The 10% Solution

My favorite marketing philosopher, Seth Godin, notes that “there’s an awful lot of work put into the last ten percent of quality.”

Answering the phone on the first ring costs twice as much as letting it go into the queue.

Making pastries the way they do at a fancy restaurant is a lot more work than making brownies at home.

Laying out the design of a page or a flyer so it looks like a pro did it takes about ten times as much work as merely using the template Microsoft builds in for free, and the message is almost the same…

Except it’s not. Of course not.

While it’s not as obvious to figure out how this translates into the practice of law, it remains every bit as true.  There is an initial problem, however, that must be overcome.  Before one can strive to reach that last 10% of quality, one needs to know what quality is. 

In Godin’s first example, answering the phone rather than letting it go to voice mail, the goal is clear and simple.  His second example, pastries, is a bit harder to achieve.  Do you know what a really fine pastry is?  Chances are that you think you do, you know what you like and expect others to be satisfied with the same.  Have you taken the patisserie tour of Paris lately?  You might be surprised to learn that the pastry from your local bakery isn’t quite up to snuff.  In fact, it’s awful.  You just don’t know any better.

A lot of time has been spent reviewing the work of other lawyers.  Sometimes, I’m blown away by the quality, the depth of reasoning, the thoughtfulness and effectiveness of the work.  Other times, it’s less than impressive.  On occasion, it’s just awful, particularly when it’s some generic cut and paste job demonstrating a woeful failure to put in the effort to do competent, no less good, work.  When I speak with the writers of the really awful work, they never (with a few notable exceptions) think that they have deliberately failed to produce quality work.  They believe that they’ve done at least a perfectly adequate job, if not a good job. 

Godin’s admonition, about putting in the effort to achieve that final 10% that distinguishes real quality, is lost on them.  They aren’t ready for it yet.  Before one can hope to achieve mastery, assuming mastery can ever really be achieved, one has to be capable of understanding what mastery is.  They are busy trying to achieve journeyman status, without the slightest clue of what the work of a master looks like.

This has become increasingly more apparent, and problematic, since the growth of computer technology and the advent of the internet.  Listservs routinely include requests for motions or briefs on a subject.  They are not merely indiscriminate requests, but requests that ignore that the creation of these documents is what our clients pay us to do.  Real estate contracts 30 years ago may have included a page or two as a rider, but today routinely include a 20 page rider of terms and conditions inserted one at a time over a period of years until they become a behemoth of irrelevant provisions.  Briefs recite paragraphs and pages of argument that get recycled into the next generation.  Most of the time, the lawyers are thorough enough to remove the name of the last user in the body of their work.  Sometimes, an old name slips through.

Today, lawyers with a few week’s experience are writing blawgs about how to be great lawyers.  They write of their experience (often too recent for the sweat to dry) as if it’s an epiphany.  How accurate some of these experiences are may be in doubt, but they often cast the writer in a glowing light, showing how he or she masterfully seized victory from disaster (with a due nod to self-deprecation so as to avoid looking too smarmy). 

I love a good war story as much as the next guy, particularly when they carry a worthy lesson along for the ride.  But much of what I read provides a different insight than what the writer intended.  It informs me that had the writer put in the effort beforehand, he wouldn’t have found himself in that situation. It tells me that the writer was sloppy, careless, superficial in the process of reaching the point of the great story.  Oftentimes, it tells me that there was a far better solution to the problem, and the writer doesn’t realize it.

What’s often left out of these fascinating stories is that the lawyer doing all the pontificating has little to no experience.  Other times, the lawyer has plenty of experience, but it’s pretty bad experience, working under untenable conditions and not realizing that they don’t know how to practice law the right way because they’ve never had the ability to do so.  It’s not their fault.  They just don’t know any better.

Sometimes, other neophytes will tell you how they share your experiences, feel your pain, enjoy your stories.  Great, a support group bolstering mediocrity.  Even worse, non-lawyers hop aboard to appreciate your depth of analysis, satisfying the expectations of those who don’t know any better.  This should be as clear a clarion call as possible that something is seriously awry.

It used to be that people spent some time learning before they tried to impress the world with their knowledge and expertise.  Those of us who care about achieving that last 10% of quality that Godin writes about realize how right he is about the difficulty of reaching the pinnacle of quality, mastery, achievement.  We may never reach it, but we will never stop trying.

Consider that you will never achieve quality if you don’t have a clue what quality is.  Consider whether you want to announce to the world your cluelessness by writing about your exploits over the first 12 minutes of practice.  Or am I completely wrong about your purpose, and this is all to score the next thousand dollar felony that walks into your office so you can plead ’em out at the first appearance? 

11 comments on “The 10% Solution

  1. Dan

    While this doesn’t change the fact that one should achieve competency before announcing themselves to the world as an “expert,” in my opinion, the legal profession does a poor job of offering young lawyers opportunities to develop basic competency. CLE is a racket/joke. Law firms increasingly see young associates as either a profit center or cost. And I don’t think pro bono work is the answer either- isn’t that just experimenting on poor people? The only answer I can see is for law schools to take more of a clinical approach to education. That would be a start.

  2. SHG

    While I agree with you that law schools aren’t doing their part, don’t neglect the element of personal responsibility.  One of the implicit themes here is that law students and young lawyers have become “know it alls.”   Unless and until they realize that that they have much to learn, they won’t look to learn, and will never reach the point where they understand what they don’t know and how much more there is out there to learn.  I am learning constantly.  Why aren’t they?

  3. Dan

    Good question and I’ll hazard a guess at some incomplete answers. 1) in these days of seemingly being able to look up anything on the computer, admitting there are things that you don’t know is wrongly perceived as inexcusable, and 2) as you’ve pointed out elsewhere, law has devolved from a learned profession to a way to make a bunch of money and is attracting people who have no interest in becoming learned. Ironically, as the field attracts more people interested in money, its getting harder to make money.

  4. AnonymousFrustratedLawyer

    “don’t neglect the element of personal responsibility.”

    ^How *exactly* does a new lawyer become personally responsible in defending their clients’s interest if 1) law school failed them, 2) CLE is a racket/joke?

    You’re picking on easy targets, newb lawyers who talk too much, and not offering them any kind of solution other than a vague slogan.

  5. SHG

    Let me guess. You’re a new lawyer, no job, saddled with debt and feeling down in the dumps.  This post is about those newbs who are busy spouting their genuis they have yet to develop or deserve.  This post isn’t about how to take your miserable life and turn it around.  There are others that address that problem.  Since you probably have plenty of time on your hands are likely adept at google, go search for the answer.  It’s here and elsewhere.

    Or do I have to chew your food for you too?

  6. SHG

    What?  Do you expect newbie Biglaw lawyers to learn on paying clients? Are you some kind of commie?

  7. Thorne


    There are plenty of very senior lawyers who prefer sloppy work over quality work (at least when it’s their work, not some associate’s).

    [Ed. Note: Link to commenter’s blog deleted.]

  8. Andrew

    “Even worse, non-lawyers hop aboard to appreciate your depth of analysis, satisfying the expectations of those who don’t know any better.”

    As a non-lawyer I’m curious if you see that as as fault of people like me or the writer?

    For example, I honestly do appreciate your analysis which is why I regularly read your site. At the same time I admit that I probably don’t know any better.

    Are non-lawyers like me who post accolades the problem or just a sign of the problem? Is it better if we just read without commenting (which is what I usually do)?

  9. SHG

    The fault is the writers.  The problem with the non-lawyers is that they bolster the lawyer who produces shoddy work.  Everyone loves the kudos, but when they are undeserved, they embolden superficial or fallacious analysis.

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