No billable hours is an act of faith, Artem explains to Fritz
“So, Artem, two months in. Thoughts?” Fritz Schlessenhoffer, senior partner of SOAP – by mutual agreement, as he was fond of reminding Artem Alvanessian – sipped at his ristretto. He knew he was supposed to – how would an English person put it? – “knock it back”, but there was something about the slow spread of bitterness across his tongue which pleased him.
“Well,” said Artem after something of a pause, “not too bad, I think. Everyone seems happy. There is a sense of… purpose about the place. I like it.”
“I am still a little uncomfortable about our decision not to have any billing targets,” said Fritz. The last of the ristretto disappeared, leaving his mouth with a metallic taste which somehow made him think of battery acid.
“Ah, Fritz,” said Artem, with a chuckle in his voice.
Fritz hated that chuckle. He hated the ability Artem had to invest his speech with casual emotion like this, all the more impressive for Artem being a non-native English speaker. It was not that Fritz had no sense of humour, on the contrary; he very much enjoyed the show on MTV where stupid young people burned their hair off and crashed into walls and such, but Artem’s smooth, diplomatic sense of the amusing was beyond him. “
Yes?” he snapped, after Artem seemed not to want to go on.
“Always reviewing,” said Artem. “This is a good thing. One of your most admirable qualities. But constancy is also an admirable quality, I have found, and keeping one’s promises also. We have promised our youngsters that we would not having billing targets, and our reasoning was very sound. Do you doubt yourself now?”
Fritz reflected on this point. Did he doubt himself? “No,” he said, eventually. “I don’t think I doubt myself, really.”
“I think I know what the problem is,” said Artem.
“Do illuminate,” said Fritz. He meant it genuinely, although he was immediately aware that in English it could have seemed sarcastic, another branch of humorous interaction which was beyond him.
Artem seemed not to notice the potential sleight. “I think that this is all very new.”
“Well, yes,” said Fritz impatiently, “that is, after all, the intention.”
“No, I mean I think you may have underestimated how new it would all feel,” said Artem. “You were a very successful group head for many years, you have had experience of running a profitable department, many lawyers.”
“And also on the firm’s management committee.”
“Yes indeed. But now, with this firm, you have to do it all. Everything. Much of it is new to you, unexpected.”
“Are you saying I am not capable?”
Artem laughed softly. “Not at all, old friend, you are more than capable. Much more so than I. But you could not have anticipated how much change you personally would encounter doing this.”
“How does this relate to billing targets?”
“It is only natural that amid so much change, so much…” Artem looked at the ceiling, his usual habit when he was searching for a word, or the translation of a concept, “flux,” he said eventually, smiling. “Amid so much flux,” he repeated the word, enjoying how it sounded, “it is only natural that one seeks the familiar. You operated in an environment run, in your own words, by Excel spreadsheets. Now you operate in a different environment, one of trust, one designed deliberately to foster the collegial spirit we both thought had been wrung out of our firm over the last few years.”
Fritz nodded. He felt calmer now, although he could feel the ristretto plucking the blood vessels in his forearm and neck like a manic zither-player.
“In this environment, it is only natural that you have less control than you did before. And so you turn to the mechanism of control you once knew, the one you have grown up with all your professional life.”
“But we have made the right decision, yes?”
“Ah,” said Artem. “Who knows?”
Fritz started, clinked his cup noisily back on its saucer.
Artem laughed again. “I mean we cannot know whether the other path would have been more successful. But we have chosen this path. It is an important path. It has secured the loyalty and engagement of our people in a way that a conventional law firm methodology – billable hours – would not have done. So from that point of view, it has been a success, so far. In the long run, who knows? But I believe.”
“Analyse all you wish, my German friend. But take it from a boy brought up in the dark forests of the Eastern Orthodox Church; when the woods are at their darkest, and the moon obscured by clouds, when the wolves start howling, faith will guide you home.”
“We have to have faith in our project. Belief. Rationality will only take us so far. We have faith in our people, we trust them to deliver, to deliver more than they would in a conventional environment. But faith is ongoing, it does not repay quickly, and it is easy to break. So do what I do.”
“And what is that?”
“Drink mint tea instead. It is very soothing.”
“Relax, Fritz,” said Artem. “You have made the right decision. Now just have some faith in yourself.”
And with that, the white-haired man in the crisp dark suit rose to leave Fritz’s doorless office.
Fritz looked at his ristretto-cup, and quickly composed an email to his secretary. Mint tea in future.