The Curmudgeon's Guide To Practicing Law

Saturday, April 1, 2006 - 00:00

Reviewed by Robert L. Duncan, Deputy Publisher, The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel

Mark Herrmann, a partner in the Cleveland office of Jones Day, has written an amusing - and extremely informative - compilation of the rules of the road for newly-minted associates at a major law firm, including, more importantly, some of the things to be avoided in pursuit of survival and success. The curmudgeon of the title is a litigation partner of some experience and standing at the firm with a limited tolerance for fools, and while we are told in the Foreword that Mr. Herrmann is neither cantankerous nor disagreeable, it is clear that he has personal experience of much that appears in these pages. While addressed to the new associate in a law firm setting, the book constitutes a considerable repository of common sense and wisdom for a wider audience, including law firm partners, general counsel and the senior members of a corporate legal department, in fact anyone who has ever supervised others.

Mr. Herrmann's first chapter deals with how to write and covers some of the basic rules of form and style. This is pretty straightforward. It is also a subject that a surprising number of young law graduates need to address. This reviewer never ceases to be amazed at the poor writing skills of many law firm associates and at the Proust-like convolutions of those who do possess some writing ability.

The Chapter entitled "How To Fail As An Associate" includes several real gems: "When you hand me a memo and I immediately find myself heading to the library to reread the cases you have discussed, our relationship is beyond salvation." And, best of all: "When you work with me, you can make yourself valuable or you can make yourself irrelevant. If I send you a draft brief and you do not comment on it, I will not send you the next draft." with the result that the associate will fail to create an internal market for his or her services and die a slow death - excellent advice to any young person beginning a professional career in an organizational setting.

Some of what Mr. Herrmann has to say is directed to the new litigation associate, and the sections dealing with discovery, depositions, oral argument, and the like are both entertaining and valuable for that segment of his readers. Dealing appropriately with a secretary - the author's term, and he tends to skewer terminology that is either pretentious or politically correct - is one of those things that no one tells you may be the making or breaking of a career, and it is something that everyone needs to understand. If the reader comes away from this book with nothing else, the idea of treating his secretary - or administrative assistant - the way he would like to be treated if similarly placed is worth every penny of its price.

The chapter entitled "The Curmudgeon's Law Dictionary" is a clever and pointed look at the way the profession uses words to advance a variety of agendas, e.g. Business Judgment Rule: A rule of law that allows directors to escape liability for corporate disasters, so long as the disasters were carefully planned from the start and did not benefit the directors personally . Or, Internal Revenue Code: What the Ten Commandments would look like after tax lawyers got through trying to find loopholes in them. The author also strays into social commentary with wry observations such as, Judges, appointed: A judicial system designed to thwart the will of the people , which is only topped by, Judges, elected: A judicial system designed to respond to people's current whims.

The chapter on 21st century business etiquette is an amusing and, again, valuable look at what is an irritating state of affairs, certainly for those of Mr. Herrmann's readers who have attained a certain age. The wonders of technology have had the effect of opening the flood gates to a tidal wave of incivility. This reviewer was once, as a passenger on a train from New York to Philadelphia, subjected to a 90-minute cell phone argument between a fellow passenger and his wife. The author covers meandering and overly familiar voice mail greetings; endless and beside-the-point voice mail messages; seemingly important e-mail messages which fail to convey any context or history; buzzing BlackBerries (and the behavior that inevitably ensues); and this reviewer's bte noire, atrocious cell phone conduct, including taking calls during a business meeting. The author concludes that showing off one's mastery of the wonders of technology is not career-enhancing, at least in certain circles.

The Curmudgeon's Guide To Practicing Law is a valuable contribution to a discussion that seldom takes place in print. While entertaining, the book makes some very serious points on how to go about dealing with people in an intense and competitive business environment, points that need to be understood by everyone and not merely the entry-level young people at whom it is ostensibly directed.

The Curmudgeon's Guide To Practicing Law is published by ABA Publishing and is available at the ABA Web Store, www.ababooks.org. Product Code: 5310356. Phone orders can be made by calling 1 (800) 285-2221. The price is $24.95 for members of the ABA Litigation Section and $34.95 for non-members. The student price is $19.95.

Mark Herrmann