There was once a law firm with a small corporate department consisting of a law clerk and one senior corporate lawyer who I will call Carl. The partners of the firm had tired of Carl’s antics so they hired a bright young corporate lawyer who I will call Martin. The idea was that if Martin was any good, they would tell Carl to shape up or ship out.
The first thing that Martin learned was that Carl was an absolutely awful lawyer. This was not because Carl was not intelligent. It was because Carl had no practice management skills whatsoever. He was a cluster fuzz of negligence claims, just waiting to blow up.
Just a few weeks after Martin joined the firm, one of the partners was given the opportunity to try to dislodge a client from Big Law, because the client believed that Big Law had been over-charging him. (As if Big Law would ever do that!)
If they could land this client and do a great job on the first file, there would be many more to come. The partners dreamed of slowly but surely prying away all of the client’s work from Big Law. Visions of billable hours danced in their heads.
The firm’s managing partner determined that it was a good idea for Carl to be involved in the meeting to try to reel in the client, because Carl had prior experience in one narrow but specialized aspect of the matter which concerned a government incentive program. Since the partners had their doubts about Carl, Martin was to handle every other aspect of the transaction.
So off to the meeting the team went. Martin was the most junior member of the team. Although he knew his stuff, he had never been involved in marketing legal work at this level. The managing partner and the partner who had the client contact came to the meeting, and so did Carl. Carl did most of the talking.
When Martin got home that evening, he told his wife that if he were the client and could only choose one lawyer in the meeting to represent him, he would have chosen Carl. Carl was as impressive as all get-out. Marvin marveled at how Carl could be so bad at what he did and so good at selling himself.
The firm landed the file. Martin did a fine job on his part of it. Unfortunately, after many billable hours had been expended, it turned out that if Carl had bothered to read the rules applicable to the government incentive program, he would have discovered that the business that the client wanted to acquire did not qualify. It said so right in the regulations. Now, I am not talking about a question of interpretation. I am talking about a flashing neon sign that proclaimed, “You can’t do that, you idiot.”
And so the firm was fired and the file went back to Big Law. The client had learned their lesson about trying to save a few dollars. When the managing partner said to the client, “Surely, some of what we did must have had some value and you should be willing to pay at least part of our very large legal bill,” the client replied: “You have cost us a fortune in wasted time and lost opportunities. I suggest that you write it all off and hope that we don’t sue you.” And so, they did.
Carl shipped out and Martin found himself running a corporate department.
My father was fond of the expression, “All flash, no cash” to describe someone who lacks the substance to match their ostentatious appearance. That expression pairs well with another one which I learned in the legal profession which is, “Bullshit baffles brains.” Both of these expressions applied to Carl. At the opposite end of the psychological spectrum, there is much talk in the legal profession about “imposter syndrome” which is where people entering the profession do not yet believe in their own abilities and are easy prey for those who are all flash and good at bullshit.
There are so many opportunities in the practice of law for us to be impressed by another counsel who puts on a good show and to allow our own insecurities to cause us to buy into what they are selling. This is especially true in the early years of practice. Luckily, there are antidotes to this particular poison.
One is hard work. Preparation can go a long way to bolstering confidence and evening up a disparity in experience.
Another is having a support network such as experienced counsel with whom to brainstorm.
Finally, there is believing in yourself. This comes much more easily to some of us than others, and I speak as someone for whom it did not come easily but managed to get there eventually. If I could go back to the beginning of my legal career, I would have worked on understanding my psychological makeup and sought help to improve my confidence right from the beginning. I can only imagine how much easier things would have been if I had been able to identify the imposters as soon as I came across them instead of thinking that I was one of them.