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5 posts from August 2017

August 31, 2017

Lawyers: You Are to Blame for Trump

UnnamedTo all you Prosecco-sipping, kale chip-munching elites out there in Big Law Land, listen up: You bear responsibility for the election of Donald Trump. It's because of smug, liberal urbanites like you that we are in the mess we're in.

That's more or less the message in Joan William's new book, White Working Class. The professional elites (those with household income in the top 20 percent with at least one college-educated family member), not only failed to understand the economic plight of the working class but often treats its members with condescension, asserts Williams. And that "class cluelessness" is what fueled resentment and the white flight for Trump.

Williams, a professor at the University of California's Hastings School of Law, gives plenty of examples in which the professional class and the working class live on different planets. Here are some of her points:

    - The vast majority of Americans do not go to college. Only 33 percent obtain college degrees. To elites, a college education is a given.

    - The working class is not the poor, though elites often use the terms interchangeably. (In 2017, the median income of a working class family was $75,144, though its economic might is steadily declining.)

    - Gender equality is largely an elitist construct. "Shattering the glass ceiling means giving privileged women access to the high-level jobs now held almost exclusively by privileged men."

    - Being a stay-at-home mother is a sign of success for the working class. (Working moms represent "stress and disruption" for this sector.)

Though Williams doesn't point her finger just at lawyers, she takes some direct jabs at them. She cites lawyers' obsession with work and narcissism as the very traits that white working class folks abhor. For instance, she quotes a litigator who finds holidays disruptive: "Damn, why did I have to stop working to go eat a turkey? I missed my favorite uncle's funeral, because I had a deposition scheduled that was too important."

Hardly sympathetic, but are lawyers and others in the professional classes truly that awful? I don't think so—and that's where I think Williams overstates her point at times. Indeed, Williams’ characterization of the professional/managerial class as unrepentant workaholics seems like a stereotype in its own right.

Moreover, I don't think the professional class is quite as dismissive and patronizing toward blue-collar workers as she suggests. Some might be self-absorbed and obsessed with the badges of excellence, but I don’t think elites are without empathy. From what I've seen, some would very much like to reach across the aisle and begin a dialogue. (This summer, at Williams' book party at the Penn Club in New York, where the audience was comprised precisely of the people she's criticizing, one asked in earnest: "How can we reach out to the white working class? We don't know any!")

And even if it’s true that some members of the elite unfairly stereotype the white working class (Williams cites the TV character Archie Bunker as a prime example), doesn't the working class do the same thing, seeing professionals as a bunch of over-educated sissies?

Clearly, there's a divide between us, but is it fair to put the onus on elites to fix the problem? 

"It's totally fair," Williams told me. "Some people tell me, 'but [working whites] insult us,' but, excuse me, who has the power in this relationship? If you feel powerless, and you're making $200,000 as an associate or a couple of million as a partner, then you lack imagination."

Williams is right that elites have the power—yet they are strangely helpless in finding ways to assert their political will.

So perhaps Williams' book is a good starting point to understanding the divide. There's no doubt that it's a timely, provocative and necessary read. You might not like the way she portrays the lawyer class as being a bunch of oblivious snots, but it's a view we need to air.

Coming up: My podcast with Joan Williams. 


August 28, 2017

Dear Client: I'm on Vacation. Get Lost.

8620289024104ef78f2e879d205a3470--frankie-avalon-bathing-beautiesWho wants to read serious, long-winded pieces about the legal profession in late August? No one. Certainly, not moi. So here's the beach edition of the latest news:

Don't try this on your vacation. Arianna Huffington thinks that we're not taking vacations seriously enough, and that our addiction to staying-in-touch is the culprit. She writes in Harvard Business Review: "We need to recalibrate our relationship with technology."

Huffington's solution? An email app called Thrive Away that works this way:

While you’re away on vacation, people who email you get a message, letting them know when you’ll be back. And then — the most important part — the tool deletes the email. If the email is important, the sender can always send it again. If it’s not, then it’s not waiting for you when you get back, or, even worse, tempting you to read it while you’re away. So the key is not just that the tool is creating a wall between you and your email; it’s that it frees you from the mounting anxiety of having a mounting pile of emails waiting for you on your return — the stress of which mitigates the benefits of disconnecting in the first place.

Very noble. But let's get real. I mean, how many worker bees have the leverage to afford the attitude, "If the email is important, the sender can always send it again"?

Maybe that works for the pampered editorial staff and execs at Huff-Po World (they have sleeping pods there!). And I'm sure it's fine if you happen to be Queen Arianna. But plain folks like lawyers? Uh, I don't think so.

Word to the wise: Not a good idea to diss a client who wants to talk to you about an urgent matter (or even not-so-urgent matter so long as it's a paying client). Nor is it a good career move to tell a senior partner to try later.

Yes, cute people deserve job protection too! Just over a year ago, we were quite distressed that being attractive is not a protected class. At that time, a judge in Manhattan Supreme Court threw out a claim by a female yoga instructor who claimed she was fired for being too attractive (she had gotten good reviews, but the boss's wife thought she was too sexy).

Happily, that injustice has now been corrected. A panel of the Appellate Division, First Department overturned the earlier decision, ruling that the woman can proceed with her gender discrimination suit. 

The decision, according to the woman's lawyer D. Maimon Kirschenbaum, is unusual. He told Law.com's Andrew Denny that most courts are  "extremely protective of men" in similar situations in which women got fired at the insistence of the boss's spouse or significant other.

Of course, the ruling makes sense to me (I mean, duh, looks shouldn't matter to job performance). That said, I bet being too attractive is not a huge problem in the legal business. 

Aren't you glad you weren't really that smart? More proof that brainiacs don't rule the game of life. AnywayI find this report both reassuring and depressing.

Ever wondered what happened to all those preternaturally bright things who went to law school at a ridiculously young age? Law.com's Leigh Jones and Karen Sloan checked in on some of them. The bottom line on their brilliant careers? Not so brilliant. 

Most of them have perfectly fine, though somewhat prosaic, careers. One ended up as a state judge in California, another runs an e-Discovery company, two are journalists (including Mia Farrow's—and maybe Woody Allen or Frank Sinatra's—son Ronan Farrow), one is a neurobiology professor at Stanford. And then there's one that got disbarred.

Sorry to say this but the only one that's made a huge impact is Roy Cohn, (he graduated from Columbia Law School in 1946 at age 20) who went on to fame and infamy for his role during the McCarthy era. And, of course, let's not forget that he was Donald Trump's mentor—and that's a legacy that's definitely shaking the world. 


photo: Frankie Avalon.

August 22, 2017

GREs for Law School Admission? Bad Idea!


Can we cut through the bull about why law schools are now accepting GREs for admission? The fact is that applications are falling, and law schools are desperate for hot bodies to fill their empty seats. (Law schools that now accept the GRE include Harvard, Northwestern and Georgetown, reports The National Law Journal; the first school to do so is University of Arizona.)

Not for one minute do I buy the argument that law schools are now realizing that LSATs aren't the end-all/be-all predictor of future success. As for the argument that allowing the GRE for law school admission will attract more hot commodities like math and science types to apply: Puh-leeze.

If you're a bright young thing with quantitative or tech abilities, there are less painful ways to make a decent living. As any fourth grader in New York knows, the legal profession kinda sucks. Kids see how hard lawyer-parents work (compare to those hedge fund parents who have more fun and make a lot more moolah). And they know it's damn impossible to become equity partner in Big Law these days. 

"The Golden Age for law schools is definitely over," says Paul Caron, dean of Pepperdine Law School. "Harvard and the other schools that have jumped on the GRE bandwagon are undoubtedly seeking to expand their pool of potential students."
So if the pool is shrinking, why not use the GRE to lure a wider array of candidates—especially those smarties who might never thought of going to law school? To me, the answer is obvious: They shouldn't go to law school precisely because they didn't have a real interest in the first place. I mean, aren't there already enough people in the profession who lack passion for practice? Walk down the hall of any major law firm, and you find plenty of miserable, lost souls who'd rather be bricklayers or baristas. 
I know because I was one of them. Like a lot of liberal arts majors, I went to law school because it seemed like such a respectable default. (Note to English majors: Don't believe it when people tell you that writing well will make you a natural fit for law practice; legal writing is another animal.)
I think there should be more, not fewer, barriers to going to law school—at least the type that tests whether you're cut out for the experience. I never thought I'd be defending the LSAT but I will say it gives folks with little knowledge of law a taste of what it means to "think like a lawyer." I'm talking about the logical reasoning section—the stuff that English, history and art majors seldom encountered.

As Kellye Testy, president of the Law School Admission Council (it administers the LSAT), pointed out to NLJ's Karen Sloan: "Analytical reasoning is 25 percent of the LSAT and zero percent of the GRE. Logical and critical reasoning skills are 50 percent of the LSAT, and zero percent of the GRE."

If those topics sound dreary and make you want to dodge the LSATs, then maybe that should tell you something. 

So here's where I stand: Limit law school admissions to that awful, forbidding LSAT. Let there be more, not fewer, barriers to going to law school. (Perhaps include psychological testing, too?)

That might sound restrictive and undemocratic, but people will be happier for it. Believe me.


August 10, 2017

Preet Bharara Tells Minority Law Students to "Work Harder." Is that the Best Advice?

Books-preet_bharara_06613At a summer cocktail party filled with bright-eyed law students, a young black woman posed this question to Preet Bharara, the  high-profile former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York: What can minorities do to overcome discrimination in the profession?

His answer: "The best way to overcome anything is to work really, really hard. You can overcome prejudice by sheer excellence of work."

Like other attendees, I thought it was a perfectly sensible answer. In a profession where putting in ungodly hours is a badge of honor, working hard would seem to be the sine qua non for success. Certainly, that's the advice minorities (and women) have been told most of their lives.

But here's the issue: Where has sheer hard work gotten minorities and women, particularly in Big Law?

"It’s pretty obvious that people who work hard don't necessarily rise to the top; it's never sheer intelligence," says Michele Coleman Mayes, general counsel for the New York Public Library, who's also served as GC for the Allstate Corporation and Pitney Bowes Inc. "When you do the numbers of who's in power, they are all white dudes!"

We all know that the legal profession remains a white man's game, so why do we minorities keep preaching hard work to each other as the solution?

I think there are two reasons. First, hard work is always the default advice for underdogs. (Really, are there that many choices?) Second, we want to believe that the legal profession is fundamentally a merit system. (Big Law's obsession with academic credentials, grades and other indicia of achievement suggests that the best, brightest and highest billing will prevail.)

On one level, Bharara's message is empowering: Anyone—no matter what race, ethnicity or social/economic status—can grab the brass ring through relentless effort.

But that message can be misleading. "I agree that minority lawyers must be excellent at all things, particularly in BigLaw," says Shearman & Sterling partner Paula Anderson. "That said, harping on being excellent is a disservice because it suggests a meritocracy." Another female lawyer offers a sharper reaction: "It wasn't harmful but naive. Maybe that because Preet is male—he assumes his work will always get noticed."

For minorities of both sexes, the hard work message also distracts them from what they really need to do: Self-promotion, networking and finding a powerful ally. "Focusing solely on lawyering is actually a mistake a lot of lawyers make when starting out, especially when they're first generation professionals," says Ari Joseph, director of diversity at Brown Rudnick. "They put their heads down and bill bill bill."

In fact, that can backfire, particularly for Asian Americans. "Working hard isn't always sufficient for promotion or advancement because of lingering stereotypes," says Goodwin Liu, associate justice of the California Supreme Court. Asian Americans, he explains, are often perceived as "being foreign, socially awkward or unassimilable."

What the work hard message fails to address is the insidiousness of bias—mainly of the unconscious variety. "I want institutions to acknowledge their own biases," says Mayes. Using her own career as an example, Mayes says, "I'm rarely the natural choice for a top position. No one picked me because just because I'm African American." But what propelled her to her first GC spot was that she had an ally: Sara Moss, Pitney's former GC, who pushed Mayes to be her successor. Moss encouraged the company to take a risk, explains Mayes, adding, "Sara was interrupting bias."

Having a mentor/sponsor is essential, but minority lawyers must be their own primary advocate. "If you're not getting plum assignments or being left out of client events, call it out," albeit in a "tactful, diplomatic way," says Anderson. "It's incumbent on you to pull people aside to make sure that [the biases] are fully aired."

Bharara probably wouldn't disagree. In response to my request for comment, his assistant said that he "believes that there was more to his response, including that people need to speak up, call out discrimination and create mentorship relationships in working environments."

So is the work hard message obsolete? Hardly. "Working hard is the bare minimum" to overcome any kind of bias, says Joseph, who heeds minority lawyers to be "strategic about their reputations" and "be their own brand manager."

But what happens if minorities work hard, play the game smartly yet still feel frustrated?

Don't knock yourself out. "Sometimes you can't overcome bias," says Mayes. "There are times when your ass needs to walk."


August 1, 2017

Corporations Are Pressuring Firms to Diversify—Not!

Screen Shot 2017-07-28 at 10.25.04 PMMaybe it's because I get jaded easily, but I just can't get myself excited that the legal profession is really getting on the stick about diversity or women.

I know, I know, you're going to tell me about the swell efforts going on. Like that Inclusion Initiative, recently reported by Corporate Counsel, in which 32 corporations spent over $226 million in 2016 on work performed by minority- and women-owned law firms. Or the Mansfield Rule Initiative, launched by Caren Ulrich Stacy, CEO of the Diversity Lab, in which firms commit to presenting at least a 30 percent slate of women or minorities for equity partnership promotions and lateral positions.

First, let me say I think these are worthy, innovative initiatives. (I'm especially heartened by the money expended by the Inclusion Initiative. To me, nothing says commitment like money.)

So why am I still not optimistic that women and minorities are top priorities of Corporate America?

Because if you read the latest findings by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) carefully, you'll see that the vast, vast majority of corporations don't really keep tabs on outside counsel. (The ACC report also shows huge divides between the sexes. Women lawyers dominate lower-paying positions and women think they are paid unfairly. While 48 percent of women said there was a definite compensation gap by gender, only 8 percent of men felt the same way.)

Clients might make a lot of noise about diversity but when it comes to keeping score on outside counsel, they're doing squat. Here's what I mean (ACC surveyed 1,800 in-house lawyers from 53 countries):

-  On the diversity front, only 6 percent of respondents said their departments track the diversity efforts of their outside providers through e-billing systems or other data driven methods not reported by the provider (71 percent said there was no such tracking).  

-  As for women, a measly 3 percent said their departments track women in management positions of their outside providers through e-billing systems or other data driven methods not reported by the provider (ACC did not give the rate that said there was no tracking).

But when asked whether diversity was discussed by the board or the C-suite, 45 percent of  counsel answered in the affirmative and 39 percent in the negative (for U.S. counsel, 43 percent said yes v. 41 percent no).

I hate to sound harsh, but doesn't all this suggest that there's more talk than meaningful action on the diversity front by corporations? I mean, how many times have we heard that clients are pressuring law firms to diversify and promote women?

Veta Richardson, head of ACC, suggests that I might be jumping the gun by putting the blame on corporations. "In the U.S/, only a minority of companies have sophisticated systems, like e-billing trackers," she explains, adding that ACC membership consists of both large and small companies.

While it's true that high revenue companies tend to keep better tabs on outside counsel through e-billing program or other data-driven methods, the numbers are still paltry. For instance, the ACC study shows that respondents who work for companies with over $10 billion in revenue indicated the highest rate of tracking (18 percent) by their employers. That said, wouldn't you expect far more of these companies to be keeping tabs on their law firms?

If companies are so upset that their outside counsel aren't doing enough to promote minorities and women, what exactly are they doing about it? It doesn't seem they're pressing them that hard for verifiable data about their lawyers.

Richardson says that companies might be doing more than meets the eye. "I don't think we should feel discouraged," she says, adding that companies can push hard for diversity even if they don't have formal tracking systems.

I hope she's right. But so far, I haven't been too impressed by all these noble corporate intentions.





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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