and trying to one-up each other to get the work.
For example, if you sent a firm-wide e-mail asking "Has anyone ever handled a state trademark application in Indiana? I have a client trying to trademark a name for a new organic sports drink."
You are likely to get a series of e-mails as follows:
"I grew up in Indiana and know the clerk at the Indiana Trademark Office. I can handle."
"I am the firm's Philadelphia office trademark team leader and have handled trademark work in 32 states. Give me a call."
"I only drink organic beverages and took a trademark law class in law school. I will be glad to assist."
Then you are in an awkward situation -- you have to choose who to use. Worse, you may realize the only person in your firm qualified to handle this work is that guy in the New York office that you hate with a passion. The lesson here is to research such questions in a more subtle avenue -- make some discrete calls or look on the firm's Web site. Do not send a mass e-mail. That advice holds true for most things.
Recent "economic indicators" have some economists speculating that the economic nightmare is on its way to ending. There are some signs of improvement in Big Law as well -- I have only seen three articles this month discussing layoffs rather than five -- but it is still ugly out there. Be careful and hold tight in these scary times.
Do you have dirt to dish? Do you have a column idea? Or do you just need to vent in six-minute increments? E-mail the Snark at email@example.com.