December 2014

Note: This post is a deviation from my normal topic and expresses a personal political view.  I appreciate your indulgence.

I can no longer remain silent.  I hope that others abandon their silence and speak loudly on this issue, particularly during this season of renewal.

I have been watching the discussions about the Senate Intelligence Committee with a sense of profound disappointment as the discussions devolved into a debate about whether torture was effective.  The premise of the argument is that if torture is effective, it is an acceptable thing to do.  As much as I hate the bad guys and despise what they have done and continue to do to my country, I reject the embrace of torture with every ounce of my being.

Torture is antithetical to the United States of America. There is no principled line to be drawn between what our government did and what every single one of us would decry as inhumane torture.  If the acts our government performed were performed on American servicemen, many would seek violent retribution against the offenders.  If those same acts were committed against American servicewomen, the offense and outcry would be even greater.  If another government rationalized the same acts if committed on civilians from our country, still more would be angered to point of demanding war as a response.  We all know—everyone one of us—that torture is damnedably wrong when committed against our families or our fellow Americans.

But look at other challenges to the unprincipled nature of the torture performed by our government.  Would we feel it was “okay” if the acts were committed on women instead of men who look evil?  What about children?  Could we torture children if someone believed doing so would save American lives?  There is no line to the drawn in the argument the torturer’s use to justify their behavior: whatever it takes to avoid another attack. We can only pray that as a country we have not sunk so low that any means can be justified because some politician self-righteously proclaims that the heinous acts “save American lives.”  Those claims are almost always impossible to prove true, but even assuming their truth should never justify the means to that end.

There are arguments that use of torture places Americans at risk in the future, servicemen and servicewomen, contractors and civilians alike.  There are arguments that America’s stature in the world has been irreparably damaged by its disgraceful conduct.  Those arguments are likely true, but to me, they are irrelevant.  Torture is wrong regardless of the outcome and ramifications.  It does not become right or wrong because of how other countries respond.

Perhaps not surprisingly, former Vice President Dick Cheney has emerged as the chief supporter of torture as a tactic, arguing that “what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to  3,000 Americans on 9/11” was worse. As if that is the benchmark for judging right and wrong.  As if being able to claim the high ground in comparison to terrorists is good enough for the United States of America. It is not a standard the America I believe in would use to judge itself.  I feel only sadness for amoral world that Cheney has created for himself.

The United States of America is a moral and righteous country.  At least we used to be. I hope we aspire to be so again.  It is not easy to be moral and righteous: it never has been and it never will be.  We have built a country where we do not give in to our basest instincts.  We fought a war to say no to slavery because there can never be a time when it is right to own another. We want to stifle the sound of speakers whose speech makes our blood boil. Instead, we embrace the First Amendment. We want to make others believe in the same God we do. Instead, we trust in the wisdom of the free practice of all religions.

The Bible teaches us to turn the other cheek.  My father taught me to never throw the first punch and to be first to protect those who cannot protect themselves.  I am pretty sure most fathers teach that same lesson to their kids.  I never heard of any father teaching their kids to torture the neighborhood bully just to avoid the possibility of a fight. These simple lessons helped guide the country before. Maybe we need to be reminded of them again, that there is a difference between right and wrong. Integrity is not easy. Honor is not easy. Right is not easy. Leading the world is not easy.  We do not aspire to these things because they easy.  We aspire to them because the world needs a beacon it can count on to decide between right and wrong and not be pulled to one side or the other because of convenience.

I do not consider myself naïve or foolish. In setting a moral and righteous standard, we will be hit and we will suffer.  But our principles must demand that we not let this risk of temporary suffering justify the alternative that might makes right, that the ends of protection justify any means, no matter how cruel, deviant or inhumane.  Being moral and principled may make us even more of a target, but if that is so, it is a price we have paid before and should be proud to pay again.  Our principles will not, indeed cannot, be so easily weakened or defeated. If we were to abandon our principles and morals simply because we are attacked, then we had neither morals nor principles to begin with.

My father’s generation, what Tom Brokaw called “the Greatest Generation,” had its moment.  It stood up to Adolf Hitler.  A later generation fought for civil rights, a battle that continues. But if it is true that every generation faces a moment where people have to stand up and be counted, to say “this is the line that we cannot cross”, perhaps this is our moment, or maybe it is just mine.  My line is America does not torture people. Ever.

The talks to settle the war in Vietnam were stalled for five months while the participants negotiated the shape of the table at which talks would occur.  Five months!! I wonder how many mothers lost their sons during that five month period.  On the list of things are beyond idiotic, this example must certainly be near the top.

I was thinking about this because of a comment I saw in an interview of renowned consultant Jim Hassett by Bloomberg. (Corporate Counsel Weekly, December 10, 2014.  In the article, Jim quoted the remarks of a “senior executive”:

We were just at a board meeting last week where we were talking about whether we should do formalized project management training. My answer to that question is obviously yes, we absolutely should.  But first we need to agree on the shape of the peace talk table what legal project management is.

I had a number of reactions to this statement.  In no particular order of significance:

1.  What in the world have you been waiting for?  Good god, man, its 2014! What have you been doing for the last half decade?

2.  Committees (which is what a law firm board is) is where good ideas go to die.

3.  How long will it take to decide the shape of the table what legal project management is.

4.  This is a great example of letting good be the enemy of better.

5.  Tom Peters’ favorite comment is “Ready, fire, aim.”  Lather, rinse, repeat.

6.  How many client dollars will be wasted while the firm tries to figure out something simple like this?

7.   WTF is a decision like this doing at the Board level?  Does the Board consider paperclip purchases as well?

8.  Do your clients know that this is how you decide “no-brainers”?

9.  The odds are the best project management training/approach will vary from department to department.  Are you going to figure out the best approach for each department?  Starting with the smallest?

10.   Is this how you decide on your technology investments too?  How are those 386 computers working out?

Sorry, I had to vent.  I hope this is a firm where great lawyers overcome bad management.

Ronald Reagan once famously said the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”  His quote tapped into our natural fear of both the government and unsolicited offers to help.  When someone offers help, most believe the person is really offering to help themselves.

This fear should be juxtaposed with the admiration we sometimes have for those who engage in self-help. Our lexicon contains many phrases in which a person improves his or her position by self-help.  Many of those phrases contain an implicit sense of admiration.

So self-help is neither good nor bad.  It is the context that matters most.  When someone willingly offers help to another with the intended result of helping both parties, good things can happen.  Consider this point one.

My next proposition is it is better to proactively invest in solutions rather than hope somebody brings you a solution.  Some in need sometime wait for a solution to be proposed, while others make suggestions to those who can help solve the problem, hoping the suggestions will be heard, pursued and implemented.  I believe success comes to those who confront problems directly and design their own solutions or work closely with others to accomplish that end.  Not suggestions or wishful thinking, but a shared commitment to design a solution and work together to implement it. Consider this point two.

Consider this formula in the context of law departments: Point 1 + Point 2 = ?

Let me spitball a possible answer here.  Step 1: Law Department defines its objectives.  An example might be “we want a 25% reduction in spend locked in at the beginning of the next budget period, with no degradation in service, quality or output.”  Step 2: Law Department picks a willing law firm or a few such law firms.  Step 3: The parties meet and discussions ensue.  “What do you need from us to accomplish the objective?”  What resources can we provide to help you meet the objective?  How do you propose to meet the objective?  Why should we confident quality will be maintained?

And so forth.

This is just one idea.  Clients tend to be extremely smart and great collaborators.  But they need to act more like their business-side colleagues in addressing law department challenges. Own the problem. Design the solution.  Don’t wait for someone to suggest something that might help.  See what you want, and then in the immortal words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, “make it so.”

One last point to consider.  When law firms design solutions, they are typically designed for more than just you.  So if “off the shelf” works or is good enough, fantastic.  But if you want a custom solution that meets your specific needs, off the shelf is not the way to go.

Valorem’s Director of Operations just received a letter from a firm vendor that very carefully explained Net Promoter Scores and the importance of the company of receiving a 9 or 10 (on a 10 pt scale).  The letter went on to explain that account reps were compensated on the basis of this score.

This vendor has been our vendor since we started, almost 7 years ago.  None of us can recall any prior inquiry about the quality of their service.  So the message we are taking from this letter is that the vendor cares about client service when great client service matters to them, but not when it matters to their customers.

Asking for a high score is shameless.  Consider this an example of exactly the wrong way to ask your client how you’re doing serving them.

I just received an email.  It said:

“Please review the attached notice.”

So then I had to click open the notice, which contained information I could not find less interesting.  Why did I have to waste the time to click through and wait for the “attachment” to open?

This happens all the time. People prepare a formal letter and then send it by email in a way that fails to disclose the relevance of the attachment?  Why have the attachment at all?  Countless people waste time opening an email and then opening an attachment that contains information that could easily been included in the body of the email.  That time might belong to somebody who cares about it.  That time might belong to somebody who decides whether to hire you on the next matter. Do you want to waste her time?

If you have something to say, just say it.