Firm Culture

Lamenting Never Having Found the Legal Dream Team

You may have heard the saying that ‘If you owe a $100,000 to the Bank, you have a problem; but if you owe $100,000,000 to the Bank, the Bank has a problem.’ 

The first time that I saw this principle in action was in the case of a rather large company that became insolvent years ago. This company owed so much money and there was so little chance of any of it being recovered, that the Bank could not be bothered to spend the money required to shut it down, and no other creditor thought that it was worth their while to drive it into bankruptcy. So, the insolvent company kept sputtering along for quite a while.

The principal shareholder of the company, who I will call Adam, spent a good chunk of his week attending at what we then called judgment debtor examinations. This meant that after the company had been sued and not bothered defending, the creditor would have the right to examine an officer or director of the company and compel them to answer questions about what assets the company had that the creditor could potentially seize. Adam had become quite an expert in answering these questions. He dutifully showed up for each examination and explained to counsel for the creditor why there were not going to get paid. I believe that at one point he was doing two or three of these per week for many months.

Around that time, I had a partner who I will call Daniel, who was trying to collect rent for a client who had leased space to Adam’s company. Daniel did not take the same approach as the other lawyers who were trying to collect money from Adam’s company. Instead, Daniel did his homework and found out that Adam had a valued assistant who was also a corporate officer. Rather than requiring Adam to attend, my partner served notice on the assistant requiring her to attend.

Adam’s assistant (and long-time friend) did not have Adam’s expertise in legal proceedings or temperament for dealing with conflict. The thought of being interrogated by a litigation lawyer terrified her. I can only speculate on what she said to Adam, but Adam cared enough about her that he found some money and settled with our client rather than allowing her to attend the judgment debtor examination. Adam was so impressed that he fired his existing lawyer and hired Daniel to represent him in the future. He told me that Daniel was the only lawyer who had been able to get him to pay up.

There was another time that Daniel acted for a Bank trying to collect money from a corporate guarantor. The guarantor had owned an expensive yacht which he told the Bank that he had sold. He even orchestrated things to show an amount representing the purchase price going through his bank account.

However, the Bank had received an anonymous tip (likely from a jilted lover) that the yacht had not in fact been sold but had been repainted and renamed and was headed from Georgian Bay to American waters. Although the Bank did not have security on the boat, Daniel was able to obtain an emergency injunction without notice to the guarantor directing the lockmasters on the Trent Severn waterway to seize the boat. He then called the lockmaster of every lock through which the boat might pass to make them aware of the court order. The boat was seized at one of the locks.

Daniel was a good litigation lawyer with many strengths. He was creative. He had a phenomenal memory. He worked hard. He understood accounting and business principles. He had a deep understanding of the law and the rules of practice, and a great ability to analyze a set of facts and find a solution to problems that others missed. In some ways he one of the best litigation lawyers who I ever met. He was also honest, ethical, and generally a good person to have around.

Being so capable and being generous with his time, Daniel became a valued resource to many of the other lawyers in the firm and a trusted mentor to the younger folks.

On the other hand, like all of us, there were some things that Daniel was not so good at.

For one thing, Daniel loved solving problems and when a new client came in with a puzzle to solve, he would be great at figuring out how to handle it.  However, Daniel’s interest level would wane as the thrill of finding the solution dissipated and it was time to attend to the technical steps required to implement a litigation solution over many months.  So, Daniel would sometimes not get around to doing things. For months. Sometimes years. Clients would call. Daniel would be all wrapped up in the newest, still exciting, matter and would not return the phone call for a few hours. Or a few days. Or sometimes a few months. Or occasionally, ever.

For another thing, there were frequently things that caught Daniel’s attention other than suing people. I used to say that if a legal assistant at the opposite end of our not small office whispered under their breath ‘I hate this damn computer,’ Daniel would somehow hear it, jump out of his chair, run down to the opposite end of the office, and spend 2 hours fixing the problem.

In other words, Daniel was easily distracted from mundane legal work if something more interesting came along. Which it always did. Like a new file. Or a technology issue. Or an accounting issue. Or one of the associates requiring mentoring.

As a result, and despite being one of the best litigators and hardest workers who I ever met, Daniel struggled to develop a large client base or to generate large billings.

In the perfect law firm, Daniel’s strengths would have been highly valued and leveraged by his partners to bolster the firm’s reputation for doing excellent work and developing its junior lawyers. In that same perfect law firm, Daniel would have been given all kinds of support to compensate for his practice management challenges and he would have been well compensated despite his billings and client base falling short of the mark.

Daniel did not work in the perfect law firm. Few people do. As in most law firms, his partners often focussed more on Daniel’s shortcomings than his strengths. By this I mean that they over shared their criticisms and under shared their compliments. They also under shared the partnership profits each year.

Eventually Daniel moved on to another firm.

The simple truth of life in law firms is that it is the rare individual who can be good at everything that is required to be a great lawyer. Intelligence. Knowledge of the law. Oral and written communication skills. Creativity. Ability to see the forest for the trees. Strategic thinking. Stamina to work long hours. Self-confidence. Aptitude for marketing. Attention to detail. Fiscal management. Drafting skills. Presentation skills. Persuasive ability. Time management skills. And more. (In fact, except for myself, I never met a single lawyer who has all these skills.)

Another truth in law firms is that it often seems like the only skills that really matter are the ability to bring in clients and generate billings. Idiots who can do that survive in law firms. Geniuses who cannot do that often do not.

At various stages of my legal career, I gave a great deal of thought as to how to leverage the disparate skills of the various lawyers in my firm and create a whole that was more valuable than the sum of its parts. I never managed to do it. It always seemed that those who brought in tons of clients and billed a lot of money would ground those whose financial contribution was more modest into the dust, no matter how strongly the latter performed in other areas.

In fact, in a few cases which I struggled to understand over many years, and which continue to baffle me to this very day, certain lawyers managed to work their way to the top of the partner pyramid by confusing everyone as to their actual financial contribution in various ways (such as by directing attention to their gross revenue and away from their overheads and bad debts or distracting them with their marketing efforts as opposed to their marketing results) while stomping on others who contributed a great deal in other ways.

When I think back to the many times that my prayers to be a part of a truly exceptional firm hit the ceiling [1], I always keep coming back to Daniel and the many other talented but imperfect lawyers who left our firm because they did not bring in big clients and bill a lot of money. I also think about the many lawyers who succeeded at our firm because they could do those things, while sometimes failing miserably at other things such as mentoring, supervising, motivating, or promoting internal harmony. Some of the latter stayed for a long time and by so doing denied us the opportunity to bring in other individuals with different talents. A good number of them eventually moved on to other firms that also valued their money generating skills above everything else.

I like to imagine the dream team that we could have had if we had both held onto the lawyers who could bring in clients and generate big billings, but also found a way to hold onto Daniel and others, while celebrating everyone for their positive attributes and providing all of them with support to compensate for their shortcomings. It is too late for me to figure it out. Good luck to the rest of you!

[1] Since I retired, bought a pick-up truck and moved to the country, I only listen to country music.  Fans will recognize the phrase.

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