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18 posts from November 2010

November 30, 2010

Simpson Thacher's Time Sheet Policy--Barely Legal?

IStock_000007927612XSmall Partners, I feel your pain. Squeezed by the bad economy and badgering clients, you really have to hustle to take home that million or two these days. What's more, you face an enemy at your own firm: Lawyers who won't or can't get their time sheets in on time.

Clearly, late time sheets are driving people batty. Recently, I blogged about the partner who's so frustrated with delinquent timekeepers that he's taken to threatening them with public humiliation and firings. And before that, I blogged about Simpson Thacher & Bartlett's new policy of reducing compensation by 20 percent for associates who are ten days late in filing their time records. (Even after the associate is up-to-date on time sheets, Simpson won't restore the lost wages, except in "exceptional and rare cases," according to the firm's employee manual.)  

When a firm like Simpson adopts this kind of draconian policy, it carries authority. But on this one, I've been hearing rumbling from lawyers (at other firms) that Simpson might be going too far. "You can fire someone for not getting in their time sheets, but you can't cut their wages," one lawyer tells me.

Could a firm like Simpson be skirting the law? I asked an employment-lawyer friend for his take. Here's what he says: "It is flat out illegal in New York to make deductions from employees' paychecks for failure to follow company policies."

In particular, he cites New York labor law section 193, which talks about what's considered proper and improper deductions by employers:

No employer shall make any deduction from the wages of an employee, except deductions which a. are made in accordance with the provisions of any law or any rule or regulation issued by any governmental agency; or b. are expressly authorized in writing by the employee and are for the benefit of  the employee; provided that such authorization is kept on file on the employer's premises. Such  authorized  deductions  shall  be limited  to  payments  for  insurance  premiums,  pension  or health and welfare benefits....

But Simpson Thacher has found a clever way to get around this statutory prohibition, explains my friend, by making the salary reduction prospective, rather than retrospective: "I think that is permissible, because it is really not a deduction from pay--it is a reduction in pay, going forward." Still, he says "the policy could be problematic if they routinely reinstate salary retroactively, because then it could be regarded as a de facto deduction." (I also asked Simpson to comment, but haven't heard back.)

So is Simpson out of the woods or not? Well, says my friend, "it would be interesting to know what the New York Department of Labor thinks of this policy. Perhaps someone could request from the department a formal opinion."

Readers--what do you think of Simpson's time sheet policy? Does it go too far? Will this cure late time sheets, or is it inviting legal trouble?


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Photo: Eric Hood

November 29, 2010

Get Your Time Sheets In--Or You Will Suffer

ImagePartners say the darnedest things.

Just when I thought they were becoming bland and colorless (all that diversity and PR training), along comes someone who reminds me why my job still has meaning.

The latest nominee for foot-in-mouth management style goes to Steven Pesner of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, who recently penned an e-mail to "All NY Litigation Attorneys, Paralegals, and Secretaries," on the subject of time sheets. Above the Law got its hands on the e-mail and, as you'd expect, went to town.

To be fair, Pesner starts his e-mail on a very civil note. "First, I want to thank those of you who do your time sheets on a daily basis. We should respect, recognize, and thank those people who play by the rules."

But as ATL notes, "by point nine, Pesner’s ego starts to take over":

9. For those of you who think you are exempt from doing time sheets on a daily basis, I’d suggest that you reevaluate your importance and get ready to prove that (a) you are busier than I am on legal work, (b) you are busier than I am on client development work, (c) you are busier than I am on firm work and (d) [Redacted] and I do not have better things to do with our time than beg you to be responsible;

10. Candidly, I’d put every future material violator’s name in a hat, randomly pick out a name, and publicly fire the person on the spot—to demonstrate that time sheet compliance is serious business. And incidentally, it is my understanding that the job market is not so good right now in case you did not know.

Ouch--that bit about the lousy job market sounds a tad threatening--and tacky. Do associates need constant reminding that they should be licking the partners' gold cuff-links at regular intervals?

Look, I know that firms are under a lot of pressure to bill and collect these days. (As you might recall, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett has a new get-tough policy that cuts compensation by 20 percent for those who are ten days late in filing time sheets.)

Pesner_steven_web135 But Pesner (left) has decided to take action unilaterally. Being a responsible journalist, I called Pesner to see if he wanted to explain his side. To my delight, he picked up the phone himself. But my hopes for gaining greater insight about how partners think were quickly dashed. His response: "I have no comment." (The firm also declined to comment.)

Too bad, because Pesner seems like an interesting fellow--certainly more so than your average big-firm bear. A white-collar litigator, he's vice-chairman of The Joyce Theater and a trustee of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the American Friends of the Paris Opera and Ballet, and the Center for Khmer Studies in Cambodia.

So he's an artistic soul. I can only assume, then, that his creative side got the better of him in this episode. But for now, all we have to go on is Pesner's own e-mail--and that speaks for itself.


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Top Photo: Chris Harvey / Fotolia.com

November 24, 2010

Happy T-Day!


The Careerist wishes everyone a fat, juicy turkey!

November 23, 2010

International Market Also Shrank

Fotolia_21896105_XS Heads rolled again this year at the international offices of U.S. firms--but not quite as much as the year before. The National Law Journal reports that overall head count for lawyers dropped by 1.1 percent among the nation's 250 largest firms, and that "the international offices of some of the nation's top law firms took their share of the hit." Last year, reports the NLJ in a related article, "the head count fell by 4 percent."

Some of the biggest drops in head count occurred at major international firms: Baker & McKenzie lost 175 lawyers--though it's still home to some 3,774 lawyers. Another big loser was White & Case, which shed about 100 lawyers.

Many major American firms in London lost lawyers, reports NLJ:

Among all NLJ 250 firms, 79 maintained offices in London. A total of 4,710 attorneys from the 250 firms were based in London offices. Baker & McKenzie fell by 18 attorneys to 282 this year, while DLA Piper dipped by nine attorneys to 370. Mayer Brown had 261 attorneys in London this year, compared with 297 in 2009. White & Case declined to 248 from 266 attorneys.

Reed Smith had 229 attorneys this year, compared with 248 last year. Sidley Austin reported 112, compared with 124 last year. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom dropped to 105 attorneys from 111 in 2009, and Shearman & Sterling's London office fell by three attorneys to 99.

Latham & Watkins's London office managed to go against this downward trend; it went from 144 lawyers last year to 170 lawyers, says the NLJ. Moreover, Jones Day gained six lawyers (the London office now has 187).

But even if London recovers fully, don't expect firms to increase head count dramatically through organic growth, says Joseph Altonji, a consultant with Hildebrandt Baker Robbins, to the NLJ. The big increases will probably depend on transatlantic mergers, he says.

The big international action will be--you guessed it--outsourcing, says Altonji.


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November 22, 2010

Contract Work--Like Flipping Burgers at McDonald's

IStock_000001853733XSmall There might be signs of a more robust (or at least a more stabilized) legal market, but let's not forget the thousands of jobless law grads and laid-off lawyers still out on the streets. A couple of months ago on this blog, I asked an obvious question: Now that times are better, why won't firms rehire some of those who got laid off during the economic downturn?

I heard from a few partners and headhunters who told me--not for attribution, of course--that those laid-off weren't the top drawer to begin with. The really good lawyers, they contend, never got the ax.

I found that explanation unsatisfying, disingenuous, and heartless on many levels--but especially so when referring to junior lawyers or those in practice areas that basically got decimated.

I was reminded of the plight of those unlucky lawyers recently by Corporette founder Kat Griffin, who tells me that laid-off lawyers are still cornering her for advice about their job hunts, and that she personally knows three lawyers who've been unemployed for a year or more. Griffin offers some advice on how to make it through the protracted job search ("When the Job Hunt Drags On...").

It's bad enough to be laid off, but as one of Griffin's readers pointed out, these lawyers face another potential stigma: being branded as untouchable for taking on certain contract positions, such as document reviewer. So is it better to just leave off low-brow legal work on your resume, if your goal is to return to a big firm?

Several of Corporette's readers advised against putting document review work on resumes, calling it a "scarlet letter." Writes one reader: "If you tended bar to make ends meet while job hunting, you wouldn’t put that on your resume, would you? Approach temping the same way."

I asked legal recruiter Katherine Frink-Hamlett about the dilemma, and this is her take: "To the extent that omissions are tantamount to misrepresentations, I would counsel against it. Further, if omitting the projects would cause a huge and glaring gap in the resume, that’s equally problematic." But she also says that, "if the the project is relatively short (less than a month or so), then it’s a coin toss."

It seems ironic that people should be penalized for working--especially when they're probably facing a mountain of law school debt. But as Griffin points out, the matter might already be moot for those shut out of big firms. "If and when the floodgates open, and Big Law starts hiring again, I suspect they'll start--and stop--with the old system of recruiting 2Ls--and anyone out of the system will be shut out entirely."

Readers, is it a career killer to list a document research job on your c.v.? Or has time run out for laid-off lawyers to return to Big Law anyway?  

Related post: "Hire, Fire, Hire Again!" and "First Take a Shower."

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Photo:  Skip Odonnell/iStock

November 19, 2010

Give 'Em Lip Service

Fotolia_1295909_XS It's kind of icky, but I know--as you know--that kissing up works. Only the very naive think that talent and hard work propel people to the top of the heap. Look around you: Are those partners sitting in those big offices or the senior execs in your company really the brightest lights in the neighborhood?

The answer is obvious, but everyone needs reminding about the efficacy of brown-nosing. The legal profession, with its obsession with grades and unreadable law review articles, loves spewing that "cream naturally rises to the top" nonsense. Don't believe it.

Yes, sucking up builds careers, especially if you're just passably smart, as most of us are. But the big question is how to do it well.

Thanks to two business school professors--Ithai Stern of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and James Westphal of the University of Michigan--we now have some guidance. For the last few years, they've been studying how executives gained coveted seats on corporate boards. And guess what: Brown-nosing got them there! (Their 2008 study, which surveyed 350 companies and over 1,000 managers, concluded "that ingratiating behavior was the strongest single predictive factor for obtaining board appointments.")

The Kellogg School came out with a synopsis ("Corporate Sweet Talk") of Stern and Westphal's latest findings on the subject, which include pointers for effective brown-nosing:

1. Pretend you're seeking advice. Example: “How were you able to close that deal so successfully?”  Mentoring is very in--so let that incoherent partner think that he can actually teach you something.

2. Argue a bit with the kissee about his opinion or approach. Do not agree immediately. But, needless to say, ultimately agree. Remember, lawyers love a good argument--especially if they think they've won.

3. Tell the kissee's friends or family how much you adore/admire her. Just pray that word ultimately gets back to the kissee--otherwise, you've wasted a lot of time.

4. Flatter the kissee by pretending that you're actually a reluctant flatterer. Example: “I don’t want to embarrass you, but your presentation was really top-notch. Better than most I’ve seen.”

5. Agree with the kissee’s values before agreeing with her opinions. The goal is to convey how you both share the same big picture--that vision thing.

6. Tell people in the kissee’s social network that you really share those values. Again, you are counting on word getting back to the kissee that you are kindred spirits.

7. Finally, hint that you are part of the same circle, such as a religious organization or political party.

Interestingly, the research puts lawyers in the league of sophisticated brown-nosers, like politicians and salespeople. These professions, Stern says, "routinely take part in flattery and opinion conformity to complete their jobs, similar to those operating in an upper-class social environment. Ingratiatory behavior is a form of interpersonal communication that is acceptable and expected in both arenas.”

The lessons aren't complicated: As a junior lawyer who needs to advance to the next level, focus on kissing up to the people immediately above you. But to get ahead in the long haul, you'll need to kiss up well beyond your circle; so get a head start and start brown-nosing clients and management committee members now. Do it early and do it often.

Pucker up now.


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Photo: Steve Lovegrove / Fotolia.com

November 18, 2010

Shearman & Sterling's Open Closet


Apparently, some Shearman & Sterling lawyers are now rubbing shoulders with Tim Gunn, Perez Hilton, Ke$ha, Kim Kardashian, and Cindy McCain.

Well, sort of. About a dozen Shearman lawyers recently participated in a video for the It Gets Better Campaign. (The campaign was started by activist pundit Dan Savage to address the recent rash of gay suicides around the country.) Now available on YouTube and the It Gets Better Web site, the Shearman video is part of a library of video testimonials by celebrities in support of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered youth. 

Shearman's participation, as first reported by The National Law Journal, "was spearheaded by Sterling Pride [the firm's gay affinity group] cochairman and associate Alexandro Padrés, who struggled as child growing up in Mexico City because of his sexuality." In the five-minute video, about ten Shearman lawyers (both partners and associates) and staff members share very personal stories of their early struggles with their sexual identity, and how they eventually found acceptance and support.

Lawyers don't usually bare their youthful wounds to their colleagues--much less to total strangers. "It wasn't easy, and it created some uneasiness," says Padrés. "But it's worth it to reach out to people.  . . . I wish I had that message of hope when I was growing up."

Their stories are quite affecting. Still, what makes a bunch of big firm lawyers--gay or straight--think that LGBT youths would listen to them? I mean, wouldn't people like the Olsen twins or Snooki be more effective in delivering the message?

Not at all, says Shearman partner Beau Buffier: "There are a lot celebrities [in the videos], but we felt what was missing were people in the professions. You don't have to be a big Hollywood celebrity to tell kids that it gets better. You can be a regular lawyer and give them that message too." He adds that lawyers can serve as effective role models.

Both Padrés and Buffier say that they felt isolated growing up gay (Buffier, who grew up in Australia, calls his hometown "a very macho community"), and know people close to them who committed suicide in their youth.

As for the risk to their careers by revealing their personal stories, Buffier says he's gotten nothing but positive feedback: "A number of my partners said that the video was moving--that was amazing. And one of my clients who saw it thought it was a great thing. There was no negative feedback."

Are there other "It Gets Better" law firm videos out there? Do you think lawyers are risking their careers by appearing in them?


 Related post: Abuse and Success.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.

November 16, 2010

Wilmer's New Partners--Color Them Pink

It's just the start of the season for new partner announcements, but I'm willing to gamble. My bet is that Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr will win the contest for elevating the highest percentage and number of women equity partners in The Am Law 100 for the coming year.

Of the 11 newly promoted partners (their elevation will be effective as of January 2011) at the one-tier partnership firm, eight are women. That means women make up a whopping 73 percent of the new partners. (Currently, the firm has 24 percent women partners, and 9 percent diverse partners.)

Perlstein_ William J "It wasn't conscious," says Wilmer's co-managing partner William Perlstein (pictured right). "There was no decision to increase the number of women partners." He adds that the firm "really didn't realize what percentage of women would be up . . . we start with a reasonably large number of candidates, and the [partnership selection] committee does a careful review."

Perlstein makes it sound almost routine (maybe that's just in keeping with the decorous ways of an old-line firm), but I kept pressing him to spill the secret behind Wilmer's success with the ladies.

Perlstein insists he's not sure, but he does point out that the firm has a number of part-time partners. (There are 13 partners working part-time: ten women and three men.) In fact, he says, one of the new partners is a part-timer. "Part-time partners have worked well here," he notes, adding that the firm has had a thriving part-time policy since the 1990s.

But Perlstein also insists that the firm's part-time policy is "just part of the piece."

He might be downplaying part-time at Wilmer because the firm's idea of a reduced schedule doesn't seem that relaxing. "Generally they work 75-80 percent of the full-time schedule," Perlstein says. (Two thousand hours is usually the norm.) "You've got to be available all the time to the client. . . . They work quite hard, but less than full-time."

Jennifer Berrent, one of the new partners, says there's another reason women tend to stay at Wilmer: culture. A single mother with a 4-year-old son, Berrent says even senior partners have their priorities right. "The head of the department told me that there will be conflicts between home and work, and that home should take priority," she says.

Despite the availability of part-time work, Berrent opted to stay full-time: "We have a clear hours expectation here--2,000 hours, and that feels okay to me." More important, she says, is the freedom she has to work from home or on a telecommuting basis. "I don't feel I'm fighting the system here," she says about her irregular schedule. "Unless women craft their own systems, they don't feel empowered."

So Wilmer's secret to success with women boils down to a solid history of part-time work (if billing 1,600 hours fits your idea of a reduced schedule), giving lawyers true flexibility, and that intangible thing call culture. Simple, right?

 Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.




Women--Ripe for Exploitation?

Bundesarchiv_B_145_Bild-F001163-0012,_Köln,_Textilfabrik_Bierbaum-Proenen Sometimes I think Steven Harper and I are in a neck-to-neck race to see who's more cynical about the legal profession. His post in The Am Law Daily about the proliferation of non-partnership tracks in big firms strikes an ominous note. The new positions popping up at big firms (from off-track associates to contract lawyers) are creating an ever-enlarging pool of dead-end, low-paying jobs--what Harper calls "a vast underbelly of lawyers."

But what Harper doesn't say is that this new underclass will likely be populated by a disproportionate share of women. Think about it: Law firms want cheap, reliable talent, while women are only too eager to forsake advancement for a reduced schedule.

In fact, women are already swelling some of those lowly positions ranks. "Women represent 60 percent of staff attorneys, the highest percentage of women lawyers in any category of practice," says the newly released report by The National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL).

Some might applaud these alternative tracks, but they are also ripe for exploitation. For law firms, it's a fantastic, economic way to leverage lawyers. "For as long as they get paid less than their billing rates, they contribute to equity partner wealth," writes Harper. "Rather than up-or-out, it's becoming 'stick around and make the equity partners some money.'"

Law firms and their consultants make the new models sound benevolent, as if they're simply being sensitive to the needs of employees. They talk about how folks don't really want the pressure of being partner these days, and the need for firms to develop alternative career tracks. Firms often steer away from terms like "permanent associate" or "staff lawyer." Instead, terms like "designer" and "individualized" tracks are thrown about.

How wonderful. A dead-end job packaged like some type of holistic spa treatment.


Related post: Recession Tough on Women Lawyers.

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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.




November 12, 2010

Law School News--Georgetown Wins Popularity; UC Irvine Discounts Tuition; Law Lust Remains Strong

Students Georgetown's Allure

The most popular law school in the land for 2009 is Georgetown. "Last year, the Law Center received 12,404 applications--the most of any law school in the nation--for 592 spots," reports  The Hoya, Georgetown University's paper (hat tip: Vault). That means that "one in every seven law school applicants nationwide submitted an application to the Law Center."

Part of Georgetown law school's popularity is that the university's own undergraduates can't wait to go there. "In 2009, they sent the Law Center more applications than did the undergraduates of any other school," says Hoya. "This fall, 44 of the 592 members of the entering class had an undergraduate degree from the university."

There's this little secret benefit too: No LSATs for select GU undergrads! Yup, you don't have to shell out thousands of dollars for those prep courses under GU's Early Assurance Program, which permits Georgetown juniors to apply to the law school without the LSAT. "Last year, 66 students applied, of whom ten were accepted," reports Hoya. But not everyone can qualify--the program "suggests that applicants maintain a 3.8 GPA."

UC Irvine's Tuition Discount

Attention shoppers: "The University of California, Irvine School of Law has announced that members of the class of 2014 will each receive a scholarship worth one third of their $40,000 in-state tuition, or the $50,000 out-of-state tuition," reports The National Law Journal.

You might recall that Irvine, which opened its doors just a year ago, had waived tuition for its first class. It did so through private donations--"a deal that made it among most competitive law schools to get into. "

The school's second class, which numbers 83, will be paying half the tuition.

My guess is that the third class will be paying even more. So get those applications in before the coupons expire.

Still Smitten

Here we go again--another tale of how we are a nation of lawyer wannabes. According to a study on The Evolution of the Legal Profession by DiscoverReady (a discovery service) in the NLJ, there are two reasons people willingly assume debt to go to law school even in the face of job uncertainty: "First, most prospective law students sincerely believe they will graduate in the top 10 percent of the class. . . . Second, law school applicants are generally naive consumers of debt."

"As soon as tuition rose to a level where people had to borrow significant sums in order to go to law school, you had students with no experience taking out loans, repaying them, or understanding what it means to have debt," University of Miami law school dean Patricia White tells the NLJ.  "It was a little bit like the foreclosure crisis and the mortgage debacle."

"You sign the loan papers with the idea that it will all pay off, and it is the idealized big-firm life that allows people to take debt," Indiana University law school professor William Henderson tells the NLJ.

So I guess the future lawyer ranks will be filled with bunch of delusional optimists. Would you want legal advice from anything less?


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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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