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Guilt, Lunch, and Other Firm Concerns

From Anonymous Lawyer:

Someone accepted an offer today. Next summer's class is starting to shape up. I hate the people who take forever to decide, and make us send them cookies, or brownies, or t-shirts. Those things shouldn't make a difference.

I've yet to settle on a firm. All I can say is, I really hope none of the firms I'm looking at do send brownies, t-shirts, or whatever. AL's right: it shouldn't make a difference in the decision, and for most students it probably doesn't. What it does make a difference in is the amount of guilt one feels calling up the firm to say you took a different offer.

Throughout this interview season, I've visited most of my firms in the morning, which means that after meeting some associates and partners I'm generally assigned a young associate to accompany to lunch. Don't get me wrong--these have been very, very enjoyable lunches, and I've genuinely enjoyed meeting the people I've interviewed with. But particularly at some of the larger firms, the cost of the lunch has dwarfed my standard weekly lunch budget by factors of four or five.

I can understand the purposes of the lunch interview. On the one hand, the interviewee is more likely to trust an associate's view of the firm if given outside of the building. The associate can make certain that the interviewee doesn't drink from the finger-bowl, pick his nose at the table, or otherwise display humiliating tendencies in public. And of course, there are some secondary benefits: the associate gets to have a nice lunch on the firm, and the interviewee can (presumably) look forward to doing one or two such lunches in the future over the course of their employment.

None of this, however, requires a very expensive lunch. Certainly three figures for a table of two would be far more than necessary. And indeed, too nice a lunch brings its own worries: this is, after all, their client's money they're spending, and their associates time (both in what's spent with me, and what the associate will have to bill to make up the difference in profits). We lawyers are fairly exchangeable commodities, and shouldn't justify that much investment in capture. Besides, if you're about to sell your soul to someone, do you really want them to have spent that much on it before they take possession of the goods?

Anyway, I guess I just wanted to say to the Anonymous Lawyer that the emotion cuts both ways. He doesn't like those of us who are weighing our options "making us send brownies." Some of us feel guilty for receiving them. All in all, I wonder if the brownie companies aren't making out like bandits in this equation.


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Wow, Tony comes out anti-brownie. Sadly, and as is usual in this sort of thing, the presumption of irrationality extends to both sides. The entire interview process---this is actually true of nearly all interviews, in any field of work---is exceedingly irrational and unlikely to yield reliable information on the value of the prospective employee. In fact almost none of the recruitment process does a very good job of distinguishing high-quality candidates from terrible choices, and very little other than an interviewer's gut appraisal has much bearing on the choice. This is why one hears so much, in the 1L cocktail parties and the interview season, of different "firm culture" and "fit" as between lawyers and firms. Far wiser souls than I have written more convincingly on the larger problem: That you can't tell a good lawyer from a bad one, even after you've worked with them for years. I'd provide the cite, but I don't have free Lexis anymore, but it's in the California law review (or at least a title with "california" in it) and the author's name is... Wilkins, or Wilkinson, or Wilkens, or something. Title concerns the proportion of black lawyers in big firms. Anyway, worth a brief look, at least.
TtP: I wasn't aware that "anti-brownie" was a stance one could have. For what it's worth, though, I'm not a big chocolate fan, so even if I were irrational, it wouldn't help me.
My guess is that the posh lunches are a relic of the "L.A. Law"/1980s view that being a law firm lawyer was glamorous. It's surprising that firms haven't entirely figured out what you have -- namely, that being taken out to lunch and courted is more important than where you go. One summer, when I was a mid-level associate, I invited a summer associate out to lunch (on the firm, of course), and when I suggested chiliburgers at Tommy's ($2.50 or so for the burger, $1.50 for chili fries), he was more than happy to get a taste of authentic L.A. good. We ate standing up.
"their clients' money?" I'm not so sure about that. Presumably these expenses are part of the firms' overhead--which is not generally considered to be the property of the clients of a business. If prices are not competitive, a business should cut its overhead. If a business wants greater profit, it has reason to cut its overhead. But bear in mind the bizarre psychology under which people assume that you get what you pay for and if you pay for a firm whose lawyers dress well, dine well, and have nice letterhead, you're getting good lawyers. And bear in mind that some level of "pleasantness" is necessary for any business--one can't just cut overhead as if it's always a gain so to do. There may be any number of objections to the fancy lunches (mine were not all that fancy, I have to say), but "spending clients' money" strikes me as an odd one. (Unless it's your impression that some client was being billed for the lunch, which would presumably be inappropriate.)

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