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?