Europe Beware! The Yanks Are Coming


April 15, 1992|By MARTIN KIMEL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- European lawyers beware: The Hawk has landed.

Recent news articles report that aggressive New York-based law firms have descended upon the Continent in search of new business connected with the economic integration of Europe in 1992 and beyond. Barry Hawk, who heads the Brussels office of mega-firm Skadden Arps, has suggested that by working seven-day weeks to impress clients, the American law firms are pressuring the reluctant Brussels bar to do the same.

Mr. Hawk told the story of a European client who asked Skadden one Friday for research and was amazed to receive the product by Monday morning. ''They weren't used to that, but, believe me, now they're getting used to it,'' Mr. Hawk is quoted as boasting.

Wonderful. The big New York-based law firms already have largely ruined the practice of law in America. Now they want to ruin it in Europe, too. Paying huge salaries to their new recruits, these firms need to squeeze every billable hour possible out of their associates. To do so, these firms thrive on creating a crisis atmosphere even when no crisis exists.

Since at least the Renaissance, Europeans have been willing to wait until Wednesday -- or even (quelle horreur!) the following week -- for a legal opinion. Now, apparently, they must be convinced that they need the work completed over the weekend. As a result, instead of leisurely strolling about Brussels' Grande Place or visiting Paris for the weekend, some young lawyer will get to spend Saturday and Sunday inside a law library.

The old saying has it that Americans live to work, while Europeans work to live. For European attorneys who value their five-week holidays and time away from the office, there is real cause for concern. Survey after survey shows that American lawyers are highly disaffected. The reported causes for the widespread dissatisfaction include long hours, tremendous stress and contentious wrangling over matters that, in any large scheme, are pretty unimportant. And now the American superlawyers will export this way of life to Europe.

Nor is there much hope that the American legal eagles (or Hawks) sent overseas will become ''Europeanized'' and thus more easy-going. Attempts to mellow the African ''killer bees'' by exposing them to European bees failed, and there is little reason to believe that exposing American lawyers to their European counterparts will make our swarming attorneys any less aggressive. Rather, it is more likely that the pressures to compete will ''Americanize'' the European advocates.

The precedent is not encouraging. When I was in law school in the mid-'80s, some people thought that the large-scale entry of women into the American legal profession would ''feminize'' the profession and lead to the rise of stereotypical feminine attributes in legal institutions. Law firms, the thinking went, would become more caring, supportive places in which to work. As for dealing with opposing counsel, there would be less macho posturing.

While all the data aren't in yet, it seems that the women who have succeeded in law firms have not transformed these institutions; instead, they themselves have been transformed. Whether it is because they had those qualities originally or developed them on the job, the successful female attorneys are generally just as tough and obsessively devoted to their work as are their male colleagues.

If women couldn't reform the hard-driving American law firms from within, there is little chance that the Europeans will be able to do so from without. So, absent action, it is likely that the relatively laid-back European counselors will pass the way of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

A kind of blue law, one that prohibited lawyers in Europe from working more than six days a week, might help. But this would probably prove impractical. Unfortunately, it seems that the European lawyers' only chance to preserve their way of life lies in erecting barriers to entry to keep the American power lawyers out. Then, maybe we Americans could follow suit -- and the ''superlawyers'' could go ply their trade in Tristan De Cunha or Micronesia.

Should the Europeans desire assistance in drafting such protectionist legislation, I offer my services. Not to worry, though: While in Europe, I promise not to work weekends.

Martin Kimel practices law in Washington.

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