August 31, 2017

You had to pretend a lot

       This will probably be the last entry, as I've moved on. But I did want to share these remaining thoughts, in case someone went to the trouble of finding this blog to learn of another's experiences.

       I remember the first day I started at O'Melveny. I was excited to be there. The marble floors in the lobby glimmered, the wood furniture seemed warm and comfortable, the view from the 18th floor was beautiful, and the people seemed interesting. Fast forward five years and I disliked walking into the building. The industrial carpeting, the modular particleboard furniture, the boring and detached view though a window that needed to be cleaned, and everyone seemed to cope by being passive aggressive, bullies or just beaten down. It's interesting how you can view the exact same thing so differently. I spent some time trying to understand why my perspective changed. Sure, these experiences played a big role, but there was another minor thing. 

       It's no secret that O'Melveny works on a certain type of case. The Exxon Valdez oil spill. Enron. Trump University. Drug manufacturers accused of causing terrible injuries or birth defects. Mass torts, toxic torts and catastrophic torts. Healthcare fraud. Sexual assault, sexual harassment and employment discrimination. Workers deprived of overtime pay. Mass foreclosures. Banks defrauding customers, discriminating against customers or nickel-and-diming customers . . . I could go on and on. Some firms don't focus on such cases, but a niche of firms do. And that's fine; companies deserve a legal defense and it would be unethical to deprive them of one. When practicing law, I follow something I read early on -- lawyers aren't there to win but to help the court find the answer, whatever it is. 

       But what distinguished O'Melveny from this niche of firms was all the doth-protest-too-much marketing.

       You might have a dozen attorneys spend an hour packing lunch bags or backpacks, with a camera flashing. The same work could have been done by donating just one hour of one attorney's billing rate and hiring people at $30 an hour, but there's no photo opportunity in that. And you wouldn't dare make such a suggestion. You could get fired for that.
       Or I would hear its pro bono director David Lash talk about his impact on the firm's rankings and image. He brought in paper-pushing busy work to boost pro bono hours. For example, I spent a day at an inner-city church. Members of the community were told we would help them with traffic tickets, and there was a line outside of the church. They probably thought we would do real work. Lots of attorneys do traffic work, and they can get results. Perhaps we would also help them with other problems. But we were told to only enter their information into a public DMV website, to see if their ticket was eligible for government-granted amnesty. If it was, we wouldn't even follow up for them; we would tell them who to call and where to mail the check. And the pro bono director didn't do any of this worthless work. He just sat there watching; "managing" I guess. The people leaving that church must have thought we were a**holes for wasting their time. No, we were just accumulating pro bono hours to game rankings. (And by the way, if you're given such an assignment, I recommend you bring money so that you can give something of value; gas money, anything. I still remember the disappointed faces. They came there with hope, commuting to the church and waiting in line for hours for someone to help them. If I could have given each person I saw just $10, they might have left happy.) 

       Or he might bring in matters that got a lawyer argument time before an appeals court, or a press release. He also wrote a lot of articles -- really top-grade marketing. And the firm paid him well for all this. Rumor was he lived in a five million dollar house in Beverly Hills. I wondered how a person who was previously a director at a public interest organization, and who was now the head of a pro bono department . . . did he really suck that much money out of these programs? The rewards of giving. Or who knows; maybe he got the funds from somewhere else.

       The marketing pervaded the culture. I recall speaking with a partner about a class action in which plaintiffs sought meager compensation for an injury. She described herself as a "white knight" against the wicked plaintiff's lawyer and I agreed, while secretly wondering if she was crazy. But sometimes the truth seeped through. There was this one plaintiff's firm who partners disparaged and mocked. But when he filed a series of cases, the jubilation went from the partner's meeting to the lunch room to the halls. You could feel them salivating over the billable hours. On that day the plaintiff's lawyer was Santa Claus.  

       Or there was the firm's "commitment to public service," in which attorneys moved in and out of government positions. It sounds benign, until a very senior attorney tells you it's done so clients think you have special access to government officials. Or until a new entrant from the government flat out tells you they joined O'Melveny to "monetize" their government experience. I have never worked in government so I don't know if such favoritism or insider access exists. Hopefully this was all just marketing for gullible clients or self-delusion on the part of these attorneys.

       How do you deal with the cognitive dissonance? On the one hand, your job is to desperately search for any technically to deprive victims of compensation -- all the while funding some partner's greed. On the other hand, you have to listen to rhetoric about doing good. On the one hand, attorneys openly view government work as a means to profit. On the other hand, you have to pretend the firm has a commitment to public service. On the one hand, you work in the most white-privileged environment I had ever seen; one with a retaliatory culture that even forces new hires to sign away their rights. On the other hand, you have to pretend the firm has a commitment to diversity. I could handle the work and the prejudice. Companies deserve a legal defense and there are lots of racist places in the country. But constant disingenuousness grows tiresome. Fyodor was right.
omelveny, omm, pro bono, David Lash

o'melveny & myers