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21 posts from June 2010

June 30, 2010

WASP Law Firms Finally Dead?

Prl_2[1] Harvard law professor Noah Feldman had some very nice things to say about WASPs (in case you forgot, that stands for "White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant") and their contribution to diversity in an op-ed in The New York Times on Monday. So nice, in fact, that I wondered if I missed something.

Feldman starts off by noting that if Elena Kagan gets confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court will consist of six Catholics and three Jews--a dramatic departure from as recently as five years ago, when the high court "had a plurality of white Protestants." The change, he adds, "is a cause for celebration" in that "no one much cares about the nominee's religion."

And who should get credit for this progress? "The very Protestant elite that founded and long dominated our nation’s institutions of higher education and government, including the Supreme Court," says Feldman.

Though he acknowledges that the WASP elite excluded other ethnic and religious groups in history (particularly Jews), he argues that "anti-Semitism in America never had anything like the purchase it had in Europe." And once "the ideas of meritocratic inclusion gained a foothold, progress was remarkably steady and smooth." Feldman cites Princeton University's transformation from "a longtime bastion of the Southern Protestant elite" to its inclusion of women and minorities, starting in the late sixties, as a case in point. (Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan all went to Princeton, he points out.)

Feldman's op-ed didn't talk about law firms specifically, but it brought home to me how the white-shoe, WASP firms are now shells of their former selves. It wasn't that long ago that certain old-line firms like Cravath, Swaine & Moore; Sullivan & Cromwell; and Milbank,Tweed, Hadley & McCloy were known as high-WASP shrines, while firms like Weil, Gotshal & Manges; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; and Proskauer Rose had a distinctly Jewish reputation. Now, all three of those WASP icons, plus others, are headed by Jewish partners. (S&C's chair Joseph Shenker is even a former rabbi.)

WASP institutions eventually put out the welcome mat to other groups, says Feldman, because the idea of fairness is central to the Protestant ethic. From "the antiaristocratic ideals of the Constitution, which banned titles of nobility and thus encouraged success based on merit," fair play is a running theme of WASP culture, argues Feldman. Acceptance of non-WASPs into "societies, clubs, and colleges," adds Feldman, "was not just a case of an elite looking outside itself for rejuvenation; the inclusiveness of the last 50 years has been the product of sincerely held ideas put into action."

Opening the gates because of "sincerely held ideas"? Really? In the law firm context, at least, I'd argue that firms let in non-WASPs mainly for economic survival. In an excellent article in the New York Law Journal that looks at the history of Jewish law firms ("Can the 'Jewish Law Firm' Success be Duplicated?"), Eli Wald, a professor at the University of Denver College of Law, notes that Jewish firms flourished because they carved out niches in litigation, bankruptcy, and real estate--"practices that the white-shoe firms eschewed as undignified." As the market changed, old-line firms scrambled to develop those areas; hence, barriers to non-WASP lawyers fell.

I'd add competition for raw talent as another contributing factor to the demise of the WASP law firm. As I've written many times, the legal profession is credentials-obsessed. As pedigree dropped in importance, law firms placed greater weight on academic achievement. I e-mailed Feldman about this theory, and he didn't disagree. "Felix Frankfurter was hired by a Wall Street firm previously closed to Jews because he was first in his class," Feldman tells me.

Initially, I thought Feldman's op-ed was way too charitable in crediting the ruling class for the triumph of meritocracy. I wondered why he's singing the praise of WASPs when his own father, had he been a lawyer, probably would have been excluded from those white-shoe firms. After all, Elena Kagan's father was a Yale Law School graduate who specialized in representing tenants in apartment sales--not exactly a high-brow field.

But when you scratch deeper into Feldman's op-ed, it's also clear he's celebrating the demise of WASPdom. In fact, Feldman congratulates WASPs for being gracious enough to make themselves extinct: "Unlike almost every other dominant ethnic, racial, or religious group in world history, white Protestants have ceded their socioeconomic power by hewing voluntarily to the values of merit and inclusion, values now shared broadly by Americans of different backgrounds. The decline of the Protestant elite is actually its greatest triumph."

Feldman slips in another subversive note at the end: WASP fashion, a longtime symbol of Wall Street and the good life, has actually been a Jewish enterprise. 

The style now generically called “prep,” originally known as “Ivy League,” was long purveyed by Jewish and immigrant haberdashers (the “J.” in the New Haven store J. Press stands for Jacobi) and then taken global by Ralph Lauren, née Lifshitz. But until the Protestant-dominated Ivy League began to open up, the wearers of the style were restricted to that elite subculture.

The spread of Ivy League style is therefore not a frivolous matter. Today the wearing of the tweed is not anachronism or assimilation, but a mark of respect for the distinctive ethnic group that opened its doors to all--an accomplishment that must be remembered, acknowledged, and emulated.
So today, as you dart around the firm in those classic power-grubs, take a moment to remember the WASP lawyers that used to haunt those same halls. Those crisp cotton shirts and nicely tailored suits are pretty much all that's left of that legacy.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Lauren Polo.

June 29, 2010

Useless Interview Tips

I'm well aware that early interview season is coming up, and that law students are schlepping around town in the summer heat looking for that right interview suit. I sense their anxiety, so I've been scouring the Web for tips that they can use. 

Most of the advice out there is rather prosaic, which is to say, quite obvious and boring. It's usually along the lines of, "look people in the eye, give the interviewer a firm handshake, and be prepared."Fotolia_5697028_XS

But The Wall Street Journal takes some of those obvious interview pointers to heights of absurdity in "Big Blunders Job Hunters Make." So absurd are the examples of interviewing mistakes, that they might be considered almost insulting if they weren't so ludicrous. I have no idea to whom the advice is directed--probably not lawyers or bankers, or most people who read the WSJ. But under the assumption that there's always a lesson to be learned, let's see if lawyers can glean some wisdom from the mistakes.

In the WSJ piece, author Sarah Needleman lists rules for interviews. One of her rules is not to be rude. No quarrel there, but consider the example: One human resources executive told the WSJ that a job seeker made a big blunder when she dragged her toddler to the interview. "She didn't try to make any excuses or apologies, such as her babysitter backed out," says the HR official, who nonetheless proceeded with the interview. (The applicant didn't get the job.)

Now, I know that life/career balance issues are on the front burner these days and that law students are no longer shy about asking firms about their family policies. But would anyone actually bring a visual aid--like your own baby or your tort professor's--to drive home the point?

Then there's the inevitable set of tips on corporate fashion. As you'd expect, the WSJ offers some of the usual cautions: "It's never appropriate to wear jeans, cleavage-revealing tops, flip-flops or skin-tight pants."

Beside that time-tested advice, there's this nod to recent fashion trends: "You should also take out all your funky piercings and hide your tattoos," says career coach Cynthia Shapiro. "Even if you wear a business suit, if you have a piercing through your lip," it might not look right.

So note to tattoo fiends: wear long shirts and high collars, or lots of pancake makeup to cover up. Allow some intervening time when you take out multiple piercings, as those irritated pin marks tend to be rather unsightly.

Another topic in the WSJ article is the subtle art of brownnosing--in this case, how interviewees can express their gratefulness for the interview. In one example, the interviewee sends the interviewer an expensive Tiffany bowl. "That was a real big faux pas," recruiter Erika Weinstein told WSJ. "It's trying to buy yourself a job." The only really appropriate gesture, reminds the WSJ, is a simple thank-you note.

Could law students make the same mistake? I doubt it. While brownnosing is not unknown among law students, in my observation, they tend to be quite cheap about it--usually, law students offer nothing more extravagant than an extra copy of their law review note.

But the most priceless piece of advice offered by WSJ is to present yourself as a grown-up, rather than a man/woman-child who's still attached to your parents' apron strings. Accenture Ltd.'s senior director of recruitment John Campagnino told the WSJ that he's received e-mails from parents inquiring about the status of their adult children's job interviews. "There's a significant lack of judgment when you have your parents intercede with a potential employer," he says. "We expect individuals to be able to represent themselves and sell themselves." Worse, some "moms and dads accompany their offspring to job interviews and try to intervene in salary negotiations," reports the WSJ.

Of course, plenty of people go to law school because they were nudged (or pushed) by their parents. But parents of law students tend to be much more savvy than to sport an obvious harness. The chains that bind law students to parents are heavy but invisible. To be on the safe side, though, may I suggest that you not divulge the hiring partner's name to your parents?

So, there, you have some advice that's probably perfectly useless. But like stupid pet tricks, dumb advice is addictive. Has your career office given you any useless tips you'd like to share?

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: Fotolia.com

June 28, 2010

K&L Gates Likes Them Sassy

Kalis_Peter-1 You can always count on K&L Gates chair Peter Kalis to upset conventional wisdom on any given topic. And he doesn't disappoint, in talking about what his firm looks for in new hires. 



What's your ideal candidate?
I like someone who's iconoclastic--smart, sassy, and a bit edgy.

Sassy and edgy? Sure you're not talking about your interior designer?
Law is a contact sport. You have to be intellectually nimble and confident. I like interviewees who can pitch as well as catch. 

Give me some examples of what you mean by sassy and edgy.
Well, I don’t mean you should go make fun of the managing partner's hairline. But you should ask searching questions. How practice has changed over the years and how you deal with the changing demands. And how hard it is to reconcile your life at work with the rest of your life.

Sounds like you prefer the inquisitive type. Wouldn't it be easier to get associates who jump on demand?
No, I don't want malleable. I want formidable.

But don't those independent types have a hard time adapting to law firm life?
That's not my view. I don't believe lawyers should bow to icons. I want them to look me in the eye and ask the tough questions.

Let's talk about those candidates you really can't stomach.
I'm deaf to smugness and self-absorption. 

How do people project those qualities?
Body language. Sometimes people say outrageous things. You can also tell total self-absorption when people describe themselves as the hero of every story.

Aside from the truly obnoxious, who else might not be a good fit at K&L Gates?
If someone takes comfort in hierarchy, methodologies, and formal structures, we're not for them.

Your Pittsburgh office is still the largest one in your firm. So is there a Pittsburgh flavor to the firm? 
We've had eight mergers under my watch, so it's not a Pittsburgh thing. But in all the mergers we looked for cultural affinity. 

And what's the culture that you shared with the firms you merged with?
We all spent our formative years "punching above our weight"--meaning we're used to working against New York or D.C. firms that were a lot bigger than us.

So even though your firm is almost 2,000 lawyers, you still see yourself as a bit of an underdog?
My partners might not like that, but that's right.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo courtesy of K&L Gates.

June 25, 2010

(Female) Employee Bites (Female) Boss

Fotolia_12089360_XS[1] Here's a nice revenge fantasy: Instead of a nasty partner tormenting some poor associate, it's the subordinate who bullies the boss to the breaking point. Even better, the firm fails to come to the partner's defense, and the partner has a breakdown and eventually leaves.

That, in essence, is the story of Caroline Cowper, the former head of legal for Zurich UK Services Ltd's U.K. division, who claims that she was bullied and harassed by a junior lawyer, Pearl Lestrade-Brown. Cowper is now suing her employer for failing to take action to address the abuse, reports the Telegraph.

According to the British newspaper, Cowper says that the junior lawyer "had adopted a confrontational attitude" and "proceeded to come up with a series of allegations about me, all of which were completely untrue, and completely unsupported by any evidence." Lestrade-Brown "said that I had harassed her and bullied her, that I hated her and had been in a campaign against her ever since she arrived."

Cowper claims that the stress of the work environment made her seriously ill. The Telegraph reports that Cowper's barrister told the court that "she was dismissed on medical grounds in October 2009 after the constant stress of working with Ms. Lestrade-Brown drove her to take long-term sick leave in July 2007."

As with any harassment case, it's the details that count. We don't know the gory details in this case, so who knows who's right or wrong?  Moreover, I'm not sure I really care.

To me, what's fascinating are the questions that the case raises. Are women managers or partners more threatened by subordinates? Or to put it another way, are employees more resistant to taking orders from a woman? Then there's this uncomfortable question: Do these conflicts occur more often between women?

According to Zogby International, a polling and marketing organization, women tend to bully other women: "When bullies are women, they choose other women as their prey in 71 percent of cases. Bullying, or status-blind harassment, is four times more prevalent than illegal, civil rights, status-based harassment. Same-gender harassment defines the two most frequent categories of bullying."

I don't have to tell you that women working for other women is complicated. It's controversial to even say that it's a controversial issue. But, putting that aside, the case also reflects management's failure to take the conflict seriously.

Career adviser Elizabeth Munnell, who's also a former law firm partner, says that it's possible "that gender was indeed the real problem, with the bias reflected in Zurich's failure to manage a PR crisis waiting to happen. The managers--men or women--may have simply ignored what they saw as two female lawyers engaged in a good old-fashioned catfight."

Employers just don't take bullying seriously, says career coach Selena Rezvani: "The insidious nature of bullying at work makes it hard to prove and all too easy to chock up to personality difference." Rezvani also says this is especially true for "female-on-female bullying."

Any way you look at it, subordinates bullying bosses is still rare. "This case is an exception," says employment lawyer Michael Maslanka, who is not involved in the U.K. case. "It is not so much [a case about] feeling harassed as it is a [case about] feeling of being under siege."

Besieged, harassed, bullied--it happens. Do you see it in your workplace? And is it really worse between women?

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: Labrator / Fotolia.com

June 24, 2010

Baker & McKenzie Nukes 11 Deferred Associates

Fotolia_15841146_XS-CROPPED It's been an awful week for deferred associates. First, I blogged about how McDermott Will dropped three deferred associates into the lowly ranks of discovery lawyers. Then, just a day ago, I blogged about the apprentice programs that replaced the traditional first-year associate positions at Howrey, Drinker Biddle, and Frost Brown. 

I was pretty hard on those programs, because they seemed like bait-and-switch routines. But those programs now look kind and compassionate--compared to what has happened to the remaining deferred associates at Baker & McKenzie. 

As Above the Law reports, 11 people in Baker's last batch of deferred associates are officially out on the street. But as ATL reminds us, Baker gave them "an ominous warning" as far back as last September, when the firm cautioned that their $5,000-a-month stipend and benefits would end in June, and that "absent a major bump in work," the "relationship" would end completely.

I contacted Baker, and the firm sent me the same statement it gave to ATL: 

Our New York office has been unable to accommodate 11 first-year associates from the class of 2009 who had been put on hold this past January. As a result, these individuals will not be starting at the firm. We regret having to make this decision, but unfortunately the work required for these individuals has not materialized to a sufficient degree. At this time, more than 30 new associates from the 2009 class whose start dates were deferred are now working in our North American offices, while seven are on client secondments.

It's too bad that Baker wouldn't speak with me on this issue, especially since the firm was so nice to me two years ago when I attended its international partnership meeting in Barcelona. Back then, its chairman, John Conroy, Jr., and other partners couldn't have been more accessible and charming.

Of course, those were better times, when the economy was flush. But as The American Lawyer reported in May, Baker's profits per partner dropped nearly 18 percent last year, to $992,000, "below the psychologically important $1 million mark." On the plus side, it had the highest gross revenue ($2.11 billion) among The Am Law 100, beating out Skadden, Arps for the number one spot. 

One cheerless Baker casualty told ATL: "They could have tried to start all of us and put us on a half-the- time, half-the-salary plan (like the Baker S.F. and D.C. offices). They could have tried to help us find new jobs by hiring us as contract attorneys or using their extensive network to assist in placement."

Maybe the firm explored those options. I don't know, because the firm is keeping mum. What's puzzling is that this global giant of nearly 4,000 lawyers couldn't find room for 11 deferred associates somewhere among its far-flung offices.

Let's just hope that Baker is suspending on-campus recruiting--at least for its U.S. offices--this year. It might not be a good time to sell students on its strong global network.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: pressmaster / Fotolia.com

June 22, 2010

What's Wrong with Grade Inflation?

IStock_000008905339XSmall I've always found the subject of law school grades to be a tremendous bore. How antiquated and feudal is a system that still regards a candidate's performance in first-year torts or civil procedure as a predictor of future success? 

I could rattle off a list of rainmakers who probably never set foot in a law review office, but that's irrelevant. The reality is that grades still define careers. More precisely, grades define who will get their foot into the door of a prestigious practice, and who will be shut out.

It took a while, but law schools are catching up to this game. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that "in the last two years, at least ten law schools have deliberately changed their grading systems to make them more lenient." The impetus for this change, says the article, is "to rescue their students from the tough economic climate" and "to protect their own reputations and rankings."

The NYT names some schools that have blurry grading systems:

Harvard and Stanford, two of the top-ranked law schools, recently eliminated traditional grading altogether. Like Yale and the University of California, Berkeley, they now use a modified pass/fail system, reducing the pressure that law schools are notorious for. This new grading system also makes it harder for employers to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, which means more students can get a shot at a competitive interview.

The article says that the law schools at New York University, Georgetown, Golden Gate, and Tulane also recently changed their grading systems, and that Loyola Law School Los Angeles is adding 0.333 "to every grade recorded in the last few years."

Personally, I'm all for grade inflation. I definitely could have used it when I was in law school. More importantly, I also believe that employers should take a more holistic approach to hiring. In fact, sometimes employers, who are not allowed to prescreen, are so impressed by interviewees with less than perfect transcripts that they end up giving them offers. Even Skadden's hiring partner admitted that recently. So a little attention to such frivolous things as personality might not be a bad thing. 

But will grade inflation and obfuscation benefit all law students? I think not. Unfortunately, only a very small sector--namely those already going to top law schools--will likely benefit. From my talks with law firm partners, it's pretty clear that Harvard, Yale, and Stanford law students are the blessed, chosen ones; they are assumed to be bright and qualified even if their transcripts are uneven.

Students at the other top ten or 15 law schools, like NYU, Georgetown, or Berkeley, are the ones who will truly benefit from a bit of grading ambiguity. They are presumed to be smart--probably waiting list material at the tippy-top law schools. So what they need is ammunition from their own schools to back up that presumption. An ambiguous grading system--one that conveys the message that our students are so uniformly good that we don't need to be explicit about their grades--can only help. If a school is secure about its vaulted ranking, it should be a bit arrogant about its own students.

As for lesser law schools, I'm not sure how jacking up GPAs will help their students. The fact is, these schools lack the clout to play the game. Worse, inflating grades might dilute the achievements of those who are at the top of their class--those who might have a shot at a coveted job. 

Yes, I know--all this smacks of elitism. But law is an elitist game, isn't it?

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo / David H. Lewis/iStock

June 21, 2010

The Apprentice Hits Big Law

Editor's note: The post incorrectly states that Drinker Biddle started its apprentice program after Howrey. Drinker Biddle initiated it before Howrey. We regret the error.

It used to be so simple: You get an offer from a big firm, you collect a nice fat salary, and you work your buns off. Though your chances of ever making partner are slim to nil, everyone--from the firm's management to the new associate--pretends that it's all possible. Meanwhile, you collect your money and upgrade your living standards. At a minimum, you are wearing much more stylish shoes.

But you might have to go back to shopping at Florsheim, as law firms come up with ways to pull that going-rate rug from under associates' feet. Even before firms started tinkering with their deferred associates' job description (as McDermott Will & Emery recently did), several firms started replacing their regular associate programs with "apprenticeships."

You might recall that Howrey started the program last year because its clients refused to pay top dollar for untrained junior associates. Later, Drinker Biddle & Reath and Frost Brown Todd followed suit. Of these programs, Howrey's lasts the longest--a full two years.

The National Law Journal reports that the three firms claim that their programs have been a success so far.

"Proponents hail the programs as a positive step away from the sink-or-swim environment many young attorneys encounter when they show up at large firms, and as a practical response to the growing cost-consciousness of clients," reports the NLJ. "The firms bill at much lower rates or not at all for work performed by the apprentices, who earn lower salaries than the industry standard."

So how low are those associate salaries? Here's what the NLJ says:

Howrey dropped starting compensation to $125,000 from the $160,000 it had been paying new associates, saving $840,000 on its 24 first-years--a fraction of the $3-4 million it initially expected to spend on the training program. Drinker Biddle lowered salaries for the first six months to $105,000 from $145,000 and $160,000, depending on the market. With 37 new associates this year, that saved about $1 million. Frost Brown reduced starting salaries to $80,000 from $100,000, saving $460,000 on 23 new associates.

But here's the part I don't completely buy: The firms say they are hurting from this arrangement. According to the NLJ, "Firms are absorbing the costs without raising either associate or partner billing rates." Though no firm had "tally up their actual costs thus far," writes NLJ, partners at the three firms say that "they entail significant costs." What costs firms is the "lost billable time from partners who run the programs and mentor new associates."

Firms might not be able to bill like the good old days, but are they really suffering under the arrangement? Firms like to say they are doing everything for the sake of the clients, like parents who justify their pushy behavior by saying it's all for the sake of the children.

I don't necessarily object to paying beginning associates less than $160,000--after all, a lot of firms are struggling in this downturn and can't afford the high beginning salaries. But let's be realistic, too: Firms have been able to impose the apprentice arrangement and the cheaper salary because they are in the better bargaining position. In this market, it's no surprise that recruiting has not been a problem. "Despite some skepticism about how apprenticeships would affect recruiting, Howrey, Drinker Biddle, and Frost Brown had no problem filling their [2010] summer slots," reports the NLJ.

But firms are advocating the apprenticeship system because they claim principles are involved, as if they're master craftsmen passing on some vanishing art form to the young. The partners at the three firms told the NLJ that "they are interested in young attorneys who are motivated by more than just money."

Really? Are most partners motivated by a higher calling?

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: painting by Emile Adan, 1914

June 18, 2010

Deferred and Demoted

Lotteryart Remember Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery," in which a seemingly typical small American town holds an annual lottery where one of its residents is picked as the "winner"? As you might recall, the prize was death by stoning.

No law firm is that sinister, I know. But for some reason that story popped into my head when I read in Above The Law that McDermott Will & Emery recently picked three of its deferred associates from the class of 2009 to be discovery lawyers.The firm told ATL that it made 54 offers: 37 started and 17 were deferred--and three had their offers rescinded.

And now for the really confusing part: "But McDermott didn’t rescind the three offers outright," reports ATL. "Instead, according to MWE, the three people have been offered discovery attorney positions. The position is nonpartnership-track, but the salary is $77,500 per year, plus benefits and a bonus."

If I have this right, that means McDermott rescinded the regular offer--and I'd bet there's some legal reason for this maneuver--then turned around and gave the three the offer for the dead- end, lower-paying job.

What, I wondered, did the three associates do to warrant this second-class status? Were they borderline hires from the get-go? Did they go to lesser law schools? Did they do something embarrassing during their year of deferment, like participating in a dumb reality show? Or did they pick short straws, like the hapless victim in Jackson's story?

Though the firm spoke with ATL, it's had a change of heart about speaking with the press; it declined my request for comment.

ATL says McDermott Will partners have been trying to sell these positions: "Sources tell us that partners have been making calls to the rescinded summers, pushing the great (nonpartner-track) opportunities available in McDermott’s discovery center."

To be fair, McDermott Will has been perfectly open that it has two classes of associates. In 2007 it created a staff attorney track, according to The Recorder:

The idea is that the new hires--the firm is looking into starting with a pilot group of 15--will be lawyers 'with good pedigrees' who have practiced for a few years but don't want to deal with big-firm hours, said McDermott Will partner Robert Mallory said. Instead, they'll put in more like 30 to 40 hours and be paid something like 25 percent less, though an exact pay range hasn't been decided.

At that time, Mallory explained that economics was behind the decision: "In a market where high compensation for lateral partners, lateral associates, and associates [is] creating pressures, we're trying to bring the best-quality service at the lowest price to our clients."

There's nothing wrong with having a lower caste of lawyers, except that's not what the three deferred associates signed up for at the start of this long courtship. So did the firm pull a bait-and-switch on them?

Perhaps the decision isn't as arbitrary as it seems. Let's hope that my "Lottery" analogy is totally wacky.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at: vchen@alm.com.

June 17, 2010

Adulterous, But Professional

IStock_000002810867XSmallI was startled--then happy as punch--that the partner of a firm in Mississippi who's had all sorts of legal troubles for having an affair with his client’s wife returned my call.

If you missed this juicy bit of news recently, here’s the skinny: According to The National Law Journal, William Reed, a partner at Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz, carried on an affair with the wife of his client, Sam Seay, while representing Seay in a wrongful termination case. A former BancorpSouth Inc. executive who was fired after being diagnosed with depression, Seay was also Reed’s childhood friend.

"I gave Sam some free advice when he was terminated, and then he hired other lawyers," says Reed, who claims he didn't play that big a role in Seay's termination matter. (Reed says Seay eventually settled with his employer.)

WReed His client didn't think Reed's role was so incidental. Seay was hopping mad when he found out about the affair and sued Reed (pictured at left) for emotional distress and alienation of affection, in addition to breach of fiduciary duty. Seay also sued the firm for failure to supervise and vicarious liability.

On the issue of fiduciary duty, the Mississippi Supreme Court recently held that Seay failed to “show that the affair between Reed and Seay's wife affected Reed's representation of Seay" in the wrongful termination case. (Reed says all claims against the firm were dismissed, but that he personally faces an alienation of affection claim.)

Reed couldn't have been more polite and relaxed when I chatted with him over the phone. But still, let’s call Reed’s behavior in this matter for what it is: tacky. I won't wade into a moral discussion about the relationship, because I don’t know the details. But I’ll go out on a limb on this: Sleeping with your client’s spouse is generally not a good business strategy.

"On a technical level, the decision may be correct, but from the larger perspective of whether the attorney violated the trust of his client, I think the answer is obvious," says Robert Hillman, a law professor at the University of California at Davis in an e-mail. "Justice Cardozo, who gave us the 'punctilio of an honor the most sensitive' standard of fiduciary responsibility, is rolling over in his grave."

That's a fancy way of saying that Reed acted like a complete jerk. That’s certainly the popular perception.

But I think Reed deserves another look. I saw something else in Reed—a quality that most commentators seemed to have missed—and that’s his unflinching professionalism.

After all, Reed was advising Seay while carrying on a hot and heavy affair with Seay's wife. Unlike some of us, Reed actually absorbed the lesson we were taught in law school about not letting your personal feelings get in the way of your lawyering. In a way, you just don’t get more professional than Reed.

Successful people tend to have that ability to compartmentalize and juggle competing demands and loyalties. And lawyers, in particular, are very good at it. "There is no group I can think of that practices the psychological act of compartmentalization with more dexterity and willingness than lawyers," says James Dolan, a psychologist in Dallas who specializes in treating lawyers. "Indeed, it may be the basic intellectual act of law practice."

President Bill Clinton, of course, is the ultimate compartmentalizer, and regardless of your politics, I think most people would agree that he’s a very smart man.

I don’t know if Reed is anywhere near Clinton’s league, but I must say I’m impressed.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Top photo, Mark Goddard/iStock

June 16, 2010

What Skadden Wants

Glaser_Steven[1]Editor's note: Steven Glaser informs us that the firm does have a trust and estates practice.

I'm continuing my series of hiring partner chats. (You'll recall that I also chatted with hiring partners Gregory Shumaker of Jones Day and Tom Leatherbury of Vinson & Elkins just a few weeks ago.)

Today I'm staying right here in New York to visit with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom hiring partner Steven Glaser (pictured right).  

 Skadden is a mega, hypercharged firm with a sweatshop reputation where the odds of making partner are almost nil. Why do people want to work at your firm? 
People desperately want good experience. I'm not sure that a very significant number of associates even want to be partners. I think the firm is good at fostering opportunities; it's supportive if you eventually want to work for the government or a client.

Is there a Skadden persona? 
Confident, but not elitist. It's not a stuffy place. People have good credentials here, but once you're here, it doesn't matter where you went to school or who you clerked for.

Any difference between this year's crop of summer associates and past years? 
The class is 50 percent smaller than last year; there are 100 students overall. By going to a smaller number, we had the luxury of getting people who are really enthusiastic about being at Skadden.

Besides that rah-rah spirit, what else do you look for? 
The one thing I look for is someone who really wants to be a lawyer.

How can you tell? Do you give some kind of secret personality test? 
I ask why they really want to be a lawyer. You want someone with some spark and passion for lawyering. A lot of people end up at law school because they don't know what else to do, and then they feel the work is beneath them. They want to write a novel or play the violin.

 So firms should avoid the artsy-creative type? 
No, no. Some of those people work out quite well. [Skadden partner] Greg Milmoe was a pianist, and now he's one of the leading restructuring lawyers.

 Ever had a candidate who was great on paper but who blew the interview? 
Yes. The ones who were totally unprepared and knew nothing about Skadden. Someone asked us about our T&E practice, which we don't have.

 Does Skadden hire from third- or fourth-tier schools? 
We will generally consider the top of the class at most any school. They might not get an offer, but we're open.

 I imagine Skadden is pretty fussy about grades from even the top schools.  
We are, but it depends on the school. At some schools the grading process is meaningless--like Yale, Stanford, and now Harvard.

 Seems like if you go to one of those schools, you've got an automatic edge. 
I'd say so. [But] most of those students would meet our criteria anyway.

What about students who go to one of the lesser law schools? What happens if they have a blemish on their transcript--are they forever banished from the Skadden kingdom?
A lot of schools don't allow us to prescreen candidates, so we end up interviewing some people who might not have made our grade cut. But if they have compelling reasons for an aberrant grade or semester, some [ultimately] get hired. We're human, and we understand.

So the lesson is for the student to be fearless?
If a bad grade is unexplained, it hurts them. It's good for students to bring up the issue and address it forthrightly.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo courtesy of Skadden, Arps

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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