January 2008 Archives

Last night Dr. M and I had dinner at a reasonably nice restaurant on University Avenue in Palo Alto. Sitting at the table next to us was a woman who I'm about 92% sure was Suzanne Mikawa, who used to be on Bill Nye the Science Guy. (Suzanne can be seen here doing one of my favorite scientific demonstrations -- one that I used as a trivia question in the weekly newsletter I used to send out in college.)

Now, I have an extremely good, some might say inhuman, recollection for faces, including faces that have aged several years since the last time I saw them. A few months ago, for example, I was at a bar with some friends in San Francisco and realized that our waiter was a guy I had gone to high school with and hadn't seen in like twelve years. As such, I was reasonably confident last night in my hypothesis that the woman was indeed the smart alecky girl from Bill Nye, a hypothesis that was further supported by the woman's voice.

Unfortunately, this superpower of mine often leads to awkward situations, because I always feel the need to verify my guesses. The waiter from my high school seemed most displeased at me bringing up high school. I've also had a number of incidents where I'll recognize someone that I met once several years earlier, and am able not only to remember the meeting but also what we talked about, which I then go on to explain to them for no good reason. The people that I do this to don't realize that I do this with a lot of people, so they always assume that I've been unhealthily fixated on them as an individual for several years.

As such, I was very hesitant to verify my Mikawa hypothesis last night, and didn't end up doing so. Really, there was very little upside to trying. Imagine the following four possible scenarios, in order of increasing awkwardness:

Scenario 1: Incorrect assumption + name-based inquiry

Me: Excuse me, is your name Suzanne?
Her: Uhhh... No.
Me: Oh, sorry. You look just like someone I went to high school with. Enjoy your oysters.

This scenario has a tolerable amount of awkwardness, but the rest of the meal would still be uncomfortable.

Scenario 2: Correct assumption + show-based inquiry

Me: Excuse me, I know this is going to sound weird, but did you used to be on Bill Nye the Science Guy?
Her: Yes, actually.
Me: Ah. I'm a big fan. I mean, I was, when I was in high school. I mean, when I was a kid. You know, young enough to watch Bill Nye the Science Guy. I certainly didn't watch it every afternoon when I was seventeen, if that's what you're thinking.

This scenario has the benefit of me being correct, but I would then be left with the inevitable problem of what to do after you meet a celebrity and then confirm his or her celebrity status. The last time I ran into this issue was on a flight back from Boston when I walked past the guy who played Lloyd Braun on Seinfeld sitting in first class. Fortunately, since I was walking past him, I simply said "Nice job" after he confirmed that he was Lloyd Braun, continued toward my seat in steerage, and that was the end of it. At a restaurant, though, awkward.

Scenario 3: Incorrect assumption + show-based inquiry

Me: Excuse me, I know this is going to sound weird, but did you used to be on Bill Nye the Science Guy?
Her: Uhhh... No.
Me: Ah. Sorry. You look a lot like someone who used to be on that show.

While this scenario might not actually be as awkward as scenario 2, the woman would nonetheless be left with the impression that I'm obsessed not only with Bill Nye the Science Guy, but also its cast members, so much so that I'm willing to ask perfect strangers if they were on the show. Fortunately, this isn't true (as evidenced by the fact that I didn't ask her), but I did have to fight the temptation, so it's sort of true.

Scenario 4: Correct assumption + name-based inquiry

Me: Excuse me, is your name Suzanne?
Her: Yes.
Me: Suzanne Mikawa?
Her: [Suspicious.] Yes.
Me: From Bill Nye the Science Guy?
Her: Uh-huh...
Me: I'm a big fan.
Her: Clearly.
Me: Of the show, I mean.
Her: Riiiiiight.

In this situation, I've not only expressed my obsession with the show, but also with her as an individual, so much so that I remember her name after not having watched the show in ten years. At this point explaining my super-human recall powers would be useless. As a woman of science, she would be duly skeptical.

Going to Court

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Yesterday I had to go to court in San Jose. I don't particularly enjoy going to court, since it involves a non-trivial amount of driving, a temporary suspension of the business casual dress code, and once I get there I usually don't do anything but stand around and look pretty (and let's just say that while I'm a Viking when it comes to standing around, looking pretty is not on my short list of professional skills).

But, I must say, that the hardest part about going to court in San Jose is seeing the freeway sign for Santa Cruz and ignoring the voice in my head that says "Just keeping going, man. Just keep going."

New Blog, to Go with the Old Blog


As promised, I've started a whole nother blog devoted to astronomy: No Pants Astronomy. I'm still fiddling with the design, but there are two posts up as of right now.

The title was selected based on the outcome of a Facebook poll, turnout for which was distressingly low. It beat out my own preferred title, but hey. I aim to serve.

What with the weather in the Bay Area lately there haven't been many stargazing opportunities, but hopefully that will change soon, and in any case I intend to participate in Just Science 2008, posting a series of posts titled "The Terrible Secrets of Space" (inspired by this).

I'll still use IFTL is my primary blog, for the usual legal stuff and boring stories about myself.

Sometimes You Have to Laugh to Keep from Crying


The part that begins around the two-minute mark is exceptionally depressing and absolutely undeniable. And also funny.

The Silicon Valley. It is a silly place.

The Time I Sort of Met Walter Dellinger


Walter Dellinger is now the District of Columbia's lead lawyer in the handgun case that the Supreme Court will consider this term (story here). Dellinger is an all-star appellate and Supreme Court advocate, a professor at Duke Law, and a former acting Solicitor General under President Clinton. He is, to be sure, a very serious dude.

Back when I was clerking, and found myself in more situations leading to unexpected encounters with important people than I do now, I had a brief, somewhat strange encounter with Mr. Dellinger. I'm going to keep this story somewhat vague, and I'm telling it not because I want to drop names, but because it makes me look like kind of an idiot.

During my clerkship year, the Circuit Court heard an appeal of an order by my judge, one that had been issued before I got there. On the day of the hearing I took the externs over to the Circuit Court building to watch the arguments. The place was literally standing room only. There were people lined up all around the perimeter of the peanut gallery. It was a well-known case, but I was still surprised at how many people showed up to watch the arguments. In retrospect this probably had a lot to do with the fact that Walter Dellinger was appearing for one of the parties. At the time, I had no idea who Walter Dellinger was. My co-clerk (who couldn't come to the hearing) had made some sort of comment about how some famous lawyer would be arguing at the hearing, but I hadn't absorbed the information before heading over.

On to my celebrity encounter. As I sat there before the hearing (I got there early enough to find a seat), Walter Dellinger came up to me, shook my hand, and quietly said, "Give my regards to Judge ________. I'm Walter Dellinger." I was completely surprised and didn't really know how to respond, so I just said something along the lines of "Oh, okay," giving him an undeniable deer-in-headlights look. He promptly headed back toward counsel table and that was the end of it. Apparently the other lawyers on the case had recognized me from prior district court hearings and pointed me out to the man himself.

Needless to say, when I returned to chambers, told this story to my co-clerk, and learned all about Walter Dellinger, I felt like a fool for not knowing who he was. Of course, I couldn't really have acted much differently if I had known. As an employee of the district judge overseeing the case, I couldn't get all star-struck over one of the lawyers. But at the very least I may have said, "It's a pleasure to meet you" instead of "Oh, okay." Better luck next time, I suppose.

Slate on the Billable Hour

This article from Slate about the potential death of the law firm billable hour is creating a lot less of a hullaballoo on the legal blogs than one might expect, at least on the blogs I read. In any case, the article is yet another example of Slate's maddening tendency to oversell its articles via sensationalistic headlines.

What the article actually concludes is that, as a result of clients pushing back against hefty hourly rates and demanding more nuanced fee arrangements, the legal profession will split into "three fairly autonomous markets." Billable hours will still reign supreme in the biggest and fanciest law firms, while more mundane legal work will be outsourced to some nebulous band of technologically-enabled "consulting services" (which, though the article doesn't say this, will still probably charge by the hour, particularly if they're doing doc review). In the middle, a bunch of other law firms will be strong-armed into weird fee arrangements by their clients.

It isn't clear from the article when this trilateral schism will actually take place, or even how many law firms are offering alternative billing arrangements right now. The article says that "a quarter of companies used alternative billing last year," but that neat little statistic is kind of hard to find in the study cited in the article. What the author is probably referring to is this quote:

"Roughly one-fourth of in-house counsel are more actively managing outside counsel than the majority of their peers. Such activities include convergence, issuing competitive bids for new work, requiring minimum levels of experience of associates working on their projects, getting discounts for early payment of bills, and systematically evaluating the performance of their outside counsel."

(First, of all, that's a really dumb way to phrase the statistic. Wouldn't 49% of in-house counsel always be actively managing outside counsel more than a majority of their peers? What does that even mean?)

This may count as "alternative billing," but none of the stipulations mentioned are inconsistent with hourly billing. Placing constraints and conditions on hourly billing isn't the same as rejecting hourly billing altogether. Large law firms doing away with hourly billing would indeed be huge news. But adding flexibility to the billing process, among law firms of all sizes, is not really a big deal, and is certainly nothing new. And neither is listening to clients when determining how things will be billed. As the article points out, the billable hour was birthed in the first place in order to allow clients to get a better idea of what, exactly, they were paying their lawyers for.

One other bothersome thing about the article that bears mentioning is the opening sentence:

"It's a classic, needling lawyer's question: Spend two hours at your daughter's soccer game, or bill the time and pocket $1,400?"

Okay, that completely misrepresents how billable hours work from the attorney's perspective. Spending two hours working as opposed to spending time with your children does indeed translate into 2x whatever the attorney's hourly rate is for the firm (assuming none of it gets written off or otherwise fiddled with in the payment process). But this one-to-one correlation between hours worked and dollars received certainly doesn't happen for associates, and probably not for most partners. Unless, of course, the attorney is two hours away from some milestone that will determine the attorney's bonus/salary level for that year. But I doubt that's what the author was referring to. It's bad enough that Slate's headlines oversell its articles; it doesn't need to work sensationalism into its openers as well.

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This page is an archive of entries from January 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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