Vacations and the Myth of Irreplaceability

Mr. 162 Columns, Lawyer 5 Comments

Even for a boutique lawyer, there’s no way to ever get 100% away from work. Even if the other lawyers in my firm had the time or inclination to help me out—which they don’t—there’s a lot of “getting up to speed” in a case that is required to make effective arguments. And by “getting up to speed,” I mean none of my files are sufficiently notated for another associate to jump right in. Most of the big-picture strategy is locked away in mi cabeza. I’m generally not playing a team sport.

Answering to (primarily) only myself is the double-edged sword of SmallLaw. When things don’t move forward without me, it sometimes provides the power to call a time out and have an extended visit with my personal life. Usually, it means I’m more tied-down than ever. So I need to take advantage of my limited resources to creatively find free time.

Life is a negotiation, and negotiations run differently depending on who’s calling the shots. At a boutique, there is always one attorney in charge of a case. That person decides strategy, applies tactics to that strategy and establishes his/her own rapport with the other side. Asking another lawyer to “fill in” for the point person on a case is like asking Salvador Dali to finish the upper right-hand corner of a Monet: Not a good idea. They’re both brilliant, both do amazing work, but their styles are, well, incompatible.

I actually have to hand it to the BIGs on this point—you lemmings are as close to fungible as lawyers come.

“Write an objective memo!”
“Proofread this document!”
“Check these citations!”

There is only so much delegation that can happen in a boutique without the work product suffering. Small firms run in such a way that they cannot take advantage of assigning out menial tasks like the BIGs do so well.

So here’s how a boutique associate can guarantee himself or herself a job: Focus on duplicating your boss’s style.

As long as the boss feels like he is without substitute yet believes he has an efficient-enough, dependant-enough laborer at his shingle to fill in the gaps in his absence, he is free to roam the Earth, and everyone wins.  The secret is to make him believe that you’re a tad responsible (though obviously not as much as he is) for the status quo he enjoys.

Boutique partners are convinced that, like their associates, they can never really go on vacation. Their unique style and approach to problems will be too sorely missed if they go on hiatus.  But, if they can “groom” an associate to parrot out the same response to the standard 85% of problems that repeat over and over in their practice, they can escape with a BlackBerry and only have to field questions on the other 15% of less-routine business.

The skill of mimicking your boss is not the objective: There is no test to see if you pass. Instead, it’s about being proactive enough while the boss is around to earn enough trust.  Make him hear himself in you. If he screams on the phone and makes opposing counsel’s life miserable, you’ve got to scream on the phone and make opposing counsel’s life miserable. If he likes his declarations to be full of arguments, make sure your declarations are full of arguments.

If the boss believes that replacing you would take years of housebreaking someone new, he will put up with a lot of crap to ensure that doesn’t happen. BIG associates, on the other hand, aspire to be the best cog in the wheel: Write the most objective memo, spell check, etc. They’re aspiring to be replicable.

I’m finally seen as the well-trained Doberman who can sufficiently guard the house while the owner’s away.  Knowing I stand guard in a style befitting his own is how he feels comfortable enough to book his big summer getaway and get gone.  The reason I mime all day when the boss is in the office is so I can enjoy the type of flexibility I have when the big guy isn’t next door.

Named partner has been in Asia whoring his way through the Burmese jungle for the past three weeks. It’s amazing how you can bark orders, send off incendiary emails and add five exclamation points to every sentence just as easily there as you can here. While he’s been away, I’ve been asking opposing counsel for extensions left and right. I mean, what’s the point of busting ass to meet deadlines if the partners aren’t here to see it?

Hearings: Putting them off. Client meetings: As few as necessary.  Yesterday I arrived at work at 10:15 AM uninspired. Yes, that’s right: Uninspired. So, I took a two-hour lunch. I had some errands to run. I got sushi, which is supposed to be “brain food.” But it didn’t help. So, I left at 4:15 and went to a movie theater that serves beer and watched The Hangover. (Funny, but a very simple plot.)

See, unlike a BIG, the boss doesn’t really review the billing records here. So, anytime I want credit for kicking ass and taking names, I need to make sure he’s within earshot.

That’s the joy of a boutique: When he goes on vacation, I go on vacation.

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  • Anonymous

    From what I read, it really makes little difference whether you work at BIGlaw or in a “boutique” firm like this.  When you’re an a-wipe, you can work anywhere. 
    But when I graduated from law school, the term “boutique” was not used for the type of law firm firm described by the dipstick writing hereinabove.  In my day, we just called it a crappy little law firm that would take any case that came through the door, mostly on a contingency basis.  BIGlaw wasn’t much better, except that generally their clients paid the bills and you could always count on an army of pasty-faced associates to learn on the client’s dime.

  • Alan

    the boutique/small crap lawfirm debate aside, the kid’s got chutzpa. seems some people were made to be solo (scam)artists

  • Anonymous

    it certainly looks like there are some pros to boutiques!!

  • Gatty

    oh the JOY of a boutique….

  • Caddy Compson

    I was disappointed by this article. A partner’s “myth of irreplaceability” can be the difference between a so-so job and a terrible one. Partners who need to foster the myth will steal credit, denigrate you to the client and generally do anything possible to justify their phony baloney positions. It may be the most poisonous partner character trait, and that’s saying something.