Some big law firms are like the mob. They do ugly things, but prefer to avoid “ugliness.” The partners, like the capos of major crime families, have delicate constitutions.
Ugliness could result from ill-considered communication. For that reason, a capo – or a partner – isn’t going to tell you what he really thinks. That would be indelicate. It could lead to misunderstandings.
You, in turn, shouldn’t tell a partner what you really think. That could lead to sleeping with the fishes.
My client recently received a lesson in partner communication.
The firm was dead slow, and she was dedicating her time to a big pro bono case. An email suddenly arrived announcing a new policy: you now needed special permission to bill over 250 pro bono hours annually. In two months, she’d billed 220, and the case was coming to trial.
She called the pro bono partner.
“You’re close to the limit,” he noted.
Last week, there was no limit, she explained. This is an important case, coming to trial.
“You’ve nearly exceeded the cap on hours,” he helpfully re-noted.
She inhaled deeply, and re-explained the situation.
He ingeniously pointed out that the 250 hours cap was the firm’s new policy…
…at which point she snapped, and did the unthinkable: she said what she really thought.
“I didn’t know there was a new policy. No one communicates at this place. And what is the point of this crap? Look at my hours – it’s not like I have anything else to do!”
There was a lengthy pause.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said the partner.
He hung up – and she began to harbor second thoughts.
I’m sorry to hear that.
Behold, a singularly dreaded phrase. It is not good news, at a law firm, when you hear “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Generally speaking, when you hear “I’m sorry to hear that,” at a law firm, it means “you will soon be fired.”
There is something worse you could hear – worse than “I’m sorry to hear that.”
There’s “I think we should talk about…”
At a law firm, when you hear “I think we should talk about…” you’ve already been fired.
Partners don’t toss around “I’m sorry to hear that” in casual conversation. It is reserved for serious situations. If a major earthquake strikes, and the floors of the firm pancake, squashing attorneys into paste, it would likely trigger “I’m sorry to hear that…” It could escalate all the way to “I think we should talk about…”
For the most part, “I think we should talk about” is reserved for the single most crucial conversation in the entire law firm conversational repertoire, the ne plus ultra of conversations – to wit: “I think we should talk about your billable hours.”
This exchange, undertaken under secrecy at the highest levels of power, plays out something like this:
“I think we should talk about your billable hours.”
“Well, it has been slow. Work doesn’t seem to be coming in.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
This conversation, which fuses the twin forces of “I think we should talk about” and “I’m sorry to hear that” into one redoubtable melange, roughly parallels the situation of being called into Don Corleone’s office – well, let’s say tied up, packed into the truck of a Chrysler, and delivered to his office for a little chat.
The Don gazes at you with tender concern, then shakes his head sadly.
“I think we should talk about the fact that the money from the First National Bank job has been…misplaced.”
“Honestly, Godfather, I have no idea. I promise you – I swear on my mother’s life – I didn’t take the money. I don’t know where it is. I would never steal from the family. I swear to God…”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
At this point in time, it’s fair to say, your days are numbered.
Same thing at a law firm. On one single occasion during my entire tenure at Sullivan & Cromwell, I encountered “I think we should talk about…” That’s all it took.
It was delivered to me by the partner in charge of associates. He’d already fired me, gently – or, at least, I think that’s what he did. At my review, there was mention of some ugliness with an of-counsel who questioned my commitment to our work together. The partner was sorry to hear that. It was suggested I might find myself somewhere else within, say, six months.
Six months later, to the day, I received a call from that same partner.
“I think we should talk about…”
Twelve years have passed since that call. I remain profoundly grateful for a job offer I received – in a non-legal position – the day before.
I didn’t need to wake up next to a horse’s head.
He’d made himself understood.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)