Under Analysis: Remembering, I remember how it used to be

Mark Levison, The Levison Group

I remember interviewing at the law firm where I got my first job. The firm fancied itself elite and had lots of national and powerful local clients. The office was full of expensive art. The founder told me, “[W]hen clients walk into this office, the first thing I want them to think is ‘This is going to cost me a lot of money.’” The first-year Christmas party was lavish, and the bonuses handed out at the party, along with other nice gifts, were beyond anything I had expected. I didn’t know much about practicing law then, but I knew things were looking good.

Of course, for our remuneration, we associates worked hard, many of us billing way over 2,000 hours a year. There were lots of late nights and a group of “star” associates thought our hard work was the reason the firm was so successful. We had no idea that the pressures of obtaining and keeping clients was a lot tougher than the work we were doing. We didn’t understand all the surprises that were coming. Nor did we know that despite our present and future hard work and dedication to clients, eventually we would somehow find ways to lose motions, cases and even clients for reasons that weren’t always clear.

Now, several law firms later for most of us, when I cross paths with my fellow yesteryear associates, they look really old, the seasons of lessons taught by the perils of the courtroom, etched into their brows. I, of course, do not look old. Nonetheless, I too have learned to expect and deal with the unexpected when it comes to litigation, and the lessons keep on coming. Just recently, I had two significant matters set in June: one in the beginning and one towards the end. Both were arbitrations. Other than securities cases, there weren’t many arbitrations in that first firm. Today, arbitration clauses are demanded by a lot of big companies, so modern practice is arbiter-filled. I don’t particularly like that, but as they say these days, “It is what it is.”

A few weeks before the early June arbitration was to begin, the opponent’s lead litigator — a partner in one of our country’s larger firms — called and said a case she thought was going to settle was going to trial. It would last eight weeks and she needed a continuance in her matter with me. Not only was it exceedingly rare to encounter lead female litigators when I joined that first firm, there weren’t many women trial lawyers at all. I wasn’t happy with her request, since my client is the plaintiff, and my team had worked hard and we were ready to go.

Of course, we had to continue the case, and since it was a three-arbitrator panel, scheduling was difficult and we weren’t able to get it reset until December. When I talked to her a week or so later she told me her case had just settled. It is what it is.

So, I concentrated on preparing for the late June arbitration. My Houston-based expert was flying into town on a Friday morning, to spend the weekend preparing with our team, before we all traveled to Chicago for the scheduled six-day arbitration beginning on Monday. He called Thursday night and said he had run over his foot with a power washer earlier in the week. It had become infected and his wife was insisting he see the doctor Friday morning rather than me. I told him my client already paid for his “non-refundable” flight, that a lot of people had scheduled for, and relied upon, the arbitration dates, and that he should get on the plane. I assured him I could arrange for medical attention here in town. He said he would see what he could do. The next morning I called him. He said he wasn’t coming. We had a rather intense conversation about that. In the end, he told me his relationship with his wife was more important than his relationship with me. I had no rebuttal for that, other than to tell him I needed a doctor’s excuse to get a continuance. Later the doctor faxed me a fill in the blank form titled “School or Work Excuse.” My expert was not allowed to fly for a week. Well, another disappointment. We are re-set for the very end of October.

I have a different case set for early September — this one actually is a jury trial — so I did what seemed reasonable. I scheduled a vacation. My wife Cheryl and I always wanted to go to Zanzibar, and she had been shouldering a lot of extra work, beyond her job, since I had been working so many nights to prepare for the two June cases. It seemed like the least I could do.

When I was a younger lawyer with kids on the way, followed by kids to raise and educate, I didn’t have that kind of flexibility – or money. But as I noted in that first firm, this law thing is seeming to work out. Hard work has been rewarding, and a little luck now and then has been good too. Of course, lots of things have changed since those halcyon days of economic growth and dramatic law firm expansion.
Very few law firms these days decorate to impress upon their clients how high their bills are going to be. It may not be as easy for entry level lawyers these days. Bonuses seldom surprise, and many associates are happy just to have a job. Still, if they work very hard for their clients, and try to keep their relationships with their fellow lawyers in perspective — it’s a profession, not a wrestling match — after a few grueling years have passed, they just may be as content as me.

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Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column. Mark Levison is a member of the law firm Lashly & Baer. You can reach the Levison Group in care of this paper or by e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.
© 2015 Under Analysis L.L.C.
 

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