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Archive for the ‘The Deep End (responsibility)’ Category

Yesterday, I dined at a restaurant in San Francisco.  Generally, this would not be news worthy, nor would it be relevant to a website devoted to law firm issues.  Except for the fact that this was no ordinary restaurant.  It was a dining establishment in the basement of another restaurant in a windowless room with no lights.  Yes, you heard correctly.  There were no lights and no windows.  The entire restaurant was pitch black.  All the waiters and waitresses were blind.  Our waitress, Courtney, guided us to our table by forming a human train, with Courtney leading the way.

My first reaction was, holy shit, it really is dark.  Duh.  But let me clarify.  There’s dark, and then there’s dark.  Most of us are accustomed to darkness when we go to sleep at night and turn off the lights.  But there’s always some sort of ambient light filtering through a window.  Moonlight, street lights, the occasional sweep of headlights from a passing car.  Usually, you can still make out faint outlines of objects, furniture, something.  In other words, you can still see.

Not here.  This darkness was the blackest, craziest “I’m in a friggin’ black hole” kind of darkness.  The true absence of light.  Light sucked out completely, never to return. Okay, perhaps I’m being a little dramatic, but that really was how it appeared.  I couldn’t see anything.  I had no concept of how small or large the room was, how high the ceilings were, or how many tables were there.  I put my hand up to my face, two inches from my eyes.  Nothing.  I waved my hand in front of my face.  Nothing.

On top of the pitch blackness, once we had been seated, I realized that there was no sound either.  No ambient noise–no music, no conversation from other diners, not even the sound of a heating vent.  It was absolutely silent.

This was really disturbing.  My first instinct was to get up and run out.  But of course I couldn’t.  I had no idea where the hell I was.  The darkness and silence were overwhelming, oppressive, threatening to crush me.  I was used to seeing and hearing things.  Take those away from me suddenly, and I felt helpless.  I could sense panic rising at an alarming rate.

So how is this related to Biglaw?  Of course, I’m not suggesting that partners use sensory deprivation as a method to torture associates.  But, associates do experience moments of panic, especially early on, that are not dissimilar to what I felt at this restaurant.

Consider an associate asked to take a deposition after only a few months out of law school.  Or asked to go to court alone to face a peevish judge and opposing counsel who has a reputation for making mincemeat out of his opponents.  The natural reaction is this:  PANIC.  The thoughts running through your head are probably, in no particular order: What the hell do I do?  Am I ready for this?  I have no clue what I’m doing!  What if I royally fuck this up?  The partner will kill me if I screw up!  I’m going to get fired, I know it.  This is the end!

What causes this panic?  It’s the same cause for my panic in the restaurant: being thrown into a foreign environment suddenly.  I wasn’t prepared for the darkness, and didn’t know how to deal with it.  Associates aren’t prepared to take their first deposition or argue their first motion, and they don’t know how to handle them properly.

This is why, despite all the desire by first year associates for such “early responsibility,” it’s important to first get the proper training.  Courtney, the blind waitress, wasn’t going to panic.  She’s blind, after all, so she understands the environment and knows how to operate, even flourish, under such conditions.  Similarly, partners won’t panic about a deposition or a court hearing.  They’ve done it before, have accumulated the experiences, and know how to succeed under these conditions.  The key is to prepare yourself for doing something that you’ve never done before.  That’s why training and mentoring are so important early on in your career development.

It turned out that there was no ambient sound because we were the first to arrive at the restaurant.  Shortly thereafter, music started playing and other tables were filled around us.  I got used to the total darkness after a while, and figured out how to eat an entire three-course meal, complete with amuse bouche and other culinary surprises, without spilling anything.  At the end, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and even got to listen to a blind waitress recite her own poetry in the dark.  Surreal.

So, find yourself a mentor to show you the way.  Don’t stumble in the darkness all by yourself.

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If you are a mid-level or senior associate, it’s very likely that you’ve been asked by the recruiting department at your law firm to interview prospective summer or lateral associates.  Most of these will be “second round” or “final round” interviews, not done on campus at law schools, but instead at the firm’s office.  More like a mini-series of interviews that conclude with lunch, these interviews give you, the interviewer, twenty minutes or half hour with the candidate before they get shuttled to the next office.

One of the standard questions asked during these interviews is, “So why are you interested in our firm?”  Candidates give a variety of responses, including the type of work offered, a particular partner they want to work for, etc.  But a common thread in the response is some mention of “early responsibility.”  New associates crave early responsibility the way a drowning man craves oxygen.  They clamor for it, they know from talking to classmates at law school that it’s important to get it, they understand that it will help them develop as lawyers, so they keep repeating it: “I want early responsibility.  I want early responsibility.  I want early responsibility.”  This phrase is repeated about six or seven times per interview — one time per 20 or 30 minute slot — multiplied by ten or more interviews at various firms.  So by the time the candidate reaches your desk, he or she may very well have repeated this mantra fifty or a hundred times–so many times that you wonder whether the words really mean anything at that point.

Of course, if candidates believe that your firm offers early responsibility–whatever that means–who are you to tell them otherwise?  “Of course we do,” you say (as you roll your eyes).  You’re secretly wondering: do they even know what the hell they are asking for?  You wonder this because, as a mid-level to senior associate, you had once prayed to the gods of early responsibility as well, and know that it wasn’t what you expected.

Here’s the secret, for all you junior associates out there reading this: early responsibility means doing stuff that is WAY out of your comfort zone.  If you’ve never been to court, and you want to argue a motion before a judge, that’s great–but do you have any idea of how to go about doing that?  Do you know how to make an appearance, whether you need to file anything prior to the appearance, give notice to opposing counsel, pay any court fees, get permission from the court if you are bringing presentation materials in the courtroom?  Like you learned in law school, the answer is, “It depends.”  Every situation is different, and only experience or guidance will allow you to navigate these tricky waters without either (1) violating a court rule and seriously pissing off the judge; (2) making a fool out of yourself and losing what little credibility you may have had with opposing counsel; (3) committing legal malpractice.

The point is this: you may want early responsibility, but make sure you really want it.  Make sure you know what it means to get real early responsibility (see the last post, “Two ships passing in the night”  for what pseudo early responsibility is).  Make sure you are willing to flop like a fish out of water, gasp for air, and barely make it back to the ocean.  If that’s not your cup of tea, you may want to reconsider saying “I want early responsibility.”

Be careful what you wish for.

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During on-campus interviews, an exchange between partner/recruiter and law student can be overheard.  It happens during OCI season all over the country.  All such exchanges involve the promise of early responsibility, and while there are variations upon a theme, the conversation generally goes like this:

Partner / recruiter: What sets our firm apart is that we offer early responsibility to associates.

Law student: That’s fantastic, because I am really looking for a firm that allows me the opportunity to take ownership of things and run with it.

Partner / recruiter: Well, that’s exactly our firm philosophy.  We love to give you as much responsibility as you want.  It’s what sets us apart from other firms.

Beautiful.  Everyone is on the same page.  The partner and the law student smile at each other, shake hands, an offer is extended, and the law student accepts.  It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Or is it?

Ignoring the fact that every law firm thinks they are unique in offering early responsibility to new lawyers (if they really all did so, how is it then unique?), let’s dissect what the partner and law student were really saying and see if they were on the same page.  Here’s the same exchange, except now with translations:

Partner / recruiter: What sets our firm apart is that we offer early responsibility to associates.  TRANSLATION: Our firm is unique.  We allow our first years to be responsible for really important document review and legal research.  We let them draft their own legal memorandums.  Of course, a senior associate will have to review it first and mark it up before the partner reads it, but they get to write the first draft themselves.  If they are really good, we even let them carry our briefcases to court.  I mean, that’s real responsibility right there — imagine what would happen if the first year lost all the oral argument notes?

Law student: That’s fantastic, because I am really looking for a firm that allows me the opportunity to take ownership of things and run with it.  TRANSLATION: What you say sounds exactly what I want.  I am so excited to find a firm that entrusts me with direct client contact, witness interviews, and phone calls to opposing counsel. I am stoked that, unlike at other firms, I’ll be able to prepare substantive legal briefs, sign my own name to them, and go to court to defend my arguments. I’m going to be a real lawyer!

Partner / recruiter: Well, that’s exactly our firm philosophy.  We love to give you as much responsibility as you want.  TRANSLATION: So glad to hear that we are on the same page!  We love to give you as much legal research and document review assignments as you want.  Take ownership of those boxes of documents and go for it!

Sadly, the partner/recruiter and law student might as well have been two ships passing each other at night.  They are simply talking past each other.  It’s not that the law firms are intentionally lying to law students; it’s just that each side has completely different expectations and ideas for what “early responsibility” really entails.

Do you remember your OCI experience?  What did law firms promise you?  Were those promises fulfilled?  If not, was it due to differing expectations, or do you feel lied to?

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ABC has a new law show that premiered last Thursday called ‘The Deep End.”  Set in Los Angeles, the show tracks a group of young, twenty-somethings who would do better having modeling careers than acting out the parts of associates at a law firm.  The title, “The Deep End,” apparently comes from the notion that first year associates are pushed into the deep end right away: we see these first years going to court, arguing motions, appearing at settlement conferences, and holding client meetings with no partner supervision.  All of this is represented symbolically when the lead character, Dylan, is pushed into a swimming pool wearing a full suit.

There’s plenty of opinions about the show, so I’ll reserve my own judgment, but if you’re interested in what your fellow associates are saying about it, there’s a good article at the Texas Lawyer:  http://www.law.com/jsp/tx/PubArticleTX.jsp?id=1202439476879&slreturn=1&hbxlogin=1

The theme for this week’s posts is responsibility.  As a first year, do you really want it?

One camp includes those associates who clamor for early responsibility.  They are itching to get to court, to meet clients, to take their first deposition, to argue with opposing counsel.

The other camp includes associates who are petrified with the idea of being pushed into the deep end.  These associates want to ramp up slowly, starting with the familiar territories of legal research and memo writing.  They want to observe partners in action to see how it’s done before they venture into dark waters.

Is there a right or wrong?  Are associates in the first camp “go-getters” on the fast track to partnership?  Or are they risk-taking idiots setting themselves up for an early fall?  Are associates in the second camp smart to first figure things out in order to build a pristine reputation?  Or will they be viewed as work horses only to be used for document review and other bottom-feeder projects?

What’s your strategy?  Ready to jump off the deep end?

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