Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The large law firm and the ant hill compared

You're looking at an ant colony here, the queen ant being tended by her faithful, anonymous, fungible worker ants.

A partner in a large law firm is much like a queen ant. Or, depending on the annual bonuses, a queen termite.

It's not a pretty sight -- but it's efficient as all get out.

The queen in the termite mound -- or ant colony -- or beehive -- has only one function: Lay eggs. But, then, there's usually only one queen in a termite mound, etc.

There can be lots of partners in a law firm. Partners in large law firms have only two functions: Bill time or generate business. The really big partners generate business; the lesser partners bill time. Either way, they must be surrounded by faithful, anonymous and largely fungible minions whose sole purpose in life is to maximize the productivity of their assigned partner.

The partner in a large law firm never has to clear a paper jam from a printer or copier. In a really large firm, the partners may not know where the copiers are located. A large firm partner never spends an afternoon filing. S/he has people who write checks, look up cases, locate witnesses -- whatever the partner needs to keep productive, and whenever the partner needs it.

Another key difference between the ant hill and the large law firm is that, in a law firm, some of the workers may someday become partners themselves. Not the clerical help, of course, but the associates, with their fancy Ivy League degrees. They may start out legal life as props, something that the business-generating queen, er, partner, can brag on to prospective clients ("we just hired the editor of the Yale Law Journal; we turned the editor of the Harvard Law Review down flat"). However, with sheer determination, tireless struggle, the occasional sacrifice of principle (sure, we can justify ignoring those oil rig safety standards), incessant brown-nosing and false bonhomie, at least a few of the associates can some day rise to the top of the anthill.

On the other hand, in the anthill, the young and fresh worker ants tend the queen and the next generation of workers. Then, when they're older, they join foraging parties. When the survivors of these adventures get too old for that, they become the nest's guardians, rushing out to absorb the attack of any invading predator. It is difficult for a worker ant to die of old age. Of course, ulcers and heart attacks claim a lot of law firm support personnel as well; others may be fired for failing to adequately serve or protect their partner.

The National Geographic website mentions that there is a third class of honeybee, the drone. "Several hundred drones live in each hive during the spring and summer, but they are expelled for the winter months when the hive goes into a lean survival mode." This is similar to the way that associates and non-equity partners -- and the least productive partners -- are expelled from law firms whenever economic conditions warrant.

Social insects, like honeybees, are considered more 'advanced' than their solitary cousins. There are bees, wasps, and even ants who do not live in colonies, but who try and do everything themselves. In other words, solo practitioners. Like me.

I remember when Blackberries first burst on the techno-scene. All the big firm partners had them -- increased efficiency, you know -- and each email received from the device proudly bore the legend, "Sent From My Blackberry."

Of course, if the message was spelled correctly and punctuated, chances are the message was typed by a worker ant.

The big firms were behind the efiling movement that has swept the federal courts -- and is gathering momentum in the state courts as well. And why not? The partners in the big firms did nothing different from what they'd done before. They waved their hands (billing 4.5 hours for the task) and minions crafted a brief. That the brief was filed differently than heretofore would not have registered on the big firm partner -- he or she had never filed anything before either.

The problem is, I can change an ink cartridge -- even in the postage meter -- and solve paper jams deep within the copier. Given enough time (we know, now, it takes a month) I can figure out why my office Internet died. I know where all the courthouses are and how to file papers in each. But, sadly, these hard-won skills are not valued.

Gosh, I wish I had minions.


Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

i used to be a minion...

smiles, bee

Dave said...

Face it, we never played well with others and didn't trust the minions we had access to. Hence....