“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed — for lack of a better word — is good.
Greed is right.
Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.
Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
– Gordon Gekko
Since I qualified as a lawyer and moved to work at (what I thought was) a good firm, the feedback I have received has been quite strange to me.
I am repeatedly told by senior colleagues – my boss included – that, on the positive side, I am a “brilliant” lawyer. It’s when we get to the supposed negatives that it all gets a bit odd.
One client we have is very important to the firm commercially, but their instructing officers can be very unreasonable. They are a typical example of incompetent staff feeling overwhelmed and blaming the lawyers for “delays” in progressing their cases. Many of these comments come from one particularly bolshy officer who gives uninvited opinions on her colleagues’ cases when she doesn’t know the full context. When I explain this to my boss, he agrees with me.
The weird thing is that this is still framed by my boss in our catch-up sessions as “negative” feedback despite his acknowledgement that the client is wrong. When we say “the customer is always right” we do so to appease them for commercial reasons and we don’t necessarily agree with them behind closed doors. So if you acknowledge that the client is being unreasonable then why are you still talking as if it’s my fault?
One of the senior partners at my firm is a very bad lawyer who has caused real problems for the firm by over-promising to clients and leaving others (including me) to clean up the mess. So they recently had this idea that I could work more closely with him so that we could have my legal skills combined with his client care skills to keep the client happy with things like “turnaround time”.
I winced when this last comment was made. I thought we had established that the client who complained was being unreasonable… so why the implication that I lack “client care” skills?
I have noticed during my time at this firm that the best lawyers are not always the ones who get to the top – or at least not the ones who ascend the quickest. There is a school of thought which says that legal knowledge is “a given”, therefore it’s really about client care – but when you see people like the partner I described above that doesn’t wash.
If you are a solicitor or legal exec then your role is really part lawyer and part salesperson. For some reason I really don’t understand, clients apparently place a premium on having a positive attitude, having a beer with you and chatting about stupid bullshit like where they went on holiday this year or who won what ball sport at the weekend. I just can’t fathom why this is the case. Do you choose a doctor based on whether you can “have a laugh” with them? Do you hire a plumber to fix your boiler or to have a pint and talk about football?
Although I am a classical liberal or perhaps even libertarian in my political outlook and staunchly pro-capitalism, this is one aspect that really makes me pause for thought. If I’m a “brilliant lawyer” but clients don’t like me because my email communication style is “too formal” or I’m not interested in making small talk with them, then can it really be said that they are acting in their rational self-interest (as libertarianism teaches us that people will do) by hiring an inferior lawyer who supports the same football team as them?
I often criticise feminism for reasons I won’t ramble on about here. But I recall one “rebuttal” parody video on YouTube in which the conversation went like this:
CONSERVATIVE: “If companies can get away with paying women less, why don’t they just hire all-female workforces and undercut their competitors?”
FEMINIST: “They are too sexist to try that.”
CONSERVATIVE: “Right, so you think company bosses care less about making money and more about hanging out with dudes in the office?”
This is the “greed is good” argument repackaged. I don’t agree on the specific example of the pay gap, but I don’t think you can assume that people’s rational self-interest – or even their greed – will always lead them to look past their irrational prejudices. It’s conceivable that Bob the middle-manager is sexist (these people do exist and I don’t deny it), complacent about his own status within the company and short-sighted enough to hire someone based on stupid factors like wanting to surround himself with blokes he can talk to about football.
Now, the libertarian rebuttal to this point would be that Bob is shooting himself (and the company) in the foot in the long term, and companies that are more focused on the bottom line will outperform his. I agree. But it doesn’t provide an immediate remedy to the person who has been unjustly turned down for a job or denied a promotion. I honestly don’t know that there is a perfect solution here as the alternative is that we lawyers mark our own homework, but it’s definitely a problem.
The plain fact of the matter is that Joe Public is not always completely rational, so providing what he wants is not simply a case of appealing to his commercial sensibilities and providing a quality service. There is a large element of pandering to his flaws, and I see that a lot in my line of work. You make money by providing what people want, not what you think they should want. The partner I referred to above epitomises the problem, but he is hardly the only one to advocate massaging advice lest the client go elsewhere. And to be fair, he has a point; sometimes clients are used to lawyers getting away with blagging things, so they don’t understand what the fuss is about if you try to get things done properly. The result is that I often feel like I can’t do what I trained to do and provide accurate legal advice; rather, I have to cavalierly promise to deliver exactly what they’re asking for and assume everything will be fine, otherwise they will accuse me of being “obstructive”. Surely they understand that I’m not telling them what I tell them for a laugh? Surely they get that I’m just being realistic? I became a lawyer because I am good at logical analysis, not to chat about your holiday plans or massage my advice because you are too thick to understand it or too emotionally immature to listen to something you don’t want to hear.
I’ve often struggled with the fact that, in the real world, people just aren’t as reasonable, intelligent or nice as you want them to be. Trying to persuade them to change their stance using reason is a fool’s errand; they won’t be interested. They will simply dig their heels in further and tell you to either accept them as they are or walk away. When you are studying or working as a self-employed advocate, results are all that really matter. So when you find someone to be unreasonable you can just choose not to mix with them. But when you have to work as part of a team and you have to appeal to customers who are often unreasonable and even downright thick then you don’t have that option anymore. You are outside the bubble. You are forced to accommodate other people’s flaws whilst smiling and nodding. And that’s the dark side of social skills. I resent the implication that I’m the one at fault for refusing to engage in that.