Category Archives: Professionalism

Eliminate Billable Hours from Performance Evaluations

We missed this announcement from Jackson Lewis (a large national employment law firm) in November, 2014, stating that an associate’s billable hours will no longer be taken into account in his or her performance evaluations. We applaud this decision, and hope to see this factor removed from partner-level evaluations (read: profit participation determinations) as well.

Individuals in any organization ought to be evaluated on the basis of accomplishments, not time spent. Is this harder to do? Of course.

How should accomplishments be evaluated? Hint: ask your customers who receive the service and are in the best position to evaluate its worth.

We’ll answer. We promise.

Your R&D is not my capital investment … it’s yours.

So last weekend, on a quiet nondescript morning, coffee freshly poured I thought, “No finer time than right now to review some law firm invoices.”  Ok, I didn’t really think that, but since this past week was going to be highly unproductive (it didn’t disappoint) it was time to get the mundane out of the way.

I pulled the first one off the stack.  The General Matters invoice.  There was only one entry:

“Review recent court decisions concerning intellectual property rights.  0.6 hrs.”

The expense statement was even better.

“LEXIS/NEXIS case searches for recent court decisions concerning intellectual property rights . . . . . $467.00”

Now all this would be perfectly acceptable if we had actually engaged the firm to do some research.  But we hadn’t.  Hmmm… this was probably just another time entry foul-up (expense charge too — same day, probably automated).  No big deal.  We’ll just call and have it fixed. Continue reading

More bad time entries

This is a popular one, especially among legal assistants:

“Attention to file. 1.0 hr”

You’re kidding, right? Is anybody reading these bills before they’re sent? As we’ve asked before, if you were the timekeeper who made this entry, would you pay this bill? (“Work on case” is a variation on this theme.)

Also, nothing looks more like padded time than round numbers. We’re not saying anyone should change their actual time entries, but pages full of “1.0 hr, 2.0 hrs, 3.0 hrs” etc. just looks suspicious, and sends us a message about the timekeeper’s credibility and the billing attorney’s management skills.

Timekeepers, please describe what work you did (this is why the entries are called time descriptions). Billing attorneys, please review the bills before you send them.

What do you recommend?

Among other things, lawyers are recognized as the only humans with more than two hands. This is evolutionary, of course. Centuries of equivocating require appendages appropriate for proposing multiple alternatives without having to commit to one. “On the one hand, you could A, but then the plaintiff could do B in response, or possibly C, so instead of A you could do D; on the other hand, doing A and D together would box the plaintiff in. Still, you could try E followed by A, which is a little aggressive, but will send the right message. What do you think?” Too many hands. Too little analysis. No recommendation. This kind of advice just isn’t advice.

The failure (refusal sometimes) to make a recommendation is one of our greatest weaknesses as lawyers. Perhaps we’re trying to make sure clients don’t blindly jump to a conclusion without understanding the thorough analysis needed to arrive there, but I suspect there’s really more anatomy covering going on than anything else.

Garden-variety lawyers can always come up with another theory. But as business people, clients don’t deal with the theoretical; they have to make decisions. The best lawyers advance this process by making recommendations. Like the criticism we level at memoranda that merely explore the parties’ “best arguments” (i.e., the “on the one hand/other hand” treatment), preparing a legal analysis without a recommendation is unfinished work. Even if the best choice is so clear that anyone would recognize it, go the extra step, and tell us what you would do if you were in our shoes.

When you make a recommendation, you’re telling us that you approached the assignment as though it were your money, your liability or your reputation at stake — not just another research project.

Jargon watch – Enclosed herewith

Please stop talking like your lawyer-grandparents. It’s not scholarly, it’s not professional, and it doesn’t impress anyone except non-lawyers. If that’s how you boost your self esteem, you’re in the wrong business.

For example take the antiquity, “please find enclosed herewith.” Yes, I still see this all the time — even in email messages from recent law school graduates.
What are you trying to say? “Please start digging through this mound of stuff and maybe, in here, with it, you will find something I’m sending you.” Of course not. All you’re trying to say is “I have enclosed X.” If that’s what you mean, say it. “Dear Rantor, I have enclosed the drafts I described this morning.”

Or how about “inter alia“, “supra” and “assuming arguendo.” Perhaps these gems have a place in formal legal briefs (I have my doubts), but they have no place in routine communications. What’s wrong with “among other things”, “above”, and “assuming for argument’s sake”?

If you want to keep your clients on your side, write using words they will understand — not the secret code of lawyer lingo. I’m not starting the “plain English vs precision” debate; we can do that another time. I am suggesting, however, that we drop the lawyerly affectations and write simply and clearly. Your clients might even read your letters for a change.

Removing My Stress

Vacations are always too short, and sometimes they don’t seem worth the effort. But they’re important, and we need to take them. I’m sure you appreciate time away with those close to you, and trusting your colleagues (both in house and outside) not to let the place fall apart while you’re flopped on a sandy beach, hiking in a national park or just doing something different.

So today, in the spirit of doing something different, I have not a rant, but praise.

While on vacation the immigration folks resurrected some regulations on what to do when you get a “no match” letter from the Social Security Administration. (Here is a link to the .pdf of the Federal Register listing, if you’re interested: http://tinyurl.com/27u3cw). This is a big deal for us because we have a lot of employees, and an overwhelmed human resources department. Driving to the airport, the news radio station chattered about the “stepped-up enforcement” policy, and something about social security, but my mind was on my vacation. Cue the smart outside counsel.

That evening, while checking voice mail (yes, we do that too while on vacation), one of our outside employment counsel left this short message (I’m paraphrasing): “Hi, I saw your “out of office” email notification, and figured you might not have heard about the new “no match” regs that go into effect September 15th. I know we’ve not talked about this, but I’m putting together a some guidelines for human resources departments on what to do with these letters to be sure you come within the safe harbor. Your company is a little different from most of my other clients, so I’m going to customize it for you guys, and will have it to you next week. If you think it’s useful, let me know. If not, there will be no charge. Hope you’re having a great vacation!”

Stress level at beginning of voice mail: moderate. At the end: low. Having a great vacation? You bet.