Everything I Wanted in a Law Firm…

BY KARL CHANG

A paraphrase:

Me: So, tell me, what distinguishes [large firm recently implicated in tax shelter scandal with KPMG] from the other big firms in Chicago? I don’t have you all pegged yet.

Partner: Well, around town, we’re sort of known as the “collegial” law firm.

Me: Really? Collegial? I’ve never heard that one before … What does that mean?

Partner: Oh, we’re sort of the informal ones. We’re more cooperative. We work hard, but we do so in a friendlier way.

Me: Oh. … But wait, couldn’t that sometimes breach some sort of ethical obligation to your clients, if you’re too chummy with the other side?

Partner: Oh no, I mean that we’re friendly with one another, not the other side.

Me: So, at the other law firms, the lawyers aren’t friendly with one another?

What do law students want in a law firm?

This question was posed by a group of large law firms without “Wachtell” in their name to consultants in the late Middle Ages. The answers they came up with plague the OCI process to this very day.

First, and foremost, law students “preferreth a “collegial” law firm.” Second, law students “preferreth a law firm wherein they receiveth a lot of responsibility early on, as much, nay sometimes even a smidgen bit more, than they can handle.” Third, law students “preferreth a law firm with quality work, of such quality that the other firms never receiveth. Yea verily, they ne’er see-eth such deals in the shire!)”

Since the publication of this study, at least 60 – 64% of all times spent in OCI interviews have involved the law firm interviewer attempting to convince the law student of one of these tenets. But, an astounding 78% of that time has been focused on the first prong, collegiality.

Not to go all Scalia or Safire on you, the dictionary says that collegiality means “characterized by or having authority vested equally among colleagues.” Or it means “of or resembling or typical of a college or college students;” [A shout out to Breyer: in Zimbabwe, “collegial” means one party rule under the wise, heroic anti-colonialist leadership of Robert Mugabe.]

So, if you want get technical or “accurate” in your use of the English language, the movie Animal House is collegial. The US Senate is collegial. The cardinals who elect the pope are collegial; until he’s elected, at which point, really, not so much. See, Petrine Doctrine.

Jesus: Peter, you rock; you’re totally infallible. I’m putting you in charge.

Peter: But, am I infallible because I’m last, or am I last because I’m infallible?

Jesus: What? Stop that.

Peter: Sorry.

Jesus: Hey you other guys, why don’t you form a collegial body to elect Peter’s infallible successor?

Unfortunately, other than Quinn Emmanuel, no large law firm can plausibly be described as “animal house” collegial. So, we’re left to wrestle with the second definition: “characterized by or having authority vested equally among colleagues.”

After George Orwell’s revolutionary treatise on law firm efficiency, “Animal Firm,” notable for its insights that “some partners are more equal than others” and “3000 billable hours good, 1500 billable hours bad,” no law firm has chosen to vest authority equally among colleagues.

You could say that a colleague was someone who had equal authority, and thus at every level of authority (partner, non-equity partner, 1st year associate, 2nd year associate, etc…) an organization was collegial. However this would be tautological and sophistic insofar as it stripped the word “collegial” of any meaning and made every organization collegial.

The remaining interpretation is that while large law firms do not vest authority equally among colleagues, they might have the character of a body that did. I think this is what some thought when they first used this word in this context. The message here: we may not be equal, but we treat everyone that way. This is how “collegial” segues into friendly, informal, or cooperative. Calling everyone by their first name, open door policies, ridiculously low stated billable hours requirements which you better be exceeding; these are a few of my collegial things. Right?

Wrong. The respect one accords colleagues is not pleasantries and niceties. It is a professional respect. It means you value their opinions equal to your own and you listen to theirs as much as yours is heard. When you enter a profession inexperienced, you won’t be treated as a colleague of someone who’s worked his life in the field, nor should you be.

So how about we not use the word collegial to describe environments which lack kegs, cardinals, or senators from the great state of ____? Instead, if you want to say your firm is a friendly, informal place, say it’s a friendly, informal place. Or better yet, say that you like to keep it real. Not in the Dave Chappelle-Keeping It Real Goes Wrong-skit sense, which seems to imply retributive violence, but in the “we aren’t posers” sense. Cause nobody likes a poser.

Karl Chang, 3L, is from Houston, TX.

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