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Firm Culture

Of Sisyphus and Speakerphones

When I started out in the legal profession many years ago, becoming a Partner at a law firm was the dream of every new lawyer.  At the firm where I articled in 1979, each new Partner received two gifts from the firm upon being admitted to partnership.  The first was a gold sculpture of Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up the hill.  The second was a speakerphone, which at the time was new and exciting technology. 

Really.

For those of you who may need a reminder about Sisyphus, Wikipedia describes him as follows:

In Greek mythology Sisyphus … was the founder and king of Ephyra. He was punished for cheating death twice by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity.

I understand why the practice of law may sometimes remind people of the punishment of Sisyphus. All of that work, that is never quite done.  I am not sure why the Partners at the firm thought that it was something to celebrate.  Perhaps it was an inside joke.  I really don’t know.  In retrospect, it does seem fairly bizarre if it was intended as a source of inspiration.

The speakerphone, on the other hand – now that was simple to understand. We all know that life is better with a speakerphone.  Presumably they were expensive at the time.  Partners were more important than associates. Their phone calls were more important. They deserved a speakerphone.

One day near the end of my Articles, I happened upon a group of Associates who were gathered in the office of one Associate who I will call Arthur, since his name was Arthur. 

Arthur had gone out and bought himself a speakerphone and he was busy connecting it to his desk phone, a task which I imagine was more difficult at that time than it is now.  The Associates were all anxious to see if it would work.  If it did not work, there would be no problem.  The big question on everyone’s mind was what the Partners would do if it did work.  Associates were not supposed to have speakerphones.

The cosmic order would be disrupted.  There might be a tear in the partner-associate continuum.

My articles were soon over, so I never did learn about the consequences of Arthur’s audacious installation of a speakerphone.   I do know that the firm imploded some 25 years later, but I suspect that the two events were not related.

What did I learn about the practice of law from my exposure to Sisyphus and speakerphones?

I learned that lawyers sometimes glorified hard work and took a perverse pride in the frustration of never getting it all done. They seemed to revel in the process of counting their billable hours, instead of striving to get to a point where they could ease off and enjoy the rewards of their labour.  Perhaps they understood that if they ever eased off their ongoing career prospects might become uncertain.

I also learned that in some firms it was considered important to draw distinctions between partners and associates to feed the egos of the partners and give the associates something to strive for.  For example, lawyers were often categorized as Partners or Associates in firm directories and on websites, and Partners were frequently given larger offices. I often wondered if the distinction between Partners and Associates was significant to clients, and if not, why it was so important to emphasize it.

Finally, I learned that the allocation of technology and other resources in a law firm was not always based on the needs of the clients, but instead was often determined by the egos of the partners. The most senior partner often seemed to have the best legal assistant, even if the more junior lawyers had the greatest need for assistance. Again, not particularly client centric.

Of course, many things have changed over time, but I do believe that for the most part these lessons are still valuable today.

Now, back to that sculpture of Sisyphus.  At the time I thought that it was the coolest thing possible, and I hoped that some day I would have one.  During the course of my career, the blush came off of that rose for me.  Now, I wonder whether a sculpture of Procrustes would have been more fitting. 

Wikipedia describes him as follows:

Procrustes had a stronghold on Mount Korydallos at Erineus, on the sacred way between Athens and Eleusis.  There he had a bed, in which he invited every passer-by to spend the night, and where he set to work on them with his smith’s hammer, to stretch them to fit. In later tellings, if the guest proved too tall, Procrustes would amputate the excess length; nobody ever fitted the bed exactly.

The word “Procrustean” is thus used to describe situations where an arbitrary standard is used to measure success, while completely disregarding obvious harm that results from the effort.

In law firms, clients brought in, hours docketed, and fees billed are often used to measure success.  Success is rewarded with money.  And more money.  Much has been written elsewhere about the physical and mental harm that sometimes results from that focus – from that Procrustean effort to force everyone into the same mold.

It is often said that ‘the more things change, the more that they stay the same.’  Whether it is Sisyphus pushing his mountain of paper uphill or Procrustes setting his billable hours standards for everyone to meet or enforcing the distinction between Partners and Associates, I often wonder if much has changed in the legal industry. 

Except for the speakerphones.  Now everyone has them. And they have Zoom and Teams and other stuff.  And too few of them ever shut their damn door when they are using them.  But that’s okay, if they are Partners, and as long as they meet their billable hours target.

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