Saturday, October 18, 2008


I digress from my traditional advice on "hiring" to spend some time on professionalism.  Over the years, as firms have become more obsessed with billable hours, as associates have become more obsessed with salaries and bonuses, and "laterals for hire" have moved from firm to firm in search of the biggest PPP, I feel many folks have lost track of professionalism.  I guess what I am thinking here is that I don't believe firms are teaching our newer lawyers how to be good lawyers.  When I say good lawyers I mean careful, smart, professional lawyers.  And, the associates have become in some instances "Stepford lawyers," just moving from project to project, timesheet to timesheet, without focusing on the big picture and without questioning when something a higher up is saying is wrong or perhaps unethical or even unlawful.

So, I would like to spend some time in our posts focusing on these issues.  HP spent many years at a solid AM LAW 200 firm. During the time HP was growing up there, HP will say that HP did have great mentors who taught HP these important professionalism traits. I don't think these same lessons are necessarily being taught there now, and I am concerned they are not taught at other firms. So, maybe I can pass along some here.

First, you are bright, diligent people. Don't become a Stepford Attorney.  Let's say a partner wants to keep his or her group hours up and tells you to record time in a way that you are not sure sounds right.  Do you just follow his or her instructions?  If you've got a concern or actually feel it is unethical ...i.e. billing for work not done.. then do something about it.  The partner is putting you, himself, and the firm at risk.  Someone once told a group of associates "our clients may go to jail, we are not going to jail for them."  Similar story here.  Do not do something you think is unethical or illegal just because someone is telling you to do it. Go consult a department chair, an office managing partner, someone to ask their advice.  I know this is risky but it is better than getting involved in shady timekeeping or other unethical issues. Do not sacrifice your ethical obligations and professionalism for someone's profit.  

Second, when I was a first year associate, I had an orientation program. I still remember one important line from that program:  "everyone here, at some point, will make a mistake.  Do not attempt to hide it, don't think it will go away, and don't have a heart attack.  Tell someone."  I think of that to this day. Once, it happened to me.  I thought I forgot to do something in connection with a appellate brief.  I fessed up to the senior associate, thinking I was about to die.  I am sure I lost sleep.  He said, oh, I remembered that and took care of it yesterday. Crisis averted!  Remember, a lot of mistakes can be cured, but if you try to bury them -- like my brother used to do with his bad report cards in the front yard so our parents wouldn't find them  -- sometimes the mistakes will become bigger and bigger problems.  

More in a later post.  Hope you are having a nice weekend.


Anonymous said...

Wouldn't the associate have to worry about being fired regardless whether the associate is correct or incorrect? Levying such an accusation would most often occur in a situation where there is either an argument to be made that what the partner has said/done is not unethical or the client doesn't care. The associate would almost surely be fired in either one of those circumstances to preserve workplace atmosphere.

I'm not saying that associates should "hear no evil, see no evil." But you'd better be damned sure before you even question it.

Hiring Partner said...

HP was thinking of a fairly obvious situation, but a consult could even be with a more senior attorney to ask about whether this timekeeping is normally done, etc. I have never been asked to do something like this...the post was based on some emails I got, but it does happen and we need to be careful to follow our sense of right.

Richard said...

Finally, a post that does not involve hiring! Been waiting for some variety...nice one!

Anonymous said...

OK, so how many large law firms have a designated ombudsman?

Kelly said...

I worked for a very difficult partner for a couple of years. He did repeat one nugget of advice repeatedly, which helped me stand up to him on a couple of things I felt strongly about: You worked for very hard to put that piece of paper from the state supreme court on your wall; don't let anyone else take it down.

Hiring Partner said...

Kelly: good words. Yes, sometimes the jerky supervising attorneys do teach us things. We just have to remember the useful lessons and not adopt their other behaviors, actions, etc.