Friday, October 09, 2009

Fear lurks behind closed doors

When I was practicing with a firm the thing that scared me most were closed doors.

Not all closed doors, of course. I would not have been alarmed by a closed bathroom door.

My phobia was really directed at the doors of the managing partners' offices.

I don't really know how well the two managing partners of my old firm got along. They got along well enough for many years to make a lot of money together. That doesn't mean they were truly friends. But when they got together behind closed doors, somehow, they negotiated a united front... and usually brought that front down upon someone else. Sometimes that someone was me; sometimes it was someone else.

By the time they hauled someone in they had decided exactly what to do, and how to do it, and even what to say. They had anticipated every possible defense, or excuse, and, what's more, having spent (literally) four or five hours in conference, they were undoubtedly sick and tired of talking about it. Thus, the person called in could never discuss anything with them. He (or she) could only receive the blows.

Was my time (i.e., hours billed) off last month? Perhaps it was because I had to cut my time to accommodate the (entirely imaginary) supervisory time that one of the managing partners (and it was always the same one) had written up. He would have to approve the bill... and, let me tell you, he was very sensitive about allowing his own time to be cut. He'd write up time for evaluating discovery requests... but no discovery had been served. I used to call him on this, from time to time, suggesting (nicely, I thought) that he might have written his time to the wrong file number? But this was never received well. So I learned. His fake hour to review discovery that never existed would be rewritten to replace my real hour reviewing the investigators' report. Thus, my hours suffered -- but the client was not cheated and our business was protected.

Of course, in all their extensive deliberations leading up to the moment when I would be called in, the one partner's penchant for writing up imaginary time was never discussed.

Only now, many years later, do I realize that the other managing partner knew, or at least suspected what was going on. Indeed, I have some satisfaction in the fact that, a couple of years after I left, the managing partner who specialized in creative billing was forced out. It seems no one after me took the same pains to fix his entries -- and a client audit eventually caught him out. He had to be tossed overboard to preserve the business.

But, at the time, knowing that the two of them were in there -- it really didn't matter which of their offices was used -- for two hours, three hours, four hours -- working each other up, was nearly impossible to take. I dreaded the moment that someone would be called in -- because I never knew if it was going to be me -- and if it was me, I never could anticipate what the angle of attack would be.

Misdirection was routine. I might be summoned in -- but not (at least ostensibly) about something that I had done, or failed to do, but rather to "talk" about the new associate. By the time I would be summoned, it had been agreed between them that the new associate was the personification of sloth and stupidity. Any attempted defense would be interpreted as an endorsement of sloth and stupidity both. But if I agreed? Well, clearly, then, I had defaulted in my supervisory role, in either failing to train the new person properly, failing to call this loathsome situation to their attention, or in failing to take prompt corrective action myself. I learned it was best to be silent; if I made little or no response they would soon run out of pre-agreed things to say.

And I also learned to hate closed doors.

Even now, today, here at the Undisclosed Location, where I work on my own, closed doors make me uncomfortable. I share this space with other solos but we seldom share any business. And, often, just to be polite, one of them will close his door while on the phone, for example.

And even though the situation is entirely different, and not in the least threatening, it still creeps me out.


Dave said...

Worse, when the Managing Partner comes into your office ---- and closes the door. Made me uncomfortable even when it was good news - you've been elected partner, you're on a meaningful committee (versus planning the spring retreat or coordinating clerk interviews). I haven't thought of that stuff in years.

Shelby said...

agree with what Dave said .. or even still worse.. when your phone rings and it's the main conference room and you're asked to 'come up here for a minute.'

things that make my skin crawl.

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

the client was not cheated? was the partner's rate the same as yours? i did billing for a law firm for years and yes, it is very creative!

smiles, bee

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Closed ddors always make one wonder what is going on.

The Curmudgeon said...

Dave, I never minded much when they invaded my space. Even though it wasn't really my space, it felt like it, somehow. Getting summoned into their space, though, that was the tough one. I'll agree with Shelby, though, that getting called into the conference room cold is also *ahem* chilling.

Bee, the partners' rates were the same as mine -- in fact, everybody's rates were the same. Whenever a client balked we said we'd raise the partner rates....