There is an old story about a fellow who was searching for his lost keys under a streetlight. Various people came over to him, asked what he was looking for, and joined in the search. Eventually a lawyer came by and asked the same question but then followed up and asked him where he had lost his keys. The fellow pointed to a dark corner. When the lawyer asked why he was looking for his keys over here if he had lost them over there, the fellow explained that it was too dark to find anything where he lost them.
I suppose that this story will not make sense to any of the young folks now that we all have a flashlight built into our phones, but as I said, it is an old story.
Perhaps this fellow really did not want to find his keys. More likely, he was just an idiot.
In law firms, most of the partners are not idiots. But nonetheless, they sometimes want to convince people to look in the dark corners instead of under the light. Here are some examples:
- I once knew a partner who brought in a great deal of work that was done by others, but much of it went uncollected. He only wanted his partners to look at the gross billings for the clients that he introduced. The way he saw it, the failure to collect was attributable to everyone but him and should not affect his earnings.
- I met another partner who nominally supervised a real estate practice that was actually run by a number of law clerks. He liked to focus on gross billings and was quite content to try to keep his partners from looking at the dark corners where all of the salaries and other expenses hung out.
- Another partner who was pretty good at bringing in business liked to focus attention on his billings and away from his over-the-top marketing expenses.
- And finally, there was the high-billing partner who was such an awful human being that all of his juniors kept quitting. The firm racked up transition costs and head-hunting fees, but the partner did not want to talk about those. All he wanted to discuss were his billings and why human resources kept hiring such losers to be his Associates.
You get the idea. Lawyers are used to spinning a tale to make their clients look better than they are. It is not surprising that they employ that very same talent to sell their partners on the idea of giving them a larger slice of the partnership pie. What is surprising is how often their partners, who really ought to know better, let them get away with that crap.
I knew more than one managing partner who would not call out a particular partner for their devious ways for various reasons such as: (i) pay-back for the devious partner unquestionably supporting the managing partner in key votes; (ii) loyalty to a founding partner; and (iii) the expectation of support for the managing partner’s similar sins.
Just imagine how differently our firms would operate if we were not so damn competitive with each other and took our duty to act in good faith seriously!