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Nobody said that practicing law in the real world would be simple. Here are some recent questions posed by attorneys trying to do the right thing and stay on their colleagues’ good side. INSIDE INFORMATION Q: A colleague has told me that he is negotiating an inside counsel job with a client company. I feel somehow disloyal to the firm in not telling the partner we work with. Moreover, this same colleague has agreed to take on a matter for a different client, which is scheduled for after the date he will probably leave the firm. Now that I know this, what should I do? A.B., Bethesda, Maryland A: This question brings up the nature of loyalty and the conflicts we can experience when trying to be loyal to a variety of people, including ourselves. But I do not think this situation presents quite the conflict sometimes present in the workplace. (Try looking someone in the eye who you know is going to be laid off as they enthuse about their plans to close on a house and take on a huge mortgage. Now that is a problem, one that many a manager in corporations has faced with great anguish.) In this case, what your colleague is doing is neither illegal nor unethical. After all, if he wants to change jobs, he has to talk with others, and lawyers leaving for clients is a pretty typical scenario. Also, what if you told the partner and then your colleague changed his mind and did not leave? You will have hurt his relationship with the firm unnecessarily. He has to continue scheduling work, as he does still work for the firm and it would look strange to suddenly begin declining assignments. If you believe the other client for whom he has agreed to do an assignment will suffer, mention to your colleague that he should have backup plans in place, such as sharing the background of the case with you or getting others involved so that it will not leave the client high and dry. The real difficulty is for you. You seem uncomfortable with your colleague’s revelations, and it can be discomforting when colleagues “share” such information. Let him know either directly or indirectly (by smoothly changing the subject when he brings up his new venture) that you would prefer he keep you off his inside information list. And use it as an opportunity. As Michael S. Meisel, a partner with Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard in Hackensack, N.J., said: “My advice: stay out of it — and show your loyalty and dedication when (and if) your colleague leaves by taking on more responsibility to pick up the slack.” CREATIVITY IN BILLING Q: I am an associate in a firm where there is intense pressure to bill lots of hours and as a result, a lot of what I would call “creative billing.” For instance, we tend to charge our wealthier individual clients more, effectively, because they do not question the bills and just want us to do a super job. We bill our clients with more modest incomes more precisely for the time spent because we know they will complain and they just do not have the funds. In effect we are charging differently, more for the service rather than for the time. In a way, this all works out and everyone is happy, but I know it is not right. What can I do? Anonymous, Washington, D.C. A: If you are overstating time spent on some matters, then of course you are correct, it is not right. According to Howard M. Erichson, an associate professor of law at Seton Hall University School of Law who teaches professional responsibility, a firm is free to charge different clients different hourly amounts and can use a variety of billing systems, so long as they are reasonable. However, Erichson stressed, “The one thing you cannot do is bill dishonestly.” So the firm cannot say they are billing by the hour if the time is manipulated, based on the different clients involved. As an associate you are in the difficult position of wanting to make your billable hours and please the partnership but also live with yourself. Do you know whether other associates feel the same way? Perhaps one of you has a close enough relationship with a partner that he or she could bring this matter up with that partner and explore it, suggesting the firm charge higher hourly fees for some clients [or] institute a service-based fee arrangement or composite fees (a flat fee combined with some hourly rates depending on the service). “Just say, ‘Why take the risk?’” suggested Erichson. In any event, regardless of whether there are others in the firm who share your unease, you should bill based strictly on time expended for all clients; should partners “tack on” extra time unbeknownst to you, your conscience at least is clear. If, however, you know that your clients are being defrauded (which is what it amounts to), you should consider approaching a partner, even if it is difficult. (They would probably prefer a confidential chat as opposed to you going straight to the client or to the ethics tribunal.) And a thought about the clients: I would question whether even your wealthy clients would be happy with this situation if they actually knew what was going on. My guess is they do not have a clue and ,therefore, everything just “seems” okay. My work in all kinds of organizations shows again and again that people prefer to do the right thing, that they are uncomfortable “going along with” unethical practices, but often believe that “it is just the way of the world;” “there is nothing I can do about it;” etc. It actually is energizing to work for an organization you are proud of and where you are confident ethical practices prevail. And certainly the risk of exposure in such places is far lower than in law firms where people are using clients’ bills as a creative outlet. Ultimately, your firm’s billing practices become part of the mix of factors to consider when making a long-term decision to stay or leave. QUIET TIME Q: This may sound like a little thing but it is driving me crazy. In my office we have partitions, not a lot of doors, and, therefore, sound travels easily. I have a colleague who whistles, clicks his pen in a hyperactive way, plays back voicemail (business and personal) on his speakerphone, speaks and laughs loudly near the people who work around him, and in general makes such a racket it is hard to work. What can I do? J.L.P., Roseland, N.J. A: First of all, it is the little things that really can drive you crazy. I believe very strongly in taking care of the little things, because a comfort level at the basic level sets the stage for better performance in bigger arenas. So your problem actually is not a small one. And it is okay to feel affronted: People have responsibilities to their co-workers, even in something as innocuous as keeping quiet while they work. If they create an environment that makes it hard for others to work, that is not keeping up their end of the bargain. So carry on to try to deal with it. If you or someone else feels comfortable simply telling him to pipe down, do so. But often it is not that easy: you may not want to hurt his feelings; he may be more senior than you; you would prefer not to have a confrontation; etc. More stealth-like approaches can include approaching the law firm administrator and asking him or her to deal with the problem. Or orchestrate getting “office rules” posted that specifically deal with noise; the punishment will be banishment to some Siberia-type office if you cannot put a lid on it. This depersonalizes the situation but requires significant effort. You could also band together with your workmates to use your collective sense of humor to politely embarrass him about his personal voicemail (“Meatloaf for dinner again?”) and musicality (“Could you whistle that tune louder? My clients talk so much on the phone I can’t hear you.”) All this lets him know — in an unthreatening way — that his behavior is making you crazy. And you may enjoy some peace and quiet. Holly English is principal consultant with Montclair, N.J.-based Values At Work, which helps law firms and other organizations deal with workplace issues. Send your questions about office politics and law firm management to: [email protected]

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