A Genius Like No Other
January 8, 2009 by Legal Tease
You know this guy, you do. Every Big Firm has at least one. You started hearing the lore about him your first week at the firm and you admit that you were part intrigued, part terrified. You’ve seen him in passing in the halls, usually after most of the firm has emptied out after dark. Perhaps you’ve even tried to speak to him, only to be met with a distinct lack of eye contact and a half-snort as he scuttled away. He’s more socially awkward than any mental patient, not fit for human—no less client—interaction. But, word on the street—and that word’s always mentioned in hushed, reverential tones—is that he’s brilllliant. Like, crazy genius smart. That’s why the firm keeps him around. The brilliance. He’s the resident Big Firm Savant. And I’m here to tell you firsthand, the whole “genius” thing is a complete and total fraud.
How do I know this? Because I’ve spent the last two weeks holed up on an idiot fire drill deal that’s never going to materialize with not one, but two of my firm’s rumored Big Firm Savants.
One, of course, is our old friend, Glenn, who has the twin distinctions of having billed more hours than any other associate four years running and not having made eye contact since 1993. The other is Russ. Russ, a corporate equity partner whose book of business is rivaled in magnitude only by his lack of a personality. Or emotional range. Or ability to speak in a voice that doesn’t sound like he was recently plugged back into the Matrix.
Still, when I found out I’d be working with Russ, I figured it wasn’t necessarily all bad. Sure, I’d have to spend part of the holidays working on a dead-end deal led by a robot with lip chap the size of glaciers and a leadership style that rivals Ted Kaczynski’s. But on the upside, I’d finally get an inside look at how true legal genius works. I’d be working side-by-side two infamous Big Firm Savants. I’d experience the brilliance.
And most intriguing of all, I’d witness firsthand the rumored way that Russ supposedly “comes alive” in front of clients—because that’s part of the legend of Russ, of all Big Firm Savants: They’re corporate mole people around the office, but stick ’em in front of a client and bam, they “come alive.” They shed their awkwardness and stun anyone within billing distance with artfully delivered soliloquies of razor-sharp legal analysis worthy of the whitest shoe. They shine. They must, right?
When I came into Russ’s office for the first all-hands conference call for the deal, a call with about 600 people on it, Russ didn’t even look up, just kept staring at his dual computer monitors. Glenn, on the not-other hand, had managed to meld into a wall and stare at his fingers so effectively that I didn’t even notice him until his BlackBerry started vibrating. OK, so maybe genius operates…quietly.
The call started off uneventfully enough, but within only ten minutes, the lead counsel for the other side, a woman who introduces herself as “Helene-but-spelled-like-‘Helen’-it’s-Greek-OK?”, threw down a particularly insulting insinuation about our client—one that begged an obvious response from Russ. Glenn appeared to be focusing on his cuticles at this point, and Russ just adjusted slightly in his seat, not saying a word, staring even more intensely at his monitors. The tension was palpable. Another junior associate on the deal moved forward in his chair and gave me a smirking look—a knowing look, a look that said “Here it is, baby. This is what all the hype is about. He’s gonna tear it up!!”
And then…nothing happened. I looked over at Glenn. Cuticles. I looked over at the junior associate, whose smirk was fading. And then I looked over at Russ. And that’s when I noticed it.
In the reflection of one of the Yale degrees hovering behind his desk, I noticed what Russ had been staring at the whole time. On one monitor was a split screen of TheDeal.com alongside some sort of fantasy league stock car website and on the other was an animated screen saver of two camels. That was it. And he’d been staring at these gems for the entire call.
Our client piped in, tentatively: “So…Russ?”
At this point, you could hear the lawyers grimacing, Helen grinning, and the clients wondering when their champion, the person who had racked up about $200 in the last ten minutes for doing nothing but saying his name, was going to live up to his reputation as a genius lawyer. Because that’s the thing about Big Firm Savants—clients fall for the lore just as much as associates do. I could actually feel what they were thinking through the phone: This guy is hardly saying a word, sounds like he’s not even listening, but, hey, that couldn’t possibly be the case because we’re paying this douchebag $1,200 an hour…so…he must be a genius! I could also hear them starting to panic. Rightly so.
Russ leaned in, asked Helen to repeat her question, responded with a stunning show of verbal dexterity (“We’ll look into it.”), and then proceeded to say nothing for the rest of the call, staring at his monitors the whole time. When the call ended, I asked him about the issue Helen had raised earlier—the one we’d be “looking into.”
“Hmm. Look into it.” Still staring at the monitors. The one with the camels, I think.
“Um…OK. But—I’m sorry, this is just my own ignorance here, but—I’m just not sure what the issue even is. Could you— What is it I’m looking into, exactly?”
And now he looked up for the first time, eyes practically tearing with condescension. And a little something else. Amusement, maybe? “Don’t know. That’s why we’re looking into it.”
Um. OK. I was starting to feel like a ten-year-old kid who’s beginning to suspect that her parents’ stock answer of “Because I said so” to her more specific questions was maybe just a front. If this is what my firm considers genius, I shudder to think of the metric for moron.
So. I stumbled out to the elevator with Glenn, waiting for a few crumbs of brilliance about this deal to shake out somewhere. Anywhere. They didn’t. For every question I asked, he gave an increasingly more condescending shrug and tossed it off with an unsteady “Well, that’s…that’s not relevant on this deal.” Hm. I was starting to sense a trend here. Before getting on the elevator, Glenn did, however, offer one nugget of advice—that I get him “a first cut of all the deal docs by Thursday.” Which was two days away. And New Year’s Day.
“Wow, OK. Look, you don’t— or I mean, Russ doesn’t actually expect these docs to be done in two days? On New Year’s? Is—is he insane? Or just, you know, some kind of asshole?”
Glenn stopped in his tracks and for the first time ever, made eye contact with me. Well, his gaze landed somewhere near my brow bone, but at least it was close. Apparently I had crossed a line. The line that separates the Big Firm Savants from those who…have recently discovered they’re full of crap.
“He’s not insane. That’s just…Russ. “ He looked back down and scurried into the elevator, looking up again just before the doors closed. “He’s actually kind of a genius.”
So, there it is, friends. I started the New Year holed up in my office drafting documents for a deal I didn’t even remotely understand, while the two Big Firm Savants spent it somewhere far away from here, probably with champagne, or at least cheap wine, focusing on anything but work.
So, it turns out, I did learn something from these two Big Firm Savants—these drooling maniacs who have the whole firm not only excusing their flagrant social incompetence, but also citing it as proof of their brilliance. They’ve cracked the code. They’ve figured out that the key to having people think you’re the Stephen Hawking of the legal world isn’t, apparently, to toil away like an eager sponge, soaking in pools of legal knowledge and squeezing them back out to anyone who’ll listen. No. The key is to face your computer monitors away from your office door, stare at the floor as much as possible, answer any question you don’t know with a scowl, and fool the suckers around you into thinking you’re…thinking. And then have someone else figure out what the hell you’re even supposed to be doing on a daily basis. And then go home early.
So, no, these so-called Big Firm Savants are not, in fact, legal geniuses. Not even close. But the more I think about it, I have to admit they sure as hell are brilliant.