Legal Law

Purchasers routinely affect legislation corporations’ hiring selections

Earlier this month, Above the Law and other outlets reported that Elon Musk allegedly pressured a law firm that handles work for Tesla to fire an employee who interviewed Musk while the attorney previously worked at the SEC. The law firm did not appear to give in to this pressure, and many in the legal community welcomed the decision. While I’m an Elon Musk fan myself (and a very happy Tesla Model Y owner), I also believe that if these allegations are true, it was inappropriate for a client to pressure a law firm to hire an employee dismiss. However, this episode got me thinking about all the times in my career that I have witnessed a client or a client’s representative influence employment decisions at a law firm. The legal industry should be critical of the fact that clients influence nearly all law firm employment matters, whether by firing employees, hiring attorneys, or otherwise, so that employment matters can be based on merit alone.

In my experience, clients and client representatives seek to influence law firm hiring decisions more during the hiring process than during the firing process. Sometimes when a relative or loved one is looking for work, clients approach high-level partners in law firms and see if there is a vacancy. In many such cases, law firms grant preferential treatment to the job applicant, even if their background is not of the caliber of attorneys who typically work in a business.

For example, I once knew someone who was finishing his freshman year of law school and needed a summer job. He told me that his uncle was an executive in a large firm that used a particular law firm and that he had asked his uncle to do his best to get him a job at that law firm for the summer. The law firm eventually offered him a summer job at the store, although a person with his academic credentials might not have been offered a position at that firm if his uncle hadn’t been pulling the strings for him.

Another time I worked at a company that employed some people in the shop for the summer. One of the summer employees did not appear to have the background to secure a job with this company. I’ve always wondered how this person got a job at the store. One day I saw this summer employee with the top partner in our business and another person. I eventually found out that this other person was the summer employee’s father, and he was apparently an executive at one of the company’s major clients. The summer employee didn’t seem to want people to know that his father had any connection with our company and its top executives, and this was probably a major reason why this person was able to get a summer role at our company.

When clients sometimes cannot ensure preferred individuals get jobs at a law firm, they ask that their connections be given priority during the hiring process. For example, I once worked at a law firm that was doing poorly financially and didn’t seem to be actively hiring. One day, out of the blue, I was told that I was going to interview an applicant. The firm was happy to involve some employees in the hiring process so that the interviewees and the firm’s attorneys could have a thorough understanding of the firm and the hiring process.

I looked at the applicant’s resume and this person did not appear to have the academic or professional qualifications of other attorneys at the firm. I wondered why we were interviewing this person, especially given that the company was in poor financial shape and we didn’t seem to be hiring at the time. I later overheard this job applicant speaking to a top partner after the interview, and from the interview it emerged that this person’s father was an executive at one of our clients. This was probably the main reason why this person was interviewed. The odd thing was that since the company didn’t seem to be hiring, the interview was probably just scheduled as a courtesy. I’m not even sure if it’s the right thing to interview a job applicant with ties to a company’s client when the company has no openings and is in bad financial shape.

In any case, it is usually unfair when people receive special treatment in employment law matters because a client is trying to balance for or against certain employees of the law firm. Law firms should make decisions based on attorneys’ qualifications and not judge an attorney or job applicant differently depending on how a client desires a law firm to act on a particular employment matter. Widespread support for a law firm refusing to fire an employee at the urging of a client is a good thing. However, the legal community can do more to ensure that all employment decisions are fairer and free from customer influence.

Jordan Rothman is a partner at The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service law firm in New York and New Jersey. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website that discusses how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan via email at jordan@rothmanlawyer.com.

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