So, when I was applying to law school, I became aware that there was a perception among traditionally-aged law students that older law students can be, frankly, pains in the ass. Specifically, that older law students have a bad habit of sticking their hand up in class and saying, "Well, in MY experience as a [fill in whatever they did before law school," and going on to blather at great length about something that's not really relevant or of interest to the rest of the students in the class.
Now, the older students I knew when I was a traditionally-aged student in grad school didn't do this, and I can only think of one older [than me] student in law school who did this, once, in a 1L Contracts class. But that is a perception floating around out there.
Unfortunately, I think I've just found the grain of truth in that stereotype.
A 2010 U Penn grad, who started working at a law firm last September and was fired last May, has sued the firm, seeking $77 million in damages, alleging that the firm misrepresented itself and violated his employment agreement. He asserts that he accepted employment with this firm because it represented itself as eschewing artificial hierarchy, rewarding initiative and ambition, and valuing creativity and independent thinking. When he displayed initiative, ambition, independent thinking, and creativity, however, he says, the firm fired him.
Central, or at least important, to his argument is the fact that law is his second career, and that he was a successful software engineer and entrepreneur before going to law school. In other words, it's kind of a "In MY experience before law school" argument.
Here are some of the allegations in the plaintiff's complaint [sorry, this is kind of long; but it's a 50 pp. complaint, so… you can read the whole thing here]:
From 1997 to 2007 Plaintiff [name] had a distinguished career as a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Within five years he held the title of Director of Technology, managing a team of engineers. His career culminated when he founded and was the creative force behind an internet company whose impact on online entertainment services can still be felt today.
After conquering Silicon Valley, he decided to take his talents in a new direction, and in 2007 began law school at the University of Pennsylvania Law School….
You know, it's just lovely that he conquered Silicon Valley before giong to law school. And I'm sure his previous work experience is more directly applicable to his lawyering than my previous work experience will be to mine. Nonetheless, he was still a brand-new associate. (He was fired after 8 months, so you have to think the issues the complaint raises began pretty quickly.)
Plaintiff worked at this firm during the summer after his 2L year, and then after graduation. It's probably worth noting that this is one of those tremendous New York firms; there were close to 300 attorneys in the office.
Upon arrival at the firm, [the plaintiff] immediately began doing superlative work. During his time at [the firm], he repeatedly found ways to improve the efficiency of the work, or even the outcome of cases….
From the beginning [of his employment] he did superlative work, and never received a complaint or negative comment about it….
So, no complaints or negative comments = superlative work? Good to know.
In virtually every assignment [plaintiff] was given, he went above and beyond the call of duty, pointing out better ways to proceed, inefficiencies, observations, and ways to get a better result for [Firm] clients.
Specifically, one document review case [plaintiff] was assigned to involved software engineering, his field of expertise. He e-mailed the two partners on the case to inform them that he possessed this knowledge that would be helpful to them in understanding the technology and the expert witnesses. Neither one ever responded.
Now, on the one hand, yes, this is probably inefficient on the part of the firm. And yet, on the other hand, are we really surprised?
For this same project, the software the Firm had chosen for the review of electronic documents was extremely slow and inefficient. The software was web-based, and as a result it was extremely slow, taking up to several seconds to display each page. (The documents were served over the internet, with all the delays that typically involves, rather than internally over the firm’s internal network.) [Plaintiff] explained to the managing associate and the other associates on the team how to review the documents with a software package that was internal to [the Firm] system. Using the internal software large documents could be reviewed up to 600% faster (3 minutes versus 20) than using the web-based program.
None of the associates but [plaintiff] switched to the internal software, costing the client hundreds or thousands of dollars extra in unnecessary hourly billing.
Document review is a cash cow for [the Firm]. On this particular project, any procedure [plaintiff] suggested to improve efficiency was eschewed….
Again, yes, inefficient. But doesn't it seem a little presumptuous for an associate who's been at the firm for mere months to start suggesting ways to completely revamp entrenched systems?
Another document-review–related project [plaintiff] was assigned to involved creating a redaction log for redactions in a document production for the Firm’s client. The senior associate managing the project had already gone through the documents and redacted the privileged passages. [Plaintiff]’s assignment, then, was to guess why each document had been redacted and write down in a log his guess as to the reason for the redaction. The senior associate then went through the documents a third time to make sure that [plaintiff]’s guesses as to his reasons for redaction were correct, resulting in three times the billing that was necessary.
When [plaintiff] suggested that if the senior associate would just make note of the reason for each redaction as he made it, they could save two or three times the effort, and thus save the client money, the senior associate told [plaintiff] that it was not his job to take notes.
Now, maybe it should be the senior associate's job to take notes; maybe it would be more efficient. Again, I'm not trying to defend the firm's methods. But if your suggestions are getting responses like "It's not my job to take notes," perhaps that should tell you something about how to approach the people you're working for?
This same senior associate wanted [plaintiff] to go through the 50,000 documents one at a time, manually, looking for redactions. This task would have taken days. Instead [plaintiff] went to the litigation support team, had them run a script, and found the 62 redacted documents in about 30 minutes….
Okay, the plaintiff's actions here seem reasonable. Then again, he doesn't allege any negative consequences from these actions, either.
The plaintiff also got into trouble for telling a senior associate that he didn't think he had time to take on the senior associate's document review project (and to be fair, from his account, it was perfectly reasonable for him to do this). It's unclear whether this happened before or after the suggestions referred to above, but the conflict with the senior associate took place in December (note that the plaintiff started work in September). Because of the conflict, the plaintiff got called into a partner's office.
In the other guest chair was a man wearing a suit that [plaintiff] had never seen before (“John Doe”). He stayed for the entire meeting, listening as [the partner] reprimanded [plaintiff]. [The partner] never introduced him to [plaintiff] nor acknowledged his presence, and the man never introduced himself.
The man’s unexplained presence was intimidating and distressing to [plaintiff]. It is outside all bounds of civility to subject an employee to a dressing-down while a stranger watches….
Now, the plaintiff's right, that this is a bit weird and doubtless distressing. But "outside all bounds of civility"? Really? (The plaintiff also mentions that no one told him that this senior associate was on the partner track. How would that have made a difference in the situation?)
[The Firm] also encouraged attorneys to seek out work by contacting partners on their own.
Having worked for [the Firm] for six months, [plaintiff] had assessed the situation. He saw that he would be of far more value to [the Firm] if he was given more responsibility.
[Plaintiff] composed the following e-mail to that effect (the “Partner E-mail”):
"I am writing to see if you have any small cases I could manage for you. It has become clear that the only limiting factor on how much value I am to a case is how much responsibility I am given: the more responsibility I am given, the better the outcome. I am in kind of an uncomfortable position at the firm because although I am a “first year,” I have 15 years business and real world experience, as much as many senior associates. When I first got here I did not know what to expect, but after working here for several months now it has become clear that I have as much experience and ability as an associate many years my senior, as much skill writing, and a superior legal mind to most I have met. [Emphasis added.]
"There is a natural skepticism that someone without a lot of formal legal apprenticeship can do the job of a senior associate, but the truth is much of the learning and experience an associate acquires is parallel to any business experience—negotiating contracts, negotiating settlements, writing, analysis. If you will allow me to manage some cases for you I can guarantee without reservation that you will get a better result than you get now with many of the official resources you have available to you."
He was subsequently fired.
Now, my reaction to this whole thing probably says as much about me as it does about the plaintiff or anyone else involved – namely, I'm kind of a sheep, and a respecter-of-hierarchy, and, doubtless, I would be useless as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. It's also true that there's an awful lot of "if you want something, go out and make it happen" kind of rhetoric floating around the legal profession that would suggest that initiative and ambition really are good things, that will be rewarded.
But seriously. Really? You've worked at a firm for six months and you think it's appropriate to claim that you have as much experience and ability as associates many years your senior, and that you have a superior legal mind to most you've met? Really? This just sounds like someone pulling the "In MY experience before law school" move.
Now, it's true that that experience probably is valuable and relevant to a lot of his lawyering. (Though the firm itself is one of those giants that does a ton of everything, so it's not clear exactly how his practice was connected to his prior experience, if it was.) And it's also probably true that there were a lot of inefficencies at the firm where he was worked, that adhering to hierarchies for the sake of doing so is stupid, and that firms should be willing and eager to take advantage of an associate's relevant expertise acquired before law school.
I guess I look at it this way, though. Say someone has worked as an assistant professor at a school for six months. Even if that person has a fifteen-year career in something relevant to their job (say, they worked as a journalist for fifteen years, and are now teaching journalism), does it sound like a good idea for them to regularly offer suggestions about what needs to be changed in the way the department is currently run?
The plaintiff's point, of course, is that the firm represented itself as different from all those other, stuffy firms that adhere to traditional hierarchies, and don't want to hear their associates' brilliant ideas. So therefore he thought this behavior would be rewarded. And on the one hand, yeah, that's a problem. On the other hand: what law firm is going to say that they adhere to traditional hierarchies just for the sake of it, and that they don't reward initiative or ambition or independent thought or creative thinking? Doesn't there seem to be some degree of puffery going on here?
(I also just realized that the plaintiff has sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress. This tort requires that the defendant's behavior be extreme and outrageous – in some jurisdictions, that's defined as behavior which would cause a reasonable person to exclaim, "Outrageous!", which always cracks me up as a ridiculously circular definition. In any case, he claims that the following behaviors are extreme and outrageous: the senior associate complaining to the partner about him; the presence of the unnamed man during his meeting with the partner; and the partner's criticisms of his attitude and comments suggesting his employment was at risk. Aren't those pretty much par for the course when an employment relationship goes bad? Such actions could be extreme and outrageous, of course, but the unpleasantness inherent to employer/employee conflicts is not in itself extreme and outrageous.)
Anyway, while the plaintiff is clearly very intelligent (and his complaint is well-written, which is relatively uncommon for pro se complaints!), the whole thing seems pretty ridiculous to me. It doesn't even merit as much discussion as I've given here – except that as a second-career J.D., I feel compelled to distinguish myself from this guy, I guess. Certainly someone who has had a previous career should be proud of their accomplishments and make use of them where they provide an advantage in the new career. It's just seems unlikely to me that such an advantage would extend to bucking the chain of command in BigLaw, no matter how superior a legal mind you possess.