Monday, November 12, 2007

Clooney v. Clayton, Part 3

This post is my third installment about law career issues raised by the movie Michael Clayton. My two previous posts in this series are located here (#1) and here (#2). See #1 for my review of the movie. Today's subject of choice is George Clooney's role as a "fixer" in his law firm. And my point about this fixer role is this:

I think the law firm "Fixer" is like the Boogeyman: disconcerting and a bit scary, but also not real.

I practiced in a big law firm for a number of years. I never, ever heard of--let alone met--a law firm "fixer." I don't think they exist. And if they do, then like the Loch Ness Monster they probably want to stay hidden.

Think about it: the math just does not add up. There certainly are people in law firms who are good at fixing problems, but that does not mean problem-fixing rises to the level of a practice area, like complex litigation or corporate mergers and acquisitions. In fact, large firms are so driven by the billable hour that lawyers who do not bill most of their time would have a hard time surviving, let along thriving. Plus, in my experience, clients are not a bad set of people, and they get in trouble no more often than a firm's own lawyers. So is a full-time "fixer" really needed? I doubt it. If a law firm needs a fixer, surely it has bigger problems, like criminal indictments against its partners and the like.

However, Clayton's job as a fixer fits well into the hyperbolic landscape of the film. (See my previous post on this point.) Clayton is trapped in his job: the firm does not have to make him partner because he is stuck--he can't readily move to another firm--but the partners do not want him to leave because of all the secrets he knows. So while it does not comport with the facts of law practice, the role of fixer works within the confines of this movie, and it helps to move the plot along.

On second thought, though, perhaps solving problems is a separate law practice specialty. Except the people who specialize in it are not called "fixers"--they are called "management." The problems they grapple with, however, are things like how to staff a case, who to promote, how to fire someone, etc. Not sexy Hollywood stuff. Unlike Clooney the Boogeyman.


Anonymous said...

Great! Thanks a lot! I thought I finally knew what I wanted to do when I grow up. Now what am I going to do? Practice law? Aggghhhh!

Anonymous said...

I disagree. I think it's reasonable that the sort of megafirm depicted in the film could come to use the services of an "in-house" fixer.
Michael Clayton is essentially operating an in-house small-law practice within the confines of a huge corporate law firm. Clayton is portrayed as having criminal law expertise and contacts in the local New York courts/police and the federal court system, as well as a background in matrimonial law. We're told that he was a mid-level prosecutor with the Manhattan DA's office prior to coming to the big firm. Though lawyers with this background usually leave the public sector to work in solo/small firm settings, it's not unheard of for that sort of lawyer to lateral into a job with a megasize firm. Michael Clayton probably didn't start his career at the big firm as a "fixer" -- more likely he began as a lowly associate helping to churn the litigation wheel -- but I can see how he could evolve into one.
The mathematics can add up: you have a megafirm with a thousand or so lawyers, plus hundreds of clients the firm deals with regularly. That's hundreds of marriages that may fall apart, hundreds of attorney's/client's teenage and college-aged kids who may get in trouble with the law, hundreds of black-sheep relatives who may need to be bailed out legally, etc.. And, when the high muckety-mucks need help with family problems (whether of the criminal or marital kind), isn't it reasonable to suspect that they'll first call the large firm that handles their corporate-financial affairs, as opposed to looking in the Yellow Pages for an attorney?
Michael's career as a "fixer" could have begun like this: a high-net worth client calls a firm partner in a panic about being charged with DWI. The client's at the police station, he's afraid to call his wife to pick him up, what can he do? The partner is about to tell him to look in the Yellow Pages for a lawyer when he suddenly remembers that new hire, Michael Clayton. Unlike nearly all the lawyers in this megasize firm, Michael has actually set foot in a New York state criminal court. Perhaps a quick call to young Mr. Clayton might do some good.
Our hero gets the telephone call from the partner, happy to take a break from document review. Yes, he's knows of DWI lawyers to refer to Mr. High Net Worth. But Mike says he'd be happy to "fix" the matter himself.
Michael knows the prosecutor on call at the police station and works an agreement to plead the case down to a minor traffic ticket within minutes. Then he drives Mr. High Net Worth home in his own car taking the subway back to his apartment. Mr. High Net Worth is so pleased with the outcome, particularly that he didn't have to tell his wife about his driving mishap, that the megafirm can do no wrong in his eyes, even though the majority of its work for his corporation could easily be handled by small firms charging half the price.
Michael continues to get more calls from partners with delicate tasks. Sometimes Michael refers matters out to lawyers he knows from his DA days; sometimes he "fixes" them himself. But he always handles the situation with maximum discretion and he always gets the best-possible results. Over time, the firm's power partners realize that the client goodwill engendered from having a "fixer," as well as the benefit of keeping the firm's behavioral problems "in-house" justify keeping Michael on salary, despite his lack of billing.
Thus we have a justifiable business reason for Michael Clayton, the "fixer."
(P.S. Your blog was quoted on this subject in the Chicago Tribune today.)

M.C. law grad class of '97.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Thanks for your very interesting comment. I was interviewed by the Tribune last week and was pleased to see the article come out. I've done a separate post on it. Thanks for reading--Greg

Anonymous said...

I rolled as a fixer in an AM Law 100 firm for years. Fixers do exist...

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Do you care to explain? I'd be interested to hear what you have to say about it.

shinn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
shinn said...

If something like that exists, then probably, Dr. House for his high net worth on medical diagnostics would have fixers too running for his medical services. Just doesn't happen coz Greg would probably piss them off more than they piss patients off.

Anonymous said...

What does this even mean?

>>If something like that exists, then probably, Dr. House for his high net worth on medical diagnostics would have fixers too running for his medical services.

Huh? Ingles por favor?