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Friday, March 07, 2003

Blame Travels Down the Law Firm Ladder


One of the many things they don’t teach us in law school is what to do when things go wrong. More specifically, knowing how to take (or deny) responsibility for our actions–especially when those actions meet with disproval from more senior lawyers at The Firm, clients, or investigators from the state bar. Despite this gap in our legal education, we attorneys become pretty good at deflecting blame when it comes our way. In fact, for most of us, practicing law means never having to say you’re sorry.

Avoiding blame is a necessary skill for the modern lawyer. Clients tend to get angry when we charge them a lot of money for our services. They get even madder when we charge them a lot of money for our services and we screw up. The key to survival at The Firm, of course, is to pass the blame to someone else farther down the fault line.

If your name is on the law firm letterhead, you really have nothing to worry about. Your subordinates have by now learned that part of their job is to step up and take the heat when you give faulty legal advice or otherwise commit malpractice. This will continue until pretty much everything you do falls into the category of malpractice. You’ll know you’ve reached this stage of your career when your partners come around to talk to you about becoming Of Counsel to The Firm. Until then, you are the Teflon attorney. Malpractice with impunity!

If you are a lower-level partner at The Firm, you have an entire selection of associates to choose from when the state bar or your insurance carrier comes knocking. You may consult The Firm directory and randomly select a name, or simply choose the first associate who comes to mind. While it may seem cruel to pick out an innocent person to take the fall for you, don’t despair. Instead, rest easy knowing that the associate you point your finger at will simply pass the blame on to an unsuspecting paralegal.

Not all paralegals are unsuspecting. Those with experience will know this drill. If the paralegal has been around for a few years, it is likely that he has lost at least one job for unfairly being blamed for something he didn’t do. The experienced paralegal will know how to quickly forward all inquiries to a more junior paralegal–preferably one whom the experienced paralegal feels threatened by.

A word of caution on the above approach: Make sure that the inexperienced paralegal is not someone who is simply spending a year at The Firm before going on to law school. This person you are sacrificing to take the blame might be the son or daughter of the client who has made the complaint against you and The Firm.

If there are no paralegals readily available to take the blame, then it’s on to your secretary. Sure, it’s kind of a cliché to blame your secretary for things you’ve done wrong. This is really the lawyer’s equivalent of, "The dog ate my homework." Still, you would be surprised how often this works.

The buck (and the blame) is unlikely to stop at your secretary. Things run their course down the law firm totem pole. The last stop on the law firm blame game is usually some guy in the mailroom. There, The Firm’s newest employee takes the blame, and the fall, for faulty legal advice on a client’s offshore tax shelters.

You can write to the Rodent at therodent@aol.com.

©2003 ABA Journal

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