People I Met Practicing Law

A Piece of the Big Blue Sky

“Blue Sky Law” refers to securities regulation. The expression is said to have originated in Kansas and refers to hucksters who could sell ‘a piece of the blue sky’ to unsophisticated farmers.

Back when I was more impressed with Big Law than I am now, we were approached by a senior lawyer who I will call Jake who wanted to leave Big Law and join our medium-sized suburban wannabe downtown law firm.

Jake promised to bring us great clients and a level of expertise that we did not have. We were excited to have Jake join us. I looked forward to learning from Jake, the big-shot, successful, downtown lawyer.

I learned stuff from Jake all right. The problem was that I did not think much of the lessons which Jake taught me. In fact, eventually I figured out that we were the farmers and Jake had sold us a  piece of the blue sky.

The first time that I thought of calling Houston and telling them that we had a problem was when a mistake was made on a file that Jake was supervising. An associate, who I will call Mary, wanted to come clean to the client, as we lawyers are obligated to do. But Jake said, “We were right to do what we did. In fact, we are always right. We are never wrong. It does not matter what the facts are. You never admit that you made a mistake.”  I am not sure whether that was a Big Law attitude or just Jake’s attitude, but it did not sit right with me and Mary was unimpressed as well.

On another occasion, Jake had taken Mary under his wing and told her that she had to learn to say no when she was overwhelmed by work. Shortly after that Jake wanted to delegate some supposedly urgent work to her. Mary told him that she just did not have the capacity to do it within the time frame that he wanted. Jake pressed hard and told her how important the assignment was and insisted that she take it on. Mary reminded him that he had told her that she should say no to new work when she was too busy.  Jake explained, “I didn’t mean that you could say no to me.”

So Jake was not the greatest human being on the planet. Most of us are not. Nothing new to see here. But there is something to learn in many of our experiences, and the same is true here. I did not learn what I expected to learn from Jake, but I did learn a few things:

  1. When senior lawyers want to leave Big Law to join a much smaller firm, you have to delve into whether they really have had an epiphany about what they want out of life, or whether Big Law is the one instigating the move.
  2. Don’t be overly impressed with where people are coming from. Instead, figure out whether they are a good fit for where they are going.
  3. Pay people based on performance, not promises.
  4. Don’t expose your impressionable young associates to senior lawyers until you develop some trust that you approve of what they are going to be taught.
  5. Don’t hire Jake.

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