The secret language of law firms

The published version of this November 2008 Last Word (Lexpert) was 300 words shorter. But this is my portfolio, and I choose to be as self-indulgent as possible. Enjoy.

Happy Valentine's Day...

Last Word: The secret language of law firms

Lexpert, November 2008

By Marzena Czarnecka

“It’s impossible,” he avers. “I don’t care how many lawyers you talked to, sweetheart”—for the record, if you want me to never call you again, call me sweetheart, sweetie or girlie, better yet, buttercup—see, there is a foolproof way to get off my radar—“I don’t care many lawyers or law firms you talked to, sweetheart, you can’t have a grasp of our city’s legal landscape. Impossible. Because I know that every firm will tell you what we tell you. Namely, that we are the best firm in the city. Or one of the top two. Or some other such line. And how will you ever tell the difference?”

I’m so glad you asked. I’ve actually been dying to tell someone for years. You’re partly right. No one says, “We scrape the bottom of the second-tier. It all started when Joe was called to the bench and left a leadership and strategic void, and we have been struggling to move on for years with extremely limited success. If anything, we’ve fallen into the top of the third tier, and if there’s anything worse than being the bottom of the second tier, it’s being the top of the third. I mean, third tier. Jeezus. Put that on our business cards, why don’t we. Really, the best thing you can say about us is, well, that we’ve been treading water for the last five years and it’s a testament to the perseverance and performance of our remaining handful of top partners that we haven’t drowned yet. But really, it’s just a matter of time. I hear recruiters are sniffing around Tom and Jane and when they go, that will be the end.”

And it’s not that I have to do an awful lot of “reading into” what they do say—or choose not to say. “We don’t feel comfortable publicizing the names of our clients” doesn’t necessarily mean “I can’t come up with a single client name that you or your readership is likely to recognize.” It might just mean the lawyer’s too lazy to pick up the telephone—or Blackberry—and ask for permission. Hey, it totally could. Do not impute darkest motives to your colleagues. I rarely do. Lazy and incompetent, rather than deceitful and malicious. That’s what I choose to think, and it makes the world a better place.

Similarly, “Five years ago, we did the first-ever such-and-such deal” does not necessarily mean “And we’ve been coasting on our laurels ever since” or “I can’t think of anything more recent to brag about because the sky has fallen, deal flow has dried up, and we are all going to die, die, die!” They could just be really, really proud of that thing five years ago. Hey, six years ago, I had my first child, and it remains a braggable, milestoney event. I get it, totally. I mean, for the most part, I’ve stopped telling people about it in graphic detail, but if they bring it up, and if they seem really interested, well, why not relive it once again? Besides, when analyzing a legal market, it’s good to have historic background. Absolutely. I care what you were doing five years ago. Nobody else does, but that’s beside the point.

Anyway, back to what lawyers and law firms say about themselves and what it tells those of us who listen. Let’s pick on the Calgary market, because it’s home, and its legal denizens either exceedingly tolerant of me or so angry and alienated I cannot possibly tick them off any further. I talk to, say, 14 firms in the Calgary market. Eight or 10 of them say, without reservation, “The top three firms in Calgary are still the incumbent independents—Bennett Jones, Macleod Dixon and Burnet Duckworth & Palmer,” and perhaps add something like “but the national law firms are gaining ground” or maybe even mention Blake Cassels & Graydon or the like by name. (Bennett Jones says it a bit differently: “We’re the top firm in the city, followed by, um, I guess Macleod Dixon and BD&P, and then, um…” And Macleod Dixon says, “The two top firms in the city are us and BJs, and then BD&P.” BD&P says, “Have you seen John Brussa’s tie today? Har har har. Firms, schmirms. Let’s talk about poker. Or politics. I met Jim Flanagan the other day and spilled a plate of barbequed beef on his suit, the nasty bum. Hey, have you heard the one about the Toronto lawyer who…”) Two or three say, “The top four law firms in the city are BJs, Macleod Dixon, BD&P and us.” (One of them is right, the others deluded. But, you know, delusions keep people happy while they flounder.) One says, “Well, it depends how you define top. What practice areas are we talking about? If we’re talking about this area, then we’re it—that’s where we play. We’re definitely one of the top areas in this city there. And frankly, we haven’t seen BJs or Macleod Dixon in that space much.” The next one says pretty much the same thing, with minor variations that may or may not include a swipe at the previous one. The next one…

You get the picture, right? No matter: I do.

I think you were about to call me “sweetheart” or “buttercup”? I undertake to never call you again, just lay off the sarcastic terms of endearment, OK? I don’t call you honey or darling, just to tick you off, and I promise not to say you’re scraping the top of the third tier even though you actually said it yourself when the tape was rolling. You really did. You did. Yes, you did. Baby—you did. Because, see, I really listen. I hear everything you tell me. And most of what you don’t tell me. And I believe most of it. Why not? Lying is damn hard work, and dearly held delusions almost as convincing as the truth.

Marzena Czarnecka lives in and annoys lawyers from the lovely city of Calgary, and not even her husband gets to call her sweetheart.

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