On being ... the company you keep

By Ingrid Sapona

If you’ve ever heard a litigator at a cocktail party, you’ve probably noticed they have lots of interesting war stories and a flair for the dramatic (or comic) in telling them. Of course, being able to capture peoples’ attention (some would say being center of attention, but let’s not be cynical) and weaving facts into compelling stories is what makes a litigator successful.

Another thing about litigators is that, because the courtroom is their playground, their rallying cry is more likely to be “sue the bastards” than let’s see if we can figure out a way to solve, or get around, this problem. I’ve often wondered whether a certain personality type is drawn to litigation or whether practicing litigation for awhile shapes their personality.

Years ago a doctor friend pointed out something interesting about surgeons. My friend (a non-surgeon) explained that if there are two courses of treatment -- one involving surgery and one involving less invasive procedures -- a surgeon will always recommend cutting the problem out. As he put it, surgeons are into fast fixes instead of treatment. Something to keep in mind the next time your GP recommends you consult a surgeon!

I was recently hired by a new client -- an association that represents about 95% of all members of a particular regulated profession. The body that regulates this profession had issued a consultation paper explaining some changes it’s considering regarding how it licenses practitioners. The regulator invited parties to comment on the proposed changes.

Most of the changes were benignly administrative, but a few could end up having a significant impact on this association’s members. Naturally, the association felt compelled to comment and they hired me to edit their submission. Going into this project I did a bit of background research to understand their licensing process but I didn’t know much else about this profession.

In editing an early first draft I noticed some of their arguments were self-serving and quite argumentative. Whenever possible, I suggested alternative wording I though more persuasive and less combative. For the most part, they were receptive to my comments and changes

Then, in a subsequent draft, on one particular issue I noticed they added an argument that I thought would just inflame the regulator. The gist of it was that if the regulator were to make this particular rule change, there would be little “buy in” from the profession because they believe the regulator is being heavy-handed and unfair.

When I told my main contact in the association that I thought it unwise to put that in print, he gave me examples of some of the regulator’s allegedly unreasonable actions and then said the proposed change, “just won’t fly with the profession”. I pointed out that the professions’ buy in didn’t seem relevant because the regulator is in a position to dictate the rules. We discussed it a bit more and he said he’d think about it.

Unable to get his “won’t fly” comment out of my head, I tried to figure out how I could persuade him of the irrelevance of that argument. That evening I had an “ah-ha” moment when I began thinking about the nature of the profession and exactly what their work entails. They’re restructuring specialists. Their job is to act as go-betweens -- bargaining with creditors and debtors, trying to get parties to accept restructuring terms. Once I realized this, I “heard” his comment as a phrase he probably uses as part of his normal cajoling when trying to work out a deal.

Once I realized this, I knew what I needed to do. The next day, when we revisited the issue, I pointed out that, while arguing about what will fly might get him somewhere when trying to get someone to make a deal, responding to the regulator isn’t a negotiation. Fortunately, he saw the light and ended up dropping the argument.

Reflecting on the nature of their work also helped me accept their tendency to stonewall until the very last minute and then pull a few all-nighters to cobble together the final report. (A process I was inevitably dragged into.) I’ve never had a client who, despite having created a detailed timetable of interim deadlines, waited until we were well into the 11th hour before they got serious and focused on the matter at hand.

Just as I’ve wondered about whether litigation and surgery attracts a certain type or whether gaining success in those fields transforms peoples’ personalities, I couldn’t help wonder the same about restructuring professionals and their approach to things. Is their behaviour primarily a function of their nature, or is it mainly a reflection of the company they keep? I’ll never know -- but what I do know is that if I ever work with them again, I’ll charge a premium and anticipate some long nights at the very end of the project…

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... snubbed

On being … snubbed

By Ingrid Sapona

I think the last time I felt snubbed was in high school. Well, not counting a little incident that happened to me recently at my sail club…

I started this racing season crewing for Winston (not his real name, of course). This is the fourth season I’ve raced with him on Tuesday nights. One Tuesday morning in July Winston left a voice mail saying he decided to quit racing. He explained he was frustrated we haven’t been competitive (we can’t “make the podium”, as he put it) and he blamed the fact that his sails are old and baggy and he couldn’t afford new ones.

I was quite surprised with his decision. True, we hadn’t been doing well and his sails were worn to bits, but he loved racing and for him to give it up cold turkey, mid-season without so much as mentioning he had been thinking of quitting seemed unusual. That evening, just to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood the message, I went to the club at race time to check things out.

Winston was on his boat and gathered around him was the rest of the Tuesday night crew. When I got there I heard him reiterating his reasons and, from his response to different questions, it sounded like it had been a hard decision, but that it was final. So, we crewmembers either had to find other skippers, or we had to find something else to do on Tuesday evenings.

Later that week I contacted Ted (not his real name) -- a skipper I crewed for years ago -- to see if he might need crew. Turns out he had had difficulty finding crew to commit to Tuesday night races, so he was more than happy to have me and Mike (not his real name), another member of Winston’s Tuesday night crew. So, the following Tuesday, Mike and I joined Ted and we were -- as they say -- off to the races (again).

A few Tuesday later, as we were motoring out to the race course, I pointed out to Mike what looked like Winston’s boat headed out to the race course. When Ted heard us discussing it, he mentioned he heard Ted bought a new sail from the sailmaker Ted had bought one from last winter. Neither Mike nor I had heard anything about it. Sure enough, while we were having a post-race drink that evening, the sailmaker stopped to say hello to Ted. Apparently the sailmaker was at the club that evening to see how Winston’s new sail was working.

To say the least, Mike and I were surprised at that tidbit of information. After the sailmaker left, Mike and I joked about the lengths Winston had gone to get rid of us as crew -- I mean, really -- the whole ruse about not being able to afford a new sail and quitting racing seemed a bit much! Of course we were kidding around, but at the same time, we couldn’t help wonder who Winston had found to crew in our place.

The following Tuesday I think Ted breathed a sigh of relief when Mike and I showed up to race with him. Later that evening my suspicions were confirmed when Ted casually said he wondered if Winston might try to get us back to crew for him. Mike and I reassured Ted we wouldn’t leave him.

Though it’s been a couple weeks since Winston’s return to racing, I’ve not heard from him. Apparently Mike ran into him and when Mike asked if he got a new sail, Winston’s reply was simply, “yes”. Mike was too polite to ask him anything more, like who was crewing for him.

I have to admit, for awhile I felt a bit stung by the whole thing. I had believed Winston’s reasons for quitting and so the apparent change in circumstance, in a matter of weeks, seemed suspect. (Had Winston ordered the new sail before he took what amounted to as a four-week hiatus from racing? Perhaps, though sailmakers have been known to accommodate racers quickly mid-season.) All-in-all, the most bothersome thing is that Winston’s not said a word to me since the whole thing unfolded.

In thinking about it more, however, I came to realize it really doesn’t have anything to do with me and I shouldn’t take it personally. The way he made his decision, without regard for how his crewmembers might feel, should have been my hint that it is -- and always was -- about Winston. The fact that his behaviour impacted me -- and others -- didn’t matter.

Thankfully, unlike back in high school, when such incidences shook my self-confidence and left me with a nagging feeling that I’m not good enough -- now I see such situations for what they really are: a reflection of someone else’s social awkwardness. Ahhh, the wisdom of age… (By the way -- we’re doing well on Ted’s boat. Since we joined him, there’s only been one race when we haven’t “made the podium”.)

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona