Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

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

No Holidays For Lawyers

with 12 comments

Total Black: $1,066.57
Total Red: $228,867.93

A few days ago, while at the contract attorney position, I got to talking with the office manager for the attorney temporary staffing agency’s off-site location.  She was working quite late, as was I, and I inquired why.  A new project was starting up and some computer problem had occurred.  She had to stick around until the situation was solved otherwise the project wouldn’t have been able to start on time.  It got me wondering why Law is all-consuming.

The practice of law is like a black hole.  Come anywhere near it, whether as a paralegal or an office manager, an IT technician or a clerk in the docket room of a courthouse, and even a mailroom attendant, and of course as a lawyer—and you’ll never escape it’s gravitational pull again.  All are beholden to the demands of the law.  But law isn’t medicine.  A heart attack or stroke doesn’t mind the calendar and hold off so as to not ruin your special day.  Radiation treatment cannot be put on hold because it’s Christmas time.  And law is also not like public safety.  Sadly crime doesn’t take a holiday.  Accidents and fires too do not hold off until the long weekend has come to a close.  Police officers and firefighters must be available at all times.

But lawyers?  Why is it that lawyers never stop working.  Rarely pause.  Hardly eve say, “Let’s hold off on this until after the weekend.”  Instead “emergencies” always arise that require urgent attention.  “Firefighting” assignments we used to call them at the firm.  And even back when I interned at a government agency, people generally came in on their day off or took work home with them.  And with the good ol’ Blackberry leash around nowadays, lawyers routinely email each other quite late in day or over weekends or holidays.  I’m guilty of it myself. 

I recall one night at the contract attorney project back in October, the temporary attorney staffing agency’s IT guys were settling in for an all-nighter because the firm decided to expand the project and bring on like one hundred additional contract attorneys.  Ok.  Fine.  But why was it so urgent that these guys had to work all night?  Could it have been spread over two days?  What would really have been the harm?  The IT guys wouldn’t have pushed back and said, “No.  I’m not staying here all night.”  Or maybe a few would have, but most—especially in this economic climate—wouldn’t.  Similarly, the paralegal forced to stay late photocopying materials or assembling binders for a meeting the next day.  She too wouldn’t look at her watch and say, “My shift’s over.  Sorry.  See you tomorrow.”  Back in More More More I mentioned that I had to help out one day over at the firm doing photocopying.  Nine copies of eighteen different exhibits, a few of which were over four-hundred pages a piece.  Once it was all finished, six hours later, the staff attorney directly over us joked that it was a good thing he called me over early to get started.  And if he hadn’t?  Either he or I would have had to remain at the firm until everything was prepared for the next morning.  But why did the photocopying have to happen the night before?  Why not three days prior?

Why are lawyers notoriously inept at time management?  With the exception of a few instances, I do not believe that any situation involving the practice of law should ever require late nights or these unprofessional panic attacks.  Why is it that we let the profession of law be hyjacked by mismanagement?  Take the expanded document review project just referenced: the firm must have become aware of a ballpark figure as to how many documents would have to be reviewed.  Do the math and out comes an approximate number of days and attorneys you’ll need to get through it all.  So why the fire then?  I can’t count the number of times this partner at my former law firm decided to begin work once the whistle blew.  He bullshat the whole day long, flirting and chatting and doing who knows what, and then once it got close to quitting time, he decided that was when he’d get to work.  And he’d keep us there for all hours, to his credit sometimes with him.  Another example: at the eleven-thirty hour, just as the team was finishing up edits to a final report to the client, the partner decided that he wanted to make edits and changes.  Of course he wrote them on paper.  His secretary attempted to put them into the system, but used an earlier version of the document.  Eventually everyone figured it out and re-input the chagnes, but her edits screwed up the formatting I and another associate had spent hours repairing.  And the client paid for it all!

Why must lawyers be so inefficient?  Today my remaining team member shared a war story of her’s about apharmaceutical document review she had been on in New Jersey a few years back.  For months hundreds of contract attorneys sat around doing nothing because they had no documents to review.  But the client did not want to let the attorneys go out of fear of not being able to staff the project again.  (Clearly this was before my time, back in the golden era of document review.)  So the company paid the attorneys to do nothing.  Paid them an hourly wage plus overtime to sit around for hours and just be on stand-by.  They did have to report each day to the project space, but they did nothing.  Literally!  If I have the story correct, that is.  Insane!  (And where are those project now.  I need that money.) 

I acknowledge that legal situations do exist that require emergency attention.  Perhaps an unexpected death and related estate matters.  Similarly, arraignments before a judge often occur at all hours.  If crime doesn’t take a holiday and neither do the police, then courts don’t either, nor prosecutors or defense attorneys.  The pro bono case I handled while at the firm required a rush to court seeking an injunction to stop the auction of the client’s personal property.  We received very short notice beforehand about the auction.  Composing the papers and getting everything assembled took time and required over twenty-four hours straight work.  And then we had to go to court afterward.  That was an emergency situation too.  But in all honesty, and in retrospect, I don’t think it required that emergency pace.  I just failed to appreciate the scope of the work involved, but yet it did need to get done and within a short time-frame. 

These few example I cited aren’t the everyday for most lawyers and those who work for and support lawyers.  Yet lawyers routinely manufacture emergencies, concoct crises, and drum up drama . . . and turn everyone else’s life around them into a nightmare.  With few exceptions, legal situations do not warrant this frenzy.  Instead, I think it is widespread failure to plan appropriately and manage time wisely that precipitates the current pace of the law.  And I think it’s partly due to the way law school is set up.  Law students are conditioned to coast through classes until the reading period begins—a few weeks before exams when one must relearn (or in many instances learn it for the first time) all the material covered throughout the course.  It establishes a pattern in the minds of lawyers-t0-be that important deadlines can be pushed off until the last minute.  I recall a presentation given to the summer associates the firm I worked for.  The presenter quoted a statistic somewhere around 80% as the number of attorneys who require a sense of urgency before they’ll turn to something.  I too am guilty.  But it has to change.  Too many overworked, stressed-out, unhappy lawyers.  Tack on all the support personnel and it’s just mountains of woe. 

So yes . . . although it is President’s Day weekend.  And although it is a holiday.  I am working today.  And so was everyone else on all the projects in the office.  No holidays for lawyers, it seems.  And yes, I know, a backhanded answer is to get out of the profession if I don’t like it.  But I do.  I honestly enjoy the practice of law.  What I don’t understand though is why the administration of the practice of law must be devoid of any acknowledgement of anything else outside of the law.  I guess it’s like that event horizon.  No light escape from a black hole.  Well . . . not without breaking the laws of gravity.

12 Responses

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  1. Part of it, at least in the most egregious cases, may have something to do with the fact that many law firm attorneys are paid by the billable hour. It creates a perverse incentive to make projects take as long as possible. On the other hand, having gone in-house, I get the same paycheck every two weeks no matter what, so efficiency is the goal for me.

    Jim in Chicago

    February 16, 2010 at 10:18

  2. Our wealth or lack of wealth is dependent on how much we sweat.

    We do not build equity in a company that makes a product. Service is about hours of labor whether one is at the top or bottom of the food chain.

    I am both working on a solo practice right now to make ends meet and developing my eventual exit from the law because I will never have a legal practice like Bill Gates has Microsoft stock. I will never become a Bill Gates in the legal industry.

    That’s the reality. So, if you don’t like this, you need to work on a way of being a lawyer.

    Craig

    February 16, 2010 at 11:39

  3. You’re right. But that message is not disseminated in the early, and most important, years of a law student / young lawyer’s career. No one tells them that you’re going to have to invest over ten years, post law school, just to possibly make partner, and then you typically become a junior partner, i.e., non-equity, and have to become the equity partners’ bitch for a number of years more, and have to deal with all the personnel matters too. It’s a crazy amount of time to try to “earn” $2 million or $3 million a year—before taxes.

    Sure, you can rake in the millions—as a plaintiff’s attorney. But the media has sufficiently put young attorneys off that path as something to turn your nose at.

    But frankly, I think that practice of law and making money need to be strictly separate. Practicing law—as far as I’ve seen, read, and researched—is only a relatively new path to reach millionaire status. Not sure it really coincides with our ethical duties.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    February 16, 2010 at 11:53

  4. I agree. The business of law is not widely understood. Even amongst lawyers. No one discusses the numerical odds even if you are the best of the best of the best.

    I do not know what the practice of law should be. I know that this is the reality. I am not going to go on one of my diatribes about the state of the country in general (I am a progressive populist) here other than to say that I am moving beyond dreaming of what should be.

    I think this country is screwed. The legal field is only one sign of the emerging reality. So, I am focused on saving myself rather than build a better society. My guiding philosophy right now is that I want to divorce myself from the economic realities of this country.

    OT: I think your site is interesting in that it is not sugar coated like other sites when it comes to solo practice.

    Craig

    February 16, 2010 at 12:28

  5. Lawyers – even the top most partners put in a helluva lot of work for a few million a year. In constrast finance guys with the same number of years make a gazillion times more. If you want to make money get into finance and not the law.

    Anon

    February 16, 2010 at 19:55

  6. well said. Shoddy time management isn’t just a side effect of law school, it’s what we practice from high school on. The educational environment doesnt show you how to manage your time well.
    Also, actually taking time out of a day at work to do small things – like make a photocopy of an exhibit, or delete earlier versions of documents to prevent the mistake you described – for something due next week takes an extra 25 minutes that noone has since they’re too busy drafting a motion due in two hours.

    faina

    February 18, 2010 at 02:10

  7. I think the three big things which have most damaged the enjoyment of the practice of law are all technological: 1) email; 2) the word processor; 3) blackberry.

    EMAIL: I started practice in a big firm in the mid-nineties (not in the US) at a time when email hadn’t taken off.

    Banks/clients/firms used to send me letters by post unless it was urgent in which case they sent a fax. Often if someone sent a letter they would allow a couple of days for delivery, a couple of days to digest and respond (maybe longer) and then a couple of days for the response to come back (always by letter).

    Email has compressed the time in which it is now acceptable to respond. People send an email and expect a response within hours (sometimes not more than one). Receive an email Friday night with a query – the sender will often unreasonably expect a response early Monday.

    Email encourages people to make comments/queries/requests that they would be too embarrassed to ask for by letter or even over the phone.

    Email also encourages pointless debates by virtue of copying in lots of people on emails. Many people receive or are copied in on emails which stress them unnecessarily – i.e. they don’t need to do nothin. Also some feel that since they have been sent an email they need to ‘contribute’ or ‘put in their 10cents worth’. Pointless – unnecessary. You don’t write a letter to 12 people do you?

    WORD-PROCESSOR: This has been a silent killer of work place happiness. When documents had to be typed by a secretary and faxed around they tended to be kept as short as possible. People were simply too embarrassed to ask for pointless or needless last minute changes. Nobody did 20 plus versions of something. Three years ago or so I worked in London for a while (I am a New Zealander) and ended up working on 400+ page loan agreements (including all the schedules etc). Crazy. There’s no way you can know the whole document. Most loan agreements should be 50-100 pages max – even for big deals.

    The word processor facilitates and encourages the creation of longer and longer document; more and more negotiation as changes are so easy to make; and people also feel that they can take things right to the wire to get a better deal as documents can be churned out almost instantly. Most of the extra hassle is pointless.

    BLACKBERRY: The most recent and possibly the worst development of all. Even if you had the week from hell, even if you knew that you might have to come into the office on a Sunday to catch up a bit you could at-least escape from work on a Friday night or sat or on holiday. The blackberry creates the expectation that a committed worker will be up with the play 24/7 365 days a year. No down time. It is this in-ability to escape which is so crushing. You can turn the dam thing off sure but the email sender , your boss or the client, will expect it to be on.

    The irony is of course that many if not most both inside and outside the profession see the technological changes as beneficial to law and progress; they increase efficiency right?

    MarkyMark

    February 20, 2010 at 00:05

  8. Brilliant. Stunningly simple observations on a very simple topic—but like noses on faces, we just don’t notice them. Particularly your word processor comments. Hadn’t thought about life before computers and how difficult it would have been to prep twenty copies of 500-page documents. Yet now no eye gets batted at it.

    You should write an article for the ABA Journal on this point. People don’t follow until someone first leads.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    February 20, 2010 at 00:13

  9. This is chicken versus egg. It is not just technology, but the underlying economic climate that produces the impact on your life. Technology is a correlation rather than cause. The documents are longer because people trust each other less in business. There is economic pressure to produce faster because there is a smaller and smaller return and smaller and smaller part of the pie to obtain. Lawyers are symptomatic rather than anything unique with regarding to declining work conditions. What has truly changed is the economy of the U.S. has changed. I was just listening to a video by Elizabeth Warren, which I found at the bottom of a post in another blog:

    http://butidideverythingrightorsoithought.blogspot.com/2010/02/as-public-outrage-grows-more-turn-to.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+ButIDidEverythingRight+%28But+I+Did+Everything+Right%21%29

    The core thesis is this: You feel the need to do more because you are at a greater peril of economic failure than your parents were.

    Let me put it to you this way: Your ability to say no, and go off to take vacation, because you are economically secure is less. So, even if you wanted to do so, you can’t turn off that blackberry or stop fielding those emails. But, that’s all just the frosting on the cake. The truth is the cake itself is that the economy forces you to say yes. So long as you are economic wage slaves (with a diminishing middle class) you will feel this pressure.

    This should not be a surprise. 3rd world countries are the model, or as some call it, a race to the bottom.

    Craig

    February 20, 2010 at 15:01

  10. It may be true that people trust each other less in business nowadays. Then again, it may not be. We’d have to ask someone who worked in business twenty or thirty years ago. I didn’t. I suspect you didn’t either, Craig, but I’m not sure. So, not having lived during the 1970s or 1950s, I can’t speak to “knowledge” about the difference between then and now. “Knowledge” used in the epistemological sense.

    That said, I don’t think that five or ten years ago, during those pockets of economic boom like the Dot Com bubble or the few years before the Great Recession, I don’t think in those years did anyone leash themselves to their blackberries out of fear of their own economic peril. I do think you’ve got a point as to today, but not stretching it back over the past few years as MarkyMark noted.

    As I see it, three factors converge to create this caustic climate: 1) technology, 2) personal financial security, and 3) management greed and insecurity. We touched on the other two. They’re factors. But I lay much of the blame at the door of greedy partners. If law firm partners don’t push back against clients’ unrealistic turn-around demands, in an effort to protect their associates and safeguarding associates’ personal lives, then clients will demand more and more. What’s next? A hot red batphone wired to our homes? Whenever the hot red client of the moment needs instant access we’ll just plug them into that telephone line? Realistically though law firm partners don’t push back, perhaps out of fear that the client will turn to another law firm who will answer their questions in lightening speed. It’s a race to the bottom if ever I saw one.

    Having worked at a large, international law firm, I understand the demands thrust upon the practice of law by differing time zones and global markets. But I also saw London associates cut out at a reasonable hour on a Friday evening leaving the American associates to finish up the work: sometimes while we worked in London too—not because of the time difference. And we stayed, of course; and came in on weekends while our British counterparts enjoyed their personal time.

    There’s something uniquely and terminally American about this work ethic. It stretches back to perhaps even before the Lochner Era when labor first started getting organized in this country and people started to demand humane working hours and conditions. Management, like power, concedes nothing without a demand. It never has; it never will. At least not in the USA.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    February 21, 2010 at 16:38

  11. I’m commenting late because I just recently found your blog. I’m currently a 2L and had worked as a Paralegal for five years prior to starting law school. Overall I’ve found that I’m most productive working part time. I can do a full day’s work in a four or five hour shift because I know I have a certain amount of work to complete during that limited time.

    When I worked for eight or more hours I’d spend the first hour or two checking email, reading the news, or drinking coffee. Then after lunch it took another hour to settle back in. Finally the big rush between 4-5 to finish my daily tasks so I could leave right on time.

    tb

    August 8, 2010 at 16:04

  12. @tb: interesting point and I fully concur. I too found that I got a lot more work done when I only had a few hours of the day whereas I’d putz around for hours before, during, and after the day because I had “all day.” As did other associates. Many of us just assumed it was necessary to be there for a while. Some hung around until 8pm so they could buy food and get a car home. Crazy system. So inefficient.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    August 8, 2010 at 17:50


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