What this senior counsel learned from 'the solar-powered lawyer'
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I sowed each seed in my garden with equal care and affection. I took great pains to ensure optimal growing conditions: watering them, providing the prescribed fertilizer and periodically extracting weeds.
Yet only three out of the 20 seeds in the white packet sprouted into cucumber plants. Those that did grow were remarkable, rapidly climbing up the stakes I had installed to offer them an available spine.
The trio tilted their leaves toward the sun, and star-shaped yellow flowers burst out of their stems—the precursors of the cucumbers that soon began to form.
I found it astonishing that each morning the fruit had grown so rapidly from the previous day. Sure, there were challenges as the rains of spring yielded to the heat of summer, voracious insects and the eventual appearance of dreaded powdery mildew.
However, I acquired knowledge that enabled me to manage these afflictions. By the end of the summer, my family enjoyed a robust bounty from what we named, “The Cucumber Collective,” due to the way the three plants ultimately grew together in a large, tangled mass.
My experiment with growing cucumbers triggered a thought process about what I had always regarded as the monumental failure of my legal career: my inability to efficiently hire and retain lawyers.
Over three decades, I have had a hand in hiring more than twice the number of lawyers as in my cucumber seed packet, but my yield of lawyers who have stayed for the long haul is similarly a very low percentage.
This is not uncommon. Many factors replicate the inexorable powdery mildew, inhibiting a successful yield of lawyers who remain at a corporate law firm. Some lawyers bristle at the rigid structure and rules; others cannot handle a sufficient case volume; and those from a government background sometimes wilt under billable hour targets and client demands. Other factors—such as marrying an out-of-state spouse, compensation or work-life balance—present challenges in the retention of those who do produce.
The failures can be spectacular. The one I remember most clearly happened during the tail end of the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. My former firm was on a hiring binge after landing clients that generated high case volumes.
I thought good fortune had smiled upon our team. A lawyer applied who had unusually appealing qualifications: years of experience handling cases of the proper variety, strong writing samples, solid references and demonstrated commitment.
We flew him in from Arizona to interview. Let’s call him “Herb” and also change the details to ensure that he resembles no lawyer alive or dead or on the spectrum in between. My wife and I arranged a dinner afterward. He was 15 minutes late when we picked him up at the entrance of his hotel. My wife said that was a bad sign. But he charmed us both at dinner.
All the interviewers issued positive reviews. He ably answered technical questions. He exhibited excitement about playing a more client-facing role and moving to the Midwest.
He arrived in Ohio during the snows of December. I provided training related to his first case, plus case examples. He professed eagerness to get started. I provided a deadline to deliver the case drafts.
The deadline came and went, and neither Herb nor the first draft of his initial assignment materialized. I found him in his office and inquired. He expressed concern about drafting a top-quality case and needed more time. I adjusted the deadline. That deadline came and went, and so did the one we set after that. The client reached out for an update. Other partners noted the lack of numbers on Herb’s first monthly “scorecard.”
I confronted Herb and asked him what I could do to help. He said he was reworking the case, as it did not meet his standards. I noted that no case is perfect, and he did not want to be like Holden Caulfield, who never completed his paper on the Egyptians in The Catcher in the Rye. He grinned and nodded.
This went on and on. I tried various tactics—taking him to lunch, stopping by daily and sharing articles on lawyer productivity. I assigned additional cases, despite his failure to complete the first, to force the action.
Finally, under escalating complaints from the client and my department head, I marched into his office on a Monday morning. I shut the door and told him that clients were angry, management was upset, and we had hired him because we have too much work.
I advised him that he had training and resources, and yet he had produced nothing. He vigorously apologized and assured me that he would deliver a first-class project by Friday. He flashed a grin—emitting photons of positivity—saying he enjoyed working with me and did not want to disappoint.
I eagerly awaited his masterpiece that Friday—about three months after his arrival. At 4:45 p.m., Herb walked in and handed me the file without a case draft attached. He advised me that he was sorry but he was leaving the firm immediately because he could not do the job.
When I asked why, he answered as follows: “In Arizona, the sun wakes me up in the morning and gets me going. Here it is often snowy, rainy or cloudy. I need sunshine to practice law. It has nothing to do with you—you and the firm have been so welcoming.”
I took major heat within the firm. My department head listened to the story and said, “So we paid him $20,000 for a compliment?” He did not find my quip about how it was a very nice one to be amusing.
He was not my only failure, even though I installed a sun lamp in the next associate’s office. There was the lawyer who produced case documents longer than the mandated length and who, when asked to reduce one, came back within a minute having shrunk the font size to five.
There was also the lawyer whose office smelled so rancid that we called plant maintenance, which turned out to be appropriate, as they discovered she had dumped unconsumed milk into the ficus tree pot in her office. We also found out that she never took the bar exam when we paid for the review course.
I had always regarded my failure to assemble a team of long-term lawyers to be a blemish on my career. Those who succeeded often left seeking a spouse, higher salary or greater work-life balance, typically in a larger city.
However, over the past decade, a strange thing happened. At annual conventions, a number of lawyers from across the country sought me out to thank me for my past mentorship and shared their career successes. A few noted that they did not appreciate my investment in them at the time. My wife remarked, “A lot of good that does you now.”
So had I truly failed in a biblical fashion? Or had I simply succeeded in producing some cultivars that have bloomed in unintended gardens?
I have learned a few truths along the way. People are not cucumbers. Cucumbers are not perennial. People are migratory; cucumbers are not—unless people carry their seeds. One can train a cucumber to climb a stake or a lawyer to develop skills. The cucumber will not be there the next spring; the lawyer may or may not be.
I occasionally wonder if somewhere out there on this green earth, “the solar-powered lawyer” is producing something—or perhaps nothing at all.
Douglas Halpert is senior counsel at Hammond Neal Moore and a 33-year veteran in the field of immigration law. During his career, he has handled just about every type of immigration case under the sun. He has been included in Best Lawyers in America for the past quarter century.
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