Thursday, April 9, 2009



By : Mr. Herbert W. Hines, Esq., Equity Partner and Hiring Coordinator, Hiner, Butts, Shallowbottom & Hines LLP, a Fortune Law Firm Specializing in Banking Law

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see that it’s tough to get a job as a lawyer these days. Even Yalies and Harvard grads face a difficult road landing positions at coveted private firms. And with law school debt, new attorneys can’t afford to practice poverty law or be prosecutors. Either you make $100,000 a year or you default on your loans. Then your credit is ruined and you can’t even convince a landlord to rent you an apartment. You can’t even finance a Ford Focus to shlep to whatever burger-flipping job you wind up getting. To be blunt, it is a grim picture out there for young grads. It sure would be nice to get some bailout money. But law school grads are not a priority. Banks are more important. We don’t disagree: As lawyers who represent banks, we would much rather save banks than law students. Banks pay fees; law students don’t.

Still, law firms are not exactly doing well in this market, either. We’ve had to cut positions, reduce bonuses and trim expenses. Sometimes our midlevel partners don’t fly first-class anymore; they ride economy plus. Other times we ask co-counsel to split copy costs when photocopying service lists, briefs and settlement brochures. We never did that before. When the economy hurts, lawyers hurt, too. After all, we depend on fees. Fees are money. When people have less money to spend, fees are smaller. When we get fewer fees, we have less money. When we have less money, we are less happy. Plus we can’t pay people what we used to, or even give them jobs in the first place.

Our senior partners have nothing to worry about. It’s really the new associates, poor performers and tough-luck job hunters who face challenging times these days. Senior partners do not want to take pay cuts; why should they? They sacrificed weekends and family for twenty years. Do you think they want to cede their reward after sacrificing their adult lives to the firm? Of course not. Thus, to ensure that partners continue to receive their current salary and bonus levels, major law firms—including Hiner Butts—have resolved to hire fewer people and to fire non-producers. With less income than last year, this is the only way to maintain partner salary and bonuses. Think about it. If we kept hiring and paying fat-faced 25-year-old associates at a 1990s pace, we wouldn’t have enough money to keep paying O. Ted “Buddy Boy” Shallowbottom $995,000 per year. And Mr. Shallowbottom will not take a pay cut so some 24-year-old Indian Harvard grad named Rangamawalla can be an associate at Hiner Butts. It just ain’t happening.

In a tighter market, no one gets a job unless they really want it. It is not 1944. We are not the “Arsenal of Democracy” anymore; we have budgets to worry about. We don’t hire anyone who walks through the door. When money is scarce, only the best and brightest can work. True, this country rose to preeminence because everyone worked. But we’re on top now. Today, only the best work. The rest look for work and temp when they can. We need to be clear, however, when we say “only the best.” We do not want to give the impression that doing well in school makes you “the best,” nor should high academic performers comfortably assume that they can just waltz into an associate’s job at Hiner Butts. Being smart—or even brilliant—does not make you “the best.” Quite the contrary, in my experience as a hiring coordinator, smarty-pants intellectuals have proven the poorest lawyers at our firm. We are not looking for thinkers, philosophers or depressive recluses who pore over cases and ponder verbal intricacies in legal texts. We are looking for motivated, sprightly workers who are excited about billing cases. If you are truly intelligent, our work will probably bore and sicken you; that is why we don’t want you on our team. If it came between a pensive valedictorian and a go-get-‘em academic cellar dweller who speaks good English and doesn’t mind working 18 hours a night binding multi-colored briefs, we would take the cellar dweller every time. Because in legal practice, it is not about being smart; it is about billing time. Intelligence does nothing for the bottom line. You just need enough intelligence to write letters, read correspondence, speak on the phone, ask questions and manage a calendar. Beyond that, you can take your erudition and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine.

We do not want intelligent law school graduates. They get us nowhere and they cost a lot. Nonetheless, we do need replacement lawyers to keep our firm in top form. Our firm cannot maintain healthy client satisfaction levels without a minimum staff, and we constantly lose staff. Partners die and retire. Others betray the firm and run off for other opportunities, taking clients and valuable secrets with them. Associates suffer mental breakdowns. Some commit suicide or become alcoholics. We fire others. Others secretly raise families, devastating productivity levels. Put simply, we have attrition problems, just as any organization does. To combat attrition, we seek out qualified replacement attorneys. But we do not choose just anyone. If you are in the attorney job market and you want a job at a firm like Hiner Butts, what do you do? To answer that question, you must know what we want.

We want qualified replacement attorneys committed to maximum client satisfaction, firm financial goals and Hiner Butts’ legal mission: “To serve banks. No matter what they ask. All the time. Guaranteed. You Can ‘Bank’ On It™.” As mentioned, we do not want intelligent replacement attorneys. Rather, we want loyal, dedicated, hard-working attorneys with a capacity to work long hours. Still, we would disserve our clients if we did not ensure that all our legal professionals were not in some way “talented.” To that extent, Hiner Butts—like every major law firm—has adopted the “Talent Model®” for new attorney hires. We want our clients to know that their legal servants are talented. Talent is more valuable than intelligence. Talent means a lawyer can do things other lawyers can’t. It makes a lawyer unique and special.

So how do we measure “talent?” When law firms first began using the “Talent Model®” in the mid-1990s, they equated talent with law school grade point averages. Soon, they discovered to their horror that the best law school performers made the worst lawyers. Rather than diligently attending to deposition questions and scheduling orders, these ostensibly “talented” lawyers sat around reading international news and discussing political trends while drinking coffee at firm expense. They smugly thought that their law school grades would power them through day-to-day legal struggles. How wrong they were; and how wrong we were to think that smart people were “talented.”

Having learned our lesson, we looked for more traditional “talent” indicators. We began screening applicants for tap dancing ability, singing prowess, gymnastic skill and classic good looks. We especially found that magicians and shell-game shufflers made superb lawyers. In our view, lawyers with “special skills” made far better additions to the client service team than bookish academics. Both clients and judges love a good tap dance, magic show or gymnastic routine, for legal practice is akin to all these crafts. The “Talent Model®” helps us find talented lawyers, not smart ones. In recent years, we have successfully augmented our client service team with fire-eaters, hog-wrestlers, sushi chefs, tightrope walkers, rock climbers and snorkelers. These are talented people. They can do things other people can’t. That is what we want in our lawyers—talent. And our clients love it, too. Fire-eaters and sushi chefs win far more cases than any book-bound philosopher. After all, fire-eaters and sushi chefs get out there and “just do it.” They do not hang around and debate policy. Legal practice is not about policy. Legal practice is about performing as requested, including performing the impossible.

Our “Talent Model®” selects applicants who likely will perform well when requested. Recently, we hired an associate who can stand on his head for forty minutes without a break. His talent helped him win an important case against aggrieved mortgage buyers. Talented people can perform unique, arduous tasks for longer than anyone else without complaint. So can lawyers. That is why we insist on talent in all our young associates.

Do you want to work for a major law firm? If you do, how can you prepare for our rigorous interview process? Well, it is difficult to train yourself to be talented. Only you know whether you have a special ability. Can you swallow swords? Can you jump 40 feet without breaking your ankle? Can you hit a 3-pointer from ¾ court? Can you make the Ace of Hearts go from your left sleeve to your right sleeve without moving your hands? Think about what makes you special, and then think about whether you can use your special ability on demand. Are you talented? Only you know that. We can only advise you to brush up on your act before you come before our hiring committee. Our talent model will determine whether you are talented enough to make $100,000 per year. It will also determine whether you will suitably advance our firm’s client service mission. After all, some talented people may have talent, but their talent will not advance our firm’s mission. For example, we recently turned away a talented young Fordham graduate who could wash large windows in less than 30 seconds. Despite her talent, washing windows was not a talent relevant to client service in the banking sector. Nonetheless, we are quite certain that a lesser-known firm will appreciate her talents.

In sum, we encourage you to think outside the box as you continue your job search. Do not despair; you will get a job. But you need to reevaluate your approach. For years, you learned that study and grades would get you a job. We emphatically say to you now: They will not. Your natural talent will get you a job, as well as a dogged desire to please clients and your superiors at the firm. We advise you to look within. Cultivate your talents. In the law business, no one really cares about your legal knowledge, anyway. We want performance, charm and victory, not long-winded rhetoric and theoretical gobbledygook. Start thinking like a performer, not a scholar. Performers are exciting. They bring down the house with dazzling feats. Scholars are boring. They put people to sleep.

We want performers, not scholars. Be a performer. What makes you dazzling? Can you do it on demand? Can you do it everyday? All day? All night? With a smile? If you can, step right up. We are always scouting for top-notch new talent. You might be the next big thing in the legal world. You might be the next all-Star. You might be the next show-stopper. Sure, times might be tight. But that never stopped stars from wowing audiences. Everyone loves a winner, and everyone loves a good show. It’s showtime. What have you got to show us?

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