Friday, May 18, 2007

The Burqa'd Lunch

I just came back from work, and have been standing for several minutes on my balcony, savouring the feeling of time passing unnoticed. In front of me, the river’s been flowing angrily on, driven by heavy winds.


I spent the afternoon at my desk, working on something – a report, perhaps, or a minor contract. It hardly matters. Although I was sitting there, performing the tasks set in front of me, deriving as I always do a quiet satisfaction from chopping and reordering phrases, from putting this word just here, that one there, unlocking the meaning that had been waiting behind the individual characters, something was just not there. It wasn’t my mind – I’ve been pretty focused this afternoon. It was my sense of self – soul? - just absent, somehow. Which it had been since the social-endurance-test-celebratory-lunch.

We were supposed to be celebrating closing a deal a while back – post about that coming sometime - and as is customary the deal partners had arranged a team lunch, ostensibly to thank us all for our hard work. Actually I’m being unfair, they probably meant it: we’d turned up willing and cheerful over the weekend, had been nice to the bankers and clients, and generally made ourselves useful and available and Got Stuff Done. The problem was that after the flurry, people kept pulling out of the lunch. First, one of the partners flew back to his home office yesterday. Then another one headed off this morning. The mid-level associate had better things to do. The trainee had a disclosure exercise or something. So in the end it was down to one partner, one senior associate, and one me. Lucky me. Lucky them.

It’s not that the company was bad: they are both warm, charming and interesting people. I’m not, but I can smile, nod and listen well enough to fake a couple of the above moderately convincingly. It’s just that there’s three totally different levels, three entirely incompatible ways of looking at the world, trying to find something to talk about – all within the context of work. He is my boss. She is his boss. It’s like a dinner-party version of that Tarantino film where they’re all standing around holding guns at each other’s heads. No-one wants to make a false move, say the wrong thing, because we all need to end this meal with our professional working relationships intact. We’re three different ages. We’re three different people. The only threads of common interest are work (which is pretty tenuous since yes, we’ve got three different perspectives on that too) and the usual yuppie BS-generator stuff – click the button to make a sentence using one or more of the following elements: Restaurants, Shops, House Prices, Holidays, The Weather (optional, depending on the British presence round the table). Nothing that could possibly be contentious. Nothing remotely human. Things looked like they might improve when the partner ordered a bottle of wine – a very good one, as it happens – but we’re all too good at this; our masks barely slipped. Here or there you’d see a glimpse into something real – him telling an indiscreet joke, her remembering when she used to wait tables as a student – but then the sense of amour proprewould kick back in and the conversation would change topics. Have you worked on any interesting deals recently? Really? It would be great to work with you more. There’s this amazing little restaurant in LA. I got this ring in Singapore, do you like it?

There’s no fighting this kind of situation. No rebellion. No flippancy. No imperfection. Just the grinding monotony of safe, safe conversations you’ve had a dozen times before, that get staler each time. The waitress brings the dessert menus. Would you like anything? Just a coffee, she says. Just a coffee, he says. I look at him. I look at her. I look at the waitress. And I order a triple ice cream with chocolate sauce.

Live free or die!

Monday, May 7, 2007

Not ALL publicity...

So Field Fisher Waterhouse has opened an office in Second Life. I'm inclined to agree with Nearlylegal - "Please, no. It's just wrong." Although at least they didn't sacrifice a goat.

God only knows where they're going with this. Possibly the idea is to attract more IT-literate juniors than the usual crop of Law and History grads, although you'd have thought that having (i) the intellectual curiosity and (ii) the time to lead a 'second' life (actually a third. Your second life is that brief period between leaving the office and coming back in, and is mostly spent asleep) is a cast-iron guarantee that someone isn't cut out for eighteen hour days spent proofing changes into an SPA. That said, the insensitivity to mockery that any lawyer with a second life avatar presumably possesses could be handy in client meetings.

But on balance it's more likely that this is designed to raise the firm's profile, and this is where FFW have run slap-bang into a very basic problem.

Lawyers make terrible marketers - see for example this. To make things worse, lawyers don't always make the best choices in staffing their marketing departments. Given the choice between some dull old marketing buffer with experience working for clients and a bunch of cheap twentysomethings from Oz on a gap year, law firms all seem to jump the same way when it comes to staffing. Better hope that your clients like sport and drinking, because that's what most of your marketing events are going to be! It's perhaps not surprising that this is one area where US firms tend to perform better, although they aren't totally immune to bias either - the assumption isn't that you'll love rugby and beer, it's that in the few hours outside work you can grab each week, what you REALLY want to do is to discuss your job in excruciating detail with bright, keen and very earnest people who will ask difficult questions about it (this also applies to any firm which runs seminars outside normal business hours). It's perhaps not surprising that someone who thinks this is a good way of getting business also thinks that buying a digital representation of a glass-and-concrete office is a good way of spending their marketing budget. But they've missed their market - FFW would probably get more views if they rented space on the playboy site, and it would in all likelihood be cheaper too. Come to think of it, now that Olswang's founder has departed for pastures new, there's probably space for a suitably unorthodox law firm to run a stunt like that, in which case you read it here first.

But perhaps the problem's deeper than dodgy staffing. After all, what are we really selling as lawyers - a better chance at winning a future dispute? Transaction-process-management? Common sense advice? Different clients want different things from their lawyers, which I imagine makes it a bit tricker to offer them something appealing to part them from their coins. So it is that 'marketing' too often is a pathetic attempt to bribe clients with their own money. Guess what - they know we're doing it.

It seems the world is still waiting for a law firm that can offer innovative or personalised events to clients and in-house counsel with the gift of work. In the meantime, back to mass leafleting clients with invitations to our summer drinks reception/Wimbledon-peripheral-court package. Let's hope we get a few more clients turning up than last year. The guy from Glaxo looked sort of lonely surrounded by a pack of partners.