While measuring one lawyer’s work against another’s is difficult, there are lots of reasons people try, particularly those who are in charge of lawyers.

One difficult fact most lawyers have to eventually confront is that, try as they might to meet the stated “goals” set out for them, even exceeding them does not in any way guarantee success.

Because in lawyering, as in most jobs, how much the boss likes you can matter as much, or more, than how high-quality your work is.

When employers determine who stays and who goes, it’s all about who’s helping bring dollars in the door. That’s not news. If you work in sales, and you sell a lot, you’re golden. If you make house calls to fix broken dishwashers, the more you fix per week (and fix the first time you try) the more your boss will want to keep you and give you a raise, or promote you to share your expertise.

I like the cut of your jib, counselor

But the quality of work a lawyer is delivering is not easy to measure. Biglaw tries, of course, reducing associates to billable-hours machines. But even exceeding your billable-hours goals won’t alone get you on the partner track. Partners have to enjoy having you around, and like the way you speak, and dress, and show enthusiasm for being there. In other words, they have to see you as a future rainmaker who will put more money in their pockets while they see a reflection of themselves in you while you do it.

For in-house lawyers, it’s even tougher for management to determine who the stars are. With no billable hours to measure, no depositions to observe, no summary judgment motion results to track, and no trial results to either celebrate or anguish over (and I know, the better lawyer often loses in court), pretty much all the evaluations are “soft” ones. If the folks in the company you work for say great things about you to your boss, that means a lot. Of course, those non-lawyers are not qualified to judge your legal advice, so it’s as much (or more) about how you give that advice than how good it is. And the importance of the whole dress and demeanor and enthusiasm thing is ratcheted up even more.

Getting outside your own head

There’s a useful old expression: We judge others by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intentions. It’s true: people have no idea what you were thinking or feeling when you just did what you did or said what you said.

If you are struggling to meet a deadline and someone at work who’s also stressed out asks for “a moment of your time,” it’s perfectly reasonable and rational of you to politely say, “I’m terribly sorry, but I’m in a real time crunch; I’ll have to get back to you.” That person might think, “hey, what a polite response. I’ll ask someone else.” But the fact is, if you drop what you’re doing and help right then, you’re a hero.

It’s not me. It’s you.

The whole “I like you, I really like you” factor is huge in other situations too. I once had a chance to join a small firm by buying in as a partner. We realized early on that we did not have a meeting of the minds on the financial part of the arrangement, so it didn’t happen. This was actually a great relief to me, because one of the partners and I were so polar opposite in pretty much everything that we would have made each other utterly miserable, no matter how successful the firm might have become. So before you partner up, you might want to spend a lot of time together to see if you have similar notions of how good lawyers think, look, talk, and act.

The two roads of freedom

So there are two ways to avoid these problems.

The first should be obvious: go solo. Then, when you take over the world, you can become the kindest, warmest, greatest lawyer ever, and the meanest, coldest, greatest lawyer ever, both in the same day.

Or, you can go into public interest law. Public defenders and people who work in “legal aid” are some of my favorite lawyer personalities. In either job, there’s no rainmaking, no billable hours, and the dress code is, well, loose. There’s a kind of, “we make not much money trying to help people with no money, and most of the public either hates us or considers us a necessary evil” vibe in those offices. It can lead to burnout or despair, to be sure, but those who enjoy practicing law without the office politics (even if they are not great lawyers) do have a lot of freedom to be themselves.

And that may well be the greatest freedom anyone, and in particular, any lawyer, can have.

Andy Mergendahl
Andy Mergendahl is a privacy officer at a large commercial bank. He's also been a solo practitioner and a judicial law clerk. He considers himself a foot soldier in the War on Legalese (also known as the War Without End). Andy enjoys collecting names for bands that do not (yet) exist, being a runner (but not the act of running so much), and the bourbon Old Fashioned at Eat Street Social in Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @andymergendahl

1 Comment

  1. Avatar Danielle Rondeau says:

    Thanks Andy, great post!
    I agree meaningful connection is powerful, and will definitely result in more opportunities than hardwork alone. I have also found for myself as a young lawyer that developing good relationships with colleagues that I enjoy being around everyday has been key to maintaining my sanity at work, especially on those days where everything is going wrong! Thanks again for the great advice!


Leave a Reply