Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Top Billing

This week the NY Times Magazine ran a special advertising section devoted to New York Super Lawyers. It listed the Top 100 attorneys in the New York metro region.

Like many of you, I suppose, I look over such lists to check out how many honorees I know. Since I hardly have any contact with the legal profession beyond my friends who are attorneys, I wasn’t too surprised or disappointed that I knew only two of the Top 100.

One of them was a name brand—Bernard W. Nussbaum has been a powerhouse for decades and served as President Clinton’s legal counsel. Bernie is a member of the temple I attend. We have a passing acquaintance.

The second lawyer I knew from the list is the basis for this entry. To protect his identity and avoid any possible embarrassment to him, let’s call him “Bob.”

Bob and I attended Brooklyn College at the same time. Bob served as president of the campus-wide fraternal organization we belonged to; I was chief editor of the organization’s newspaper. We never socialized. We both married our college girlfriends who also knew each other. After graduation 38 years ago we went our separate ways.

Seven years later, having returned to New York, I met Bob by chance on the subway. Turns out we both recently had moved to Westchester and by another coincidence worked on opposite sides of Park Avenue between 55th and 56th streets. We agreed to meet our wives for dinner in Westchester after work. I would meet Bob in his lobby at 5 pm so we could walk to Grand Central to catch the 5:20 to White Plains.

I waited and waited for Bob to show up. This was pre-cell phones, so I couldn’t call him. Besides, I didn’t have his number. Finally, he appeared at 5:17. He couldn’t understand why I was perturbed. It was 5:02, he said, so we had plenty of time to catch the train. Only when I pointed out the correct time on the lobby clock did he acknowledge his tardiness. And then he promptly whizzed off back to his office, saying over his shoulder that he had to review his time sheets to recompute his billings to account for the lost 15 minutes.

Most probably any young associate lawyer would have done the same. But it was at that moment I truly understood the intense pressure professionals who bill by the hour live under. It was especially true for young professionals trying to make junior and then full partner. Bob obviously mastered the pressure.