Monday, April 24, 2006

Ever since I found out about the Harvard student who was caught flashing his genitals to oncoming traffic, I make it a point to have an associate check The Crimson web page every few days to see if there are any students I need to put on the list of people we'll never hire, a list that includes not only criminals from Harvard but also the hundreds of students every fall who misspell words in their cover letters or resumes. There's no excuse for misspelling words in your cover letter. Two students this fall said they were "eeger" to work at the firm. I have their cover letters posted on the attorney lounge bulletin board, along with revealing photos from the summer associate spa trip, where an enterprising young real estate associate snuck into the changing room with a tiny digital camera and waited until the summer program was over before he sent around the pictures.

In any case, today I added another name to the list after reading about a Harvard sophomore who wrote a novel her freshman year, receiving a substantial six-figure advance and becoming the youngest author signed by Little, Brown in decades. Little, Brown would never pass muster as a law firm name. There's almost not a worse combination of two words. Our names need to evoke power, not weakness. Someone says Little, Brown and I think of what I do in the bathroom. That's not the right image for a respectable organization.

The Crimson discovered that the Harvard sophomore lifted dozens of passages from another novel, and not even very artfully. The examples listed in the article are pretty damning. I've used a tenth as much evidence to get associates fired, or have personal enemies put in prison.

Today she issued a statement saying the copying was "unintentional and unconscious." If she can unconsciously parrot back paragraphs from a book she claims to have read back in high school, then we need to get her working here as soon as possible, have her read the entire collection of ninth circuit opinions, and then lock her in a conference room with the other trained seals and let her start spitting out some briefs. I tried the "unintentional and unconscious" defense when I got assigned a pro bono case defending a guy accused of murdering nine children with a pitchfork. Needless to say, it didn't work. Even Barry Bonds wouldn't buy this explanation, and he claims to have not realized he was taking steroids even as he tripled in size.

I understand that it's in no one's self-interest for this girl to say she was under pressure and made a stupid decision and copied from the other book. She'd lose her advance and any chance at a legitimate writing career, her publisher would be embarrassed and lose book sales, and on the heels of what happened with James Frey, it would be another black mark for the whole industry. So it's in everyone's interest to fudge an apology and move on.

But to me it's just another example of the kind of world we live in, where no one is accountable for his or her actions. Not this girl, not Barry Bonds, not friend-shooter Dick Cheney, and not the summer associates we hire who don't do the kind of work we should be demanding. We're too afraid of the consequences to hold our summer associates accountable. We're afraid that if we don't give someone an offer, he's going to go back to school in the fall and tell everyone we're the firm that doesn't give everyone an offer, and then no one will interview with us and we won't have anyone to replace all the associates who leap from the roof every year.

It's shameful. I'm ashamed of myself for it. Every year, when we have the meeting at the end of the summer to decide which summer associates get offers, and we go through the laughable exercise of running down the list and talking about each of them, as if there's really a chance we're going to reject anyone for anything short of capital murder, I feel sick to my stomach. "Ted's work product was unexceptional, his hair unkempt, and his shirts untucked. The associates he worked with rated him an average of 2 out of 4 on his competence, reliability, and personal hygiene. He will never make partner. Nevertheless, we have no reason not to invite him back to become a full-time associate." The entire meeting is merely a chance to talk trash about all the summers and share whatever gossip we've heard in the halls. To learn who was caught masturbating in his office. It's pathetic. We don't have the guts to demand anything. No, instead we wait until they get here and then we work them until they decide to quit on their own. Part of me thinks maybe that's all they deserve, but sometimes I think that's even too much for them. We pay them a salary while they're here. A good salary. Why? Why when we already know they aren't worth it?

I'm accountable. True, I'm hidden behind a cloak of anonymity on this weblog. And, true, I don't release my tax returns. And, true, I blame all of the legal mistakes I make on the associates below me. But in some respects, I'm sure I'm accountable for something in my life. At least one thing. I can't think of it yet, but I will. The rest of society? Getting away with murder. Or at least with plagiarism. Pathetic. She should be forced to work in public interest. That would serve her right.

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