Law in Contemporary Society


-- By SanjayMurti - 08 May 2012

"No, call me Mark," he said, beckoning to two brown leather chairs in front of an oversized wooden desk. He waved the recruiter out of the room and reached for a couple of water bottles out of a mini-fridge by the door. Atop it, and every other raised surface in the room, lay papers, neatly stacked, but in no clearly discernible order. He handed me a bottle, and then, as if noticing my unease or my exhaustion, he broke into a wide grin, "Kind of a whirlwind, huh?"

It had been a whirlwind. Mark Rogers, the hiring partner of Grigsby & Watterson's corporate department, was my fifth and final interviewer before lunch. I’d spent the morning being shuttled in and out of offices, speaking at length with a carefully culled group of partners and associates. I would spend the afternoon with a different group of associates, at an expensive but casual restaurant, designed to cultivate the firm's work-hard, play-hard persona. The next forty-five minutes, though, were all Mark's.

Mark was 6'3” and broad shouldered - an athlete in a previous life. He was conservatively dressed - charcoal suit, spread (but not too spread) collar - which left his novelty golf ball tie decidedly out of place. He would later tell me that he'd earned the right to wear it; he’d “put in the time.” While I imagined he cut an imposing figure at a negotiating table, he was nothing of the sort here. "You've had enough interviews at this point," he noted somewhat ambivalently, glancing through my résumé. "Besides, you wouldn't be talking to me unless someone thought you'd be a good fit." He tossed my résumé on the desk, knocking askew a stack of papers, and sat down. "So, have any questions?"

I'd had interviews like this before. The standard play was to ask as many rehearsed questions as possible, straddling the line between honestly inquisitive and too lazy to read the firm's website. But, for some reason, I shut the playbook.

"Well," I started, failing to consider my words, "Why are you still here?"

Mark chuckled. "Guess you've heard the pitch, huh? Talk to a bunch of young associates today? Get in, get some experience, get out, right? It's much, uh, stickier than that." He paused. "I don't mean that in a negative way - although it might be for you."

"No, I --" I tried to interject to no avail.

"No, no, it's fine. Most of our associates come in planning on leaving after a couple years. Ends up being harder than you'd think. Some of it is the money, sure. But you get comfortable. And you get busy."

"Comfortable?" I smiled, skeptically. "Don’t think I’ve heard that one."

"Look," Mark continued, "most of the people we bring in can do the work. It's late nights and early mornings, but you adapt. A year or two in, you have a routine. You get comfortable. Get through three years and then you start thinking partner. Sure, if you can't hack it here, you get out. But then again, you probably just lateral to Ryne Lastroud because lifestyle firms 'really care.'"

He punctuated the sentence with air quotes, then leaned forward, flashing a sense of seriousness I hadn't yet seen, "Whether we offer you or not, make sure you remember that. The firm doesn't care about you. It cares about getting work out and money in – as it should.”

Before I could respond, Mark stood up and walked to the window. He picked up a hockey stick that lay propped against the wall. "That's what your generation doesn't get. Been coddled by institutions too long, I guess. You could use a little hit every once in a while." He slapped at a plastic puck on the floor, sending it flying across the room towards a tipped over recycling bin. He missed. "You want personal development? Growth? No firm is going to give you that. But we give you access to people. That’s what’s valuable. The firm doesn’t care if it burns you out and casts you off – you’re interchangeable. A cog in the system. But you can make people care. You can earn that. And when – no, if you do, there’s real value in that. The firm’s greatest resource is its talent and, if you learn to exploit it, you’ll get your development.”

Mark took a couple more swipes at a stack of pucks, then tossed the hockey stick over to me, and settled back in his seat. “It’s my old stick. Boston College, class of ’78. Even got myself a ring.” He paused. “Well, Jim Craig got me a ring.” He nodded over at a display case by the window, then looked at me quizzically, “Shit, when were you born? Do you even know who Jim Craig is?”

It was my turn to chuckle. “Miracle, right?” I replied, “Beat the Soviets?”

Mark laughed. “Right. Forgot there was a Disney movie. Jim had it right, though. You know what his favorite word was? Legacy. Even then. Twenty-three years old, facing down the goddamn Soviets, the kid’s worried about his legacy, his mark on the world. You know what he did after those Olympics?”

“You mean, in life?” I asked. “Not really. I assumed he went to the NHL, though.”

“Yeah. For a few years. Never had much of a hockey career after that. He must have played maybe twenty games. Didn’t much matter though. How much can the NHL matter after something like that? Jim had his legacy after Lake Placid.”

Mark sat back in his chair, folded his hands behind his head, and looked up at the ceiling, caught in a temporary moment of wistful nostalgia. A breath later, he snapped back, caught me square in the eye, and asked an impossible question:

“What’s your legacy, son?”


Sanjay, I keep thinking about Mark saying: "Make sure you remember that. The firm doesn't care about you. It cares about getting work out and money in; as it should." I've heard that before in different ways, and I used to nod and think that must be what business is, after all. It seemed naive to suggest otherwise. In the real world, success is measured on a spreadsheet and market share needs to be gained and cost-cutting is necessary and "it's not charity, it's business." This may be how some people say the world works, that this is the cold, hard truth of capitalism, but every firm, every business, and every person makes a choice to make the bottom line net profit/ loss. That is such a boring path to walk... in pursuit of money, security, and a perfectly bourgeois life. More than boring, it's reprehensible or tragic to proceed under such a self-serving and dehumanizing assumption in order to justify discarding people like cogs and turning lives into labor. Even if Mark thinks firms don't and shouldn't care about people, I can't imaging bragging about that to a 1L recruit. I guess it's showing off that this is a grown-up environment that doesn't coddle, and maybe there's some macho satisfaction in making yourself valuable by "learning to exploit" the firm's undiscriminating profit motive. Maybe it's taking that naive feeling that the machinery could and should be different and laughing it into the ground because your legacy depends on it.


Sam, sorry for the delayed response. Needed a break from law school. I didn't take a lot of creative license with that quote. The lawyer who said that to me wasn't interviewing/recruiting me, but those were (a close approximation of) his words.

Leaving aside the admittedly crass "resource exploitation" phrasing, I think he was drawing a distinction between the incentives of the firm as an entity and its people. The firm has two primary goals: (1) to serve the client and (2) to make money for the partners. Institutionalizing a third goal to make associates better lawyers is difficult. The large law firm custom of replacing associates with (relatively) cheaper fresh graduates means that investing firm resources in training and development is inefficient. The best lawyers will rise to the top independent of training, and the remainder can be discarded.

I don't think people actually think this way though. You're right. The "cold, hard truth of capitalism" that people make a choice to make the bottom line net profit/loss isn't really a truth. While organizations can base decisions in terms of dollars and cents, people can't. Relationships invariably impact the decision-making process. It's how you get the senior associate who's willing to walk a new lawyer through the timeline of a transaction, even though that means she's working until 4 AM instead of 2. It's how you get the partner who works late alone on a Saturday night to avoid making his associates come in on a Sunday. And it might be how young lawyers can get value out of big law, even if the firm structure itself disincentivizes providing such value.


All of this only makes sense when what the firm really sells is lawyer hours. It doesn't make so much sense when what the firm has to sell is results, and it has to answer for itself how to get the maximum profit in the shortest possible time without compromising its ability to deliver reliable results. The problem with the lawyer you have speaking isn't that he's wrong, it's that he's outdated. His practice is okay for his lifetime, which is all that it has to be. But when "the firm" has absorbed everybody's practice, when it has to be good for your lifetime as well as his, it stops being realistic. It is now designed to fail. It can be managed so that it doesn't fail, but that won't optimize for the partners who are like your guy. And they run "the firm."

So your best bet isn't the quality of the management of an institution that needs excellent management in order to serve two sets of disruptive transitions over your professional lifetime. Your best bet is to reactivate the form of law practice in which you get to make those management decisions for yourself.

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r5 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:12 - IanSullivan
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