The Subtle Art of the Party

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Houston plaintiffs lawyer Mark Lanier doesn’t mince words: He throws a Christmas party every year. Call it a holiday party if you wish to be more inclusive, but it’s his Christmas party. And mindful of those old jokes about Texas braggadocio, he does it up real big.

That probably means even more folks this December than the 7,000 guests who came last year to his 25-acre spread just outside of town. The entertainment is always big-ticket. Reba McEntire performs this year. Over the past 12 years there were Diana Ross; Bill Cosby; The Dixie Chicks; Crosby, Stills & Nash; Johnny Cash; Barry Manilow and others.

“We were taught growing up that if you’re going to do something, do it right,” says Lanier. “And giving a party is no exception.”

There will be a huge mix of judges and politicians from around the state roaming the grounds and sampling the famous County Line BBQ, wondering whether this year Santa will make his entrance via Harley or helicopter–Lanier hasn’t used a whirlybird yet, but he wants to.

There will also be plenty of defense lawyers, whom La­nier knows best because he’s always up against them. And all the neighbors are invited, thus alleviating hurt feelings or complaints about parking or shuttle buses from satellite lots. Oh, by the way, no alcohol is served. “So we don’t have to monitor that,” says Lanier. “And that’s probably something else that makes us stand out.”

In some ways Lanier’s party is a throwback, and in others he’s ahead of the curve. December’s holiday office parties in law firms have changed a lot over the past generation, especially over the last five years or so. Lavish gifts, swank venues and free-flowing liquor haven’t gone entirely by the wayside, but there’s a noticeable reserve. And families–including children–often join the mix now.

But somebody somewhere will probably suffer, or thoroughly enjoy, a loss of inhibition and “drop trou” at a holiday party this month, and some senior partner will remark about a young associate’s pulchritude–to his or her face and in much-too-graphic detail. Still, many office parties are sobering up, not just by slowing the flow of alcohol but also by trimming the sheer expense and extravagance of it all. Office parties, if done wrong or overdone, can be hassles and counterproductive. If done right, everyone survives, literally and politically, to do it again next year.

“December seems to be so packed with activities that it had almost become another job responsibility, or burden, rather than a welcome opportunity to get together, which is what we wanted it to be,” says Keith B. Simmons, managing partner of 175-lawyer Bass, Berry & Sims of Nashville, Tenn.

Over the past three years, Simmons’ firm has been trying on different versions of the holiday party like it was buying new shoes. That included rescheduling the big to-do to January or Feb­ruary and giving it a Mardi Gras theme, thus avoiding the December crush. It also made it easier for people from satellite offices to come to the mother ship. Bass Berry did away with separate lawyer-only and all-staff parties, but went back to them because folks wanted it that way.

And this year the lawyer-only party was moved to just after Labor Day, at the end of a weeklong orientation for new associates. After a big, centralized cocktail party, groups of partners and associates, old and new, headed for dinner parties at various partners’ homes. They were carefully selected to ensure a mix crossing age, office and departmental lines.

“There are few things I do as managing partner that someone doesn’t have derogatory comments about,” says Simmons. “But this was rave reviews all the way around.” While the money and the emphasis have been moved here and there, the firm still shuts down work at noon on Christmas Eve, and the executive director dons a Santa suit to hand out gifts to the children of lawyers and staff at a buffet lunch in the office. It seems that Santa, Christmas trees and caroling have remained fixtures at some firms, despite most having dropped the word “Christmas” and gone with “holiday” party. After all, even Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has enjoyed getting everyone to join in singing Christmas carols.

A group of law clerks once petitioned Rehnquist to end such exclusionary “Christianizing” of the workplace, according to former clerk Edward Lazarus in his book Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall and Future of the Supreme Court (Penguin Books, 1998). The chief met with a few of them and ended it quickly by saying, “What’s your problem? It’s Christmas.”

Order in the Firm

Whatever religious underpinnings there might be, the image of the traditional December law office holiday party of the not too distant past carries a lot of earthy baggage. It’s one thing to let one’s hair down a bit, but quite another to fully drop one’s pants, or whatever other questionable behavior occurs when the id parts company with the superego at the open bar. Some wilder party memories can linger for years.

It is fairly common knowledge in one law firm that a decade or so ago a young associate, at the urging of a partner, dropped his pants on the dance floor at a party in Washington, D.C. The associate survived and went on later to the Justice Department. But no one at the firm wants to confirm or talk about the incident.

The managing partner of one of the nation’s largest law firms, responding to an e-mail query for this story, inadvertently copied a reporter on his note to the firm’s human resources director. It read, “I’m inclined not to be mentioned in this type of article at all–even in the ‘look how good they finally are’ category.”

The human resources director then called, insisting on anonymity for herself and the firm, to say they have cut back considerably on the largesse and liquor of the 1980s. “We put in controls in the early ’90s to tone things way down and there’s been no reason to change it,” she said. “People get used to it and new ones come to the firm and figure this was the way it was. And this is typical–I speak to my peers at other firms about it.”

Tales of Excess

The evolution of one large law firm’s holiday party is probably somewhat typical, even if its excesses might rival Animal House for earthy exuberance.

“Back when people really drank to excess–which seemed to start tapering off in the 1980s–it wasn’t the firm party that was the problem, it was the ‘after-party’ thrown by a few of the ‘wilder’ partners,” says one party-goer who left the firm three years ago, and asked that neither he nor the firm be named.

The party was usually held on Thursdays, with the expectation that everyone would stop at a reasonable level of intoxication so they could work the next day.

“Didn’t happen in the early days,” he says. “Friday was usually pretty much lost for a lot of folks.”

One year, the story goes, a senior partner stood on a chair, blew a whistle and gave a lesson to a number of lawyers, staff and certain clients in “gator­ing,” a kind of dance in which participants fall to the floor and move about as if having seizures.

One of the partners behind the after-party eventually switched firms and the other died of a heart attack, and, along with the times, the parties have become much more tame. But then, all’s fair in fun at the office party, and brief forays across social boundaries are forgiven the next day. Not!

“It’s like e-mail,” says Marilyn Manning, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based psychologist specializing in workplace issues. “Once you send it out you can’t delete it. Alcohol does alter most people’s behavior and lessens inhibitors. And no matter what they say, we all keep score.”

That would mean lawyers–members of a risk-averse profession–should know better. “But law firms are no different than other workplaces,” according to Sandra R. McCandless, an employment lawyer in San Francisco. “You frequently see people in companies and firms at mid-level and above who you would expect to know what the legal issues are today. But they don’t.”

Offsite parties, away from the office, can be particularly dangerous as far as drinking alcohol and becoming overly familiar are concerned, McCandless says. “Though I do think people are drinking less at the parties these days,” she adds.

“Not only are law firms not immune, I’m not so sure that professionals aren’t perhaps worse than other people,” says Kerry E. Notestine, a Houston employment lawyer. “People work hard and a lot of times they’ll meet at holiday parties and get involved. If you’re working 60 hours a week, you don’t have a lot of time to meet other people. You end up dating people you work with.”

Which can really get knotty, says Manning, the psychol­ogist. “In my experience mediating workplace conflicts where there is hostility or unprofessional conduct, more than half of them had been close friends and socialized, maybe intimately,” she says. “You have to be very careful about social relationships.”

One way of bringing a bit of order to the law office holiday party, and perhaps avoiding some of the pitfalls, is the increasingly popular theme par­ty. There might still be booze working on familiar people in unfamiliar settings, but there also is structure.

The Chicago office of Houston’s Jenkens & Gilchrist, for instance, had an “Oscar Night” theme for its holiday party last year and it is return­ing this month. During the year, various staff and lawyers are nominated in a number of categories, ranging from “best dressed” to “messiest office.”

The 50-lawyer, 80-staffer law office takes over a city restaurant for cocktails and dinner, with chocolate Oscar statuettes and star-shaped chocolates on the tables. And there’s a five-foot Oscar statue for grin-and-grip snapshots.

“We wanted to add more entertainment to our party and it’s caught on,” says Rose Fauster, the firm’s Midwest marketing manager. “All year long now, people have been submitting possible Oscar categories.”

The office managing shareholder emcees the awards ceremony, which includes dramatic background music typical of the Oscars, and Powerpoint presentations showing the nominees.

Theme parties also help to break up the law office caste system long enough to bring some holiday cohesion. Oth­erwise, gatherings of both lawyers and staff tend to break down into cliques and clusters of those sim­ilarly situated.

“The second-class system can come to the fore blatantly at the dreaded Christmas party,” says Virginia L. Smith, who was a litigator for years and then became a law firm librarian, aka “staffer.” She recently became director of library services at a large North Carolina firm.

“I’ve seen it so many times over the years with lawyers on one side of the room talking and staff on the other,” Smith says. “Unless the attorney marries his secretary, and then she goes and stands with the attorneys.”

One danger area with theme parties, as well as at old-fashioned mixers, is humor. Such is the nature of humor that it often is at someone else’s expense. And critical thinkers such as lawyers can be hypercritical in their humor.

“In a relaxed social setting with alcohol, humor can be interpreted correctly or misinterpreted as a putdown or condescending,” says psychologist Manning. “That can be psychological harassment, and people are more sensitive to that and more likely to come forward and complain than they would have been five years ago.” For safety’s sake in all that mixing and gab, Manning offers some eat-your-vegetables advice.

“It’s a good time to focus on other people and try to find out what their strengths are, using the opportunity when everyone is more relaxed to pay sincere compliments for the little things people do that we usually don’t talk about,” Manning says. That would be fitting for the true holiday spirit.

Terry Carter is a senior writer for the ABA Journal.

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