Under Analysis: Lawyer Olympics take center stage

Spencer Farris, The Levison Group

I got a little perspective this week in the Levison Towers. Not just the normal perspective one gets from a cubicle on the 23rd floor, halfway through one’s legal career, either. The temperature has been in the low 90s for the last several days and many of us are acting as though it is cold outside. Few remember a time of triple digit heat quite as extensive as we have just endured. Fewer still have ever seen a note like I saw posted at a local administrative agency, authorizing lawyers to appear sans tie and coat due to the heat.

I tried to give my son some perspective this week as well. He is 17 and his primary concern this summer has been defeating villains of video games. If he gets out of bed at all. I tried to share with him Ken Burns’ “The War,” which has run on PBS. Young men his age made life or death decisions. Not virtual life or death, but actual flesh and blood conflicts. The sheltering of our youths from real conflict is often evident in law firms. Young lawyers are relegated away from the front lines when their predecessors would have tried whole jury trials by the end of their first or second year of practice.

I have not joined with my countrymen in fervent attention to the Olympics. It was about this time six years ago that I was planning my first trip to London. I didn’t leave there with a medal, but with a bride. Nothing the Olympians do there will ever top my accomplishment of convincing a beautiful lady to marry below her stature.

 I have, however, been watching the lawyer Olympics, taking place in London, Massachusetts. And everywhere else. Here’s my take on some of the bigger events:

High hurdles to entry. In this event, young lawyers fresh out of law school struggle against mountains of debt, double-digit lawyer unemployment, and reduced opportunities to launch a fulfilling legal career. Contenders in the past have faced the additional pressures of entering the all white ol’ boy field of law when they weren’t all white ol’ boys. While these hurdles remain, new ones have arisen to further thin the field. It is optimistic to predict even three medal winners this year.

Docket sprinting. Once again, the contenders in this event are all young lawyers. Older lawyers have either mastered the skill of juggling multiple matters and dockets or been forced into large firms with many lawyers and support staff handling the primary tasks. Lawyers who take on fewer matters don’t have dockets to juggle. In this uber competitive legal market, however, they might be juggling a second job instead.

The javelin catch. The name of this event harkens back to a simpler time among attorneys when disputes were kept professional. Increasingly savvy clients ask to be copied on every bit of correspondence or pleading and some attorneys cannot resist the opportunity to “impress” the client by hurling barbs at their opponent at every opportunity. The lawyer receiving the javelin must make a choice: hurling an equally offensive missive back or deflecting the spear and moving towards a resolution of the actual issue. The former choice prolongs the litigation, while the latter is simply no fun. Here older lawyers seem to excel as the instinct to turn the other cheek is much weaker than a good old-fashioned punch in the nose. It must be nurtured over years of practice. One might expect that women lawyers, often referred to as the gentler sex, would be the favorites to win. These people would be wrong. Female lawyers are every bit as capable of aggressive mischief as their male counterparts.

The petard hoist. This is one of the most popular events of the lawyer Olympics and frankly, one of my favorites. It typically happens when a lawyer opposes a continuance, only to need a continuance later himself. Or when a lawyer is being obstructionist and refuses to answer simple discovery which later becomes the linchpin of her case. Buddhist and Hindu lawyers do the worst at this event as they understand karma the best. Older lawyers dominate this event, surprisingly. Smart young lawyers avoid this event, but there are plenty of contestants. Older lawyers who participate are often taken out of the games, frequently by a stress induced health condition.

Three card monte. Early planners of the lawyer’s Olympics argued that this simple game should not be part of such a stately competition. In the namesake game, a con man took money from a hapless gamer who tried to select the Queen from three cards which are moved rapidly. Early lawyer Olympic planners had no concept of the modern lawyer’s life as this is exactly what we must do. Competitors must constantly keep their eye on a moving target, interspersed between other identical moving targets, and pick a winner. Sometimes winning — picking the right client — is a losing proposition with the field full of jokers. Other times, the game is fixed with bad facts or bad jurors. Sometimes even winning can be stolen away by misstep.
Watching Michael Phelps swim for his 412th medal pales next to the excitement of watching suited lawyers struggle on behalf of clients. Or perhaps the heat has finally gotten to me.


Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Spencer Farris is the founding partner of The S.E. Farris Law Firm in St. Louis, Missouri. Comments or criticisms about this column may be sent to this newspaper or directly to the Levison Group via e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.
© 2012 Under Analysis L.L.C.