Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

Res Ipsa Loquitur

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Total Black: $168.03
Total Red: $228,153.42

Earlier today I reached out to colleagues at my former law firm.  I had a quick question to ask related to corporate practice regarding the work I’m doing for my colleague.  I practiced in litigation while at the firm, so I’m only vaguely familiar with corporate filings, securities documents, balance sheets, and the like.  Six out of seven people I telephoned didn’t answer.  Large law firm associates in New York frequently get cold calls from recruiters and headhunters looking to make money facilitating a lateral move to another law firm.  So, associates where I worked often didn’t pick up calls from external telephone numbers we didn’t recognize.  It was different, and annoying, being on the other side of that telephone line today.  I did get to speak with three associates though.  One picked up; the other two called me back.  Two of the three seemed really irritated by my question.  (It regarded dates on amended documents: use original or amended date; pretty basic.)  Within roughly ninety seconds of the call both said they had to go and practically hung up before I could say thanks and good-bye.  I assume some urgent email or telephone call came in.

When I worked at the firm, it became common-place to just hang-up on each other (and sometimes wives, friends, parents, etc.) when someone “important” emailed, called, or walked-in.  With some distance now between me and that behavior, it got me wondering today about the legal profession and the ramifications of these Frankenstein monsters we’re creating, devoid of basic social etiquette.  When people are made to feel like they can’t take another thirty seconds to wrap up a call in a polite way, or to leave their desk to grab lunch with a friend, or step out of the office for a birthday party . . . when we repeatedly bang the “time is money” drum, how sympathetic can we expect these lawyers to be to the employee suing for an on-the-job injury or wrongful termination, to the company going public and debating whether to buy a corporate jet or a better heath-care plan? What’s the trickle-down effect of all this (anti)socialization that we’re perpetuating.

According to May 2008 article in the Washington Post, “lawyer” ranks sixth, just south of various computer programmer professions, in a list of top ten jobs for introverts.  Not surprising.  The running joke is that lawyers are people who couldn’t figure out what else to do.  Anecdotal evidence shows lawyers to be bad managers, particularly those in charge of mentoring.  They’re notoriously inept at delivering clear instructions.  “Hiding the ball” is fairly commonplace and some think finding the ball demonstrates your worth.  Partners at large law firms typically receive little training on successful management techniques.  Why should they?  It’s their partnership.  I suppose expecting them to evaluate their own shortcomings is a bit much.  See, unlike CEOs on whom much human and monetary capital is spent for training, partners and senior associates in law firms aren’t required to be good leaders.  I suppose they haven’t really had to be.  A partnership is not the same as a corporation, just like a CEO is not the same as a partner.  CEOs are accountable to directors and shareholders and being a successful and effective leader and manager links directly with that role.  A partner is responsible, if at all, only to fellow partners.  There’s already some chatter about opening law firm ownership to the public.  Legal ethics currently prohibit it.  But rules can be changed.  It might lead to better governance.  It might be disastrous.

For my non-lawyer readers, res ipsa loquitur is a Latin phrase that translates to “the thing speaks for itself.”  It’s a legal theory applied in tort law (cases involving personal injury) that dates back to an 1863 English case where a passer-by was injured when a barrel rolled out of a window of the second floor of a warehouse and struck the man walking below.  It’s used to show that someone must have been negligent even if you can’t really point to a particular individual because . . . “the thing speaks for itself”; barrels don’t fall out of buildings by themselves without someone not securing it properly, houses don’t explode, and so on.  Grant me a bit of poetic license here, but it seems many things in our society speak for themselves, and particularly so in the legal profession.

It speaks for itself that the demands of a blackberry / telecommuting / global workplace wreaks havoc on our bodies and minds.  It speaks for itself that laying off millions of workers because you’ve shipped their jobs overseas, as a good (but short-sighted) CEO might do to cut costs and raise profits for shareholders, will have manifold ramifications on those people’s lives.  It speaks for itself that saddling students with mounds of (ever-increasing) debt will cause them to seek employment that “pays the bills” not brings them joy.  And it speaks for itself that having a work force only interested in “getting a paycheck” leads to disgruntled employees with bad attitudes and lackluster performance.  It also seems, at least to me, to speak for itself that constantly cultivating a consumer-driven society will inevitably lead to vast unhappiness.  It speaks for itself that medicating pain by spending money (on clothes, books, travel, food, gambling, technology, etc.) will only exacerbate the condition requiring even more money to dig back out.  Doesn’t it speak for itself too that this vicious circle has to end somehow?

Don’t get me wrong.  I love a good diner.  I enjoy nice clothes (to the chagrin of the Christmas shoppers in my family).  And I love to give gifts and pick up the tab every so often.  I’m no earth-loving, society-dropping hippie.  But I also see, at least from the vantage point of my experience, that we’re precariously close to some sort of edge.  National debt has skyrocketed.  Personal savings are an at all-time low.  But many of us will still head out tonight to throw back a few beers or stay in and order a pizza.  What if we all had one beer less or got a smaller size pizza and pooled that money?  How much would we get?  If I’m reading the 2008 10-K correctly, Starbucks made approximately $8.7 billion, or 84% of net revenue, from Company-operated (not Barnes & Noble annex or hotel coffee purchases) retails sales.  76% of that $8.7 billion, or $6,666,644,000 (freaky number, eh?),  came from beverage sales alone (not food, not coffee bean sales, not espresso machines).  That means Starbucks earned $18,264,778.08 a day.

Just one day’s worth of our beverage purchases at Starbucks.  That’s a lot of spare change.  That’s a lot of good change if we pooled that money and used it to help each other.  And that too speaks for itself.

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