Monday, July 31, 2006

Every month I get a piece of garbage sent to me via e-mail from the people who charge us more than they're worth over at Lexis. I've argued for a long time that there's no need for us to subscribe to both Lexis and Westlaw, and the only reason it makes any sense is that we charge our clients more than we pay for it and end up turning a profit. If we couldn't charge it back to our clients, I'd say we should send our associates back into the library and have them do it all by hand just like I had an associate pick the raisins out of my raisin bran muffin this morning because I wasn't in the mood for them. Normally I like raisins but today I didn't want any.

Lexis sends me and every other attorney an e-mail spam newsletter every month that I usually delete immediately, but this time I needed something to read in the bathroom (I had my laptop with me to catch up on some work) and scrolled through it. Sure enough, now I know. Lexis is at least partially to blame for the incompetence all around me. In the "associate life" section (as if associates have any reason to read anything about them having a life!), there's a ridiculous feature on wine appreciation. "Confused by the difference between a cabernet and a chardonnay? Sooner or later you'll entertain a client at a nice restaurant, or you'll be talking to a partner who knows a lot about wine and you don't want to appear totally ignorant."

Nonsense. Associates appear totally ignorant not because they don't know anything about wine but because they don't know anything about practicing law. I don't care if my associates can tell the difference between a cabernet and a chardonnay. I need them to be able to tell the difference between a judicial holding and the dicta. Between a set of facts we can distinguish and a set of facts we can't. Not about soave versus pinot grigio. Give me a break.

There's even a set of 15 vocabulary words for associates to learn, so they can talk more intelligently about wine. Like "oaky." How about learning Latin? Or at least reading the bankruptcy code a few more times?

At least it beats Westlaw's feature on the best places to buy sleeping pills on the Internet without a prescription. That stuff is really slowing down associate productivity. Can't sleep? Big deal. So don't.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

It's been a whirlwind past couple of days here. We changed toner suppliers for the printers and copy machines, and nothing has been the same. I used to know what to expect when I printed a document, but now the places that were always a little too light are now a little too dark and I can't get my bearings straight. New boxes are lying around the copy rooms, new deliverymen are playing around with the machines, nothing is the way it used to be. It's causing chaos throughout the firm, no one knows how to handle it, and a group of associates has already formed a committee to go back to the old supplier. It's been a mess.

Maybe it's not the toner. Maybe it's the heat. It never gets as hot here as it's been for the past two weeks. The good part about it is that no one wants to leave the office when it's this hot, so it's that much easier to get the associates to stay the night. The bad news is that everyone comes in dripping with sweat and it's disgusting. And, we had to cancel the summer associate dodgeball match, because we'd reserved an entire park in the valley and it was a hundred and twelve degrees, so we couldn't take the summers there. But we still had the park reserved, and paid for, so instead we sent a handful of unnecessary associates there to guard it and prevent anyone else from using it. They turned away some schoolkids and a youth soccer team. Good work. They earned their bonuses, especially the one who passed out from heatstroke. Lazy. Heatstroke is for the guys at the firm down the street.

Anonymous Wife finally got her hands on my novel. I didn't let her read an advance copy, but she picked one up at Barnes & Noble today, first day out. I'm not that worried about what she'll think of how I depicted her. It's not like she's really going to read it. She's waiting for the Cliff's Notes.

I had a summer associate write up some Cliff's Notes for the U.S. Tax Code. He got it down from a couple thousand pages to just 328. It's pretty good. Busy-work, but he did a nice job. Maybe he'll get an offer. Ha. And maybe the sun will come up tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

I left work early yesterday and took Anonymous Son to the Angels game, way out in Anaheim. I don't know why. I don't know why they call themselves the Los Angeles Angels now. No one in Los Angeles gets on the 5 and drives through that traffic to get out to Anaheim to see the Angels play. They're no more Los Angeles than the valley is. I mentioned to a few associates that I was going to see the game, while I gave them an assignment to keep them in the office all night, and they looked at me like I was crazy. They didn't even know where Anaheim was. Never heard of it. I only knew because I had to do document review out there as an associate once, for some client in the middle of some industrial park out in the sticks. I don't who these people were at the game. They weren't from Los Angeles, and they didn't look like lawyers. Well, some of them were probably from the city. Like Dodgers fans, they left the game in the sixth inning to beat the traffic back, even though there's never any traffic going back, it's just getting out of the city at 5:00.

Because Anonymous Son was with me, I didn't even need to use the blow-up doll I have for the passenger seat so I can use the HOV lane and save some time. I love the HOV lanes. Very smart move by the state.

The Angels won, although a 9th inning rally from the Indians made it close. Anonymous Son wanted a funnel cake. I didn't let him get one. It's a nice stadium out there. They renovated it a few years ago. Added a waterfall to the outfield, some fireworks when an Angel hits a home run. I think we should have vendors in the office who go around the halls giving away drinks and food. It would be really convenient to not have to get up to get something to eat. I'm going to bring it up at the next partner meeting.

Since I got last minute tickets, they were pretty high up, but I gave an usher a $20 to let us sneak into the good seats, so it wasn't like I had to expose Anonymous Son to any poor people. My wife and I are trying to keep him away from those for as long as I can, to keep him unspoiled. Unspoiled may be the wrong word. Untainted. Unspoiled is harder.

I sent an e-card to the incoming class of associates, just a week away from the Bar Exam. I hope they appreciated it. You can send one here, from me, to your colleagues taking the bar exam too. I thought it would be a nice service to provide, save you from having to write your own. I'm hoping for some failures this year. Not that it's good for the firm, but it's just so much fun to know. To watch someone wandering the halls, knowing he's thinking about how everyone around him knows he failed the bar. It's one of the highlights of the year.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

I just got back from the summer associate paintball event we held this evening. We split them up into two teams and told them the winning team gets to have a free-for-all shooting their extra paintballs at the secretaries. It wasn't easy to get the secretaries to come down on Saturday, especially to get shot with paintballs, but we found some good ways to incent them (food). Paintball's a good event. Paintball is a lot like the practice of corporate law. Paintballs travel at around 200 miles an hour, and associates charge their time to clients at around 200 dollars an hour. Players hide behind bunkers to avoid getting hit. Just like clients hide behind lawyers like us to avoid getting held accountable for their actions. In paintball, you wear protective goggles. In court, you wear a suit. In paintball, one side wins, one side loses, but regardless, you all end up covered in paint. In the cases our associates work on, one side wins, one side loses, but regardless, you all end up in the document room. Paintball isn't fun, the summers are only doing it because we're making them, and they know we're watching them and judging their performance. Just like in the office.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

It's the home stretch for our incoming first-year associates currently studying for the Bar Exam. Less than two weeks. I thought I'd send them a motivating e-mail from the firm, just to make sure they're staying focused. "Hope the Bar Exam studying is going well. We're all rooting for you back at the firm. Especially after what's happened with the last few people who failed. But I'll tell you those stories after the exam's over. Don't worry about it. If you're the kind of person we assumed you were when we hired you, you'll do just fine. Best wishes. Be on the lookout for our study break gift baskets."

The study break gift baskets were my idea. Make them think it's all still going to be like the summer once they start for real. Free gifts, friendly smiles, home before midnight. What I wish we could send them in the gift basket is some research assignments they could get started on before they get here in the fall. A stack of documents, some lease agreements. Instead we send them a Starbucks Gift Card and some gourmet brownies. We have an associate in the incoming class who's allergic to wheat. I sent her the brownie tin, empty, and with a note inside. "We remembered you're allergic to brownies, so we didn't send you any. Hope you're not allergic to work!"

(Also, a paralegal died at the firm, and we got new paper clips. Our website has a story about it.)

Sunday, July 09, 2006

I just received an e-mail from a colleague telling me about a new study that just got released by The American Lawyer. Apparently "only" 37.3 percent of attorneys at Am Law 200 firms performed at least 20 hours of pro bono work in 2005. That's pretty shameful. I know, I know. You think I'm going to say 37.3 percent is ridiculous, not because it's so low but because it's so high, and that 37.3 percent means thousands and thousands of attorneys, and thousands upon thousands of pro bono hours, all wasted on people who can't afford attorneys, and to the detriment of important corporate enterprises that can actually afford to pay their bills. You think I'm going to say that there's a reason some people get to work at big law firms, and some people are stuck working for a fraction of the salary and we should leave the pro bono work to those people because clearly their time just isn't as important. You think I'm going to say it's ridiculous to criticize attorneys who don't do pro bono work because we don't criticize construction workers who don't build free things for poor people or chefs who don't give away food to the homeless or doctors who don't save people dying in the street. Why should lawyers be any different? Why should lawyers be held to a higher standard which no one else is?

But that's not what I'm going to say. I agree with The American Lawyer that 37.3 percent is way too low. There are lots more worthless attorneys at our firm and I'm sure at every firm, and if they're not doing pro bono work then I don't know what they're doing. At least 75 percent of the people who work here are completely incapable of doing anything and are just collecting their paychecks for nothing. They're a drain on resources, they demand things like weekends off and respect in the workplace, and they don't give us much added value at all. So the least they can do is help some poor people, at least to the best of their abilities, which isn't much at all but it's still better than nothing and probably all the poor people deserve anyway. Every incompetent attorney at the firm ought to be doing tons of pro bono work, because if they aren't, I don't know what they're doing and whatever it is certainly isn't helping our clients. The small fraction of attorneys who are doing their jobs, they don't need to be doing any pro bono work. But that's a lot less than 62.7 percent, so they're right that 37.3 percent is shamefully low. Shameful.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A sad day for corporate America today. When I heard the news this morning that former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay had died, I had my secretary observe a moment of silence while I yelled at her about some office supplies that arrived today in the wrong color. I wanted light blue post-it flags, but these are closer to turquoise. It's not what I wanted. She screwed up. But I didn't fire her. Some days I probably would have, but I was softened a bit by Ken Lay's death. His death should remind us all that people make mistakes, and sometimes we're too harsh on them. We judge when perhaps we should offer some mercy. Clients every day do things just as suspect as Lay's web of fraudulent partnerships and schemes that cost four thousand people their jobs and life savings, and investors billions of dollars. The difference is that they don't get caught.

I spent much of the day on the phone with my clients, reminding them that Lay didn't use this firm, and if he had, he might still be alive today. Or he might have done the smart thing and had the heart attack a few years ago before his reputation, and the reputation of the lawyers he did use, would be destroyed. I've written about this before, when Slobodan Milosevic died. A great hero, saving his lawyers from the embarassment of losing a case. But Lay waited too long. His lawyers already suffered the conviction. By dying now, he merely saved himself the prison term.

But, again, I don't want to judge him too harshly for waiting to have the heart attack until the only person it would benefit was himself. We all make mistakes like his, every day of our lives. We all cause financial ruin to someone. We all fool people into thinking things that aren't true. We all cover up behavior we're not necessarily proud of. We all spend $200,000 on a yacht for our wife's birthday party, despite being a hundred million dollars in debt and in the process of defrauding investors worldwide. Lay told jurors it was difficult to turn off his extravagant lifestyle. Of course it's hard. In a lot of ways, Lay was just like many of the associates at the firm. They don't really want to be here, they don't want to be doing what they're doing, but it's hard to stop. There's uncertainty out there in the real world, and the devil you know may be easier to cope with than risking that the devil you don't know is even worse. For Lay, the devil he knew was defrauding employees and investors out of billions of dollars, much of which he kept for his own personal gain. In his mind, he may have had no choice. It's not like he could have stopped. Once you buy the houses, you have to pay the mortgages. It's not like he could have turned his life around. He was in too deep.

A lot of our clients are in too deep. That's why they need us. I reassured them today that we have defibrillators on every floor, and a paralegal trained to use them. What happened to Ken Lay doesn't have to happen to them. We can stop a massive heart attack, or at least time it for maximum personal gain. It's part of the planning we do. It's part of how we help our clients.

The articles today are unfair, with Kevin Spacey calling Lay the model for megalomaniacal villain Lex Luthor in the new Superman movie. Lay was no villain. If anything, he was more Superman than Lex Luthor. But accounting records were his kryptonite, and unfortunately for Lay, his enemies had a lot of accounting records. One article I read today quotes Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane as saying that "Houston is a better city because of Ken Lay." And I don't think it's just Houston. I think it's also the slums outside of Houston where many Enron employees were forced to move after losing their life savings. Those slums are enriched by the presence of the former employees, and that's a good thing. And it's not just Houston and the Houston slums. New Orleans is a better city because of Ken Lay. Who would argue that New Orleans today isn't a more vibrant city than before the rise of Enron twenty-one years ago?

Since Lay formed Enron after a merger in 1985, the Berlin Wall has fallen, we've seen the rise of the Internet and new information technologies, AIDS has become a manageable illness instead of a death sentence, and the Red Sox have won the World Series. Surely Ken Lay and Enron deserve credit for much of this. But all that gets forgetten because of some fraudulent partnerships and financial schemes. It's unfair. Unfair to the legacy of Ken Lay, and unfair to the lawyers who tried to defend him. It's a sad day for corporate America when a man like Kenneth Lay dies.

Although I have to admit I was a little disappointed to learn that he died while on vacation. There's a certain glory when you die at your desk, hard at work, surrounded by the people who fear you. That's how I want to go. That's how we all want to go. Peacefully, while writing an angry e-mail to an associate telling him he has to work this weekend.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Old people are a real problem sometimes. Anonymous Wife and I decided to celebrate the July 4th holiday by putting her grandmother into a nursing home against her will. She's originally from out here, and we're the closest relatives in the area, so over the past few years it's fallen on me and Anonymous Wife to bear the brunt of caring for her. We hired someone to do her grocery shopping, hired someone else to visit her once every other week, and paid for a pendant she wears around her neck to call for help in case she ever falls. And, more than once, I've had to take the kids to see her, so they can "know their great-grandmother before she dies." No one would want to be known in the shape she's in, and she doesn't even know who they are. She claims to be mentally with it, but I gave her an assignment from work, something easy that even a summer associate could do, and she had no idea how to make heads or tails of it. When someone's less competent than a summer associate, you know it's time to put them down. Last week she asked for one of us to drive her to the doctor, and that was pretty much the last straw. I asked one of the other partners at the firm, who recently found a mental hospital for his wife to keep her from being able to pursue her divorce proceedings and getting half of his assets, if he knew of any old age homes nearby that didn't steal things from the patients or hit them too hard, and he recommended a place. So we told her we were picking her up to take her to the circus, which she was very excited about, and then we dropped her off at the home instead, and now, thankfully, she'll be out of our hair and I can concentrate on having a productive fourth of July in the office.

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