Biglaw, In-House Counsel

Inside Straight: Human Resources and the Law

Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s new column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

It’s odd to be one of the legal world’s shoulders to cry on.

This began when I went in-house a little more than a year ago. I started getting calls from lawyer-friends asking me how I’d managed to pull this off and how they could replicate the move. Then Lat and Mystal invited me to write this column, and complete strangers started to pose the same questions to me.

It’s like being Ground Zero for the disaffected.

This gives you a skewed view of the world, because folks who are delighted with their jobs don’t chime in (or, at least, don’t chime in to express disaffection). But being on the receiving end of so many bad vibes does make you sensitive to how many unhappy lawyers exist.

This made me a keen observer last week at a presentation about how workforce happiness affects operational results….

Here’s the story, in a nutshell: My client/employer, Aon, offers human resources consulting as a client service. At a recent corporate meeting, Aon basically turned its consultants on itself. And, although it wasn’t meant this way, the presentation has implications for both law firms and in-house legal departments.

The starting point is this: Employee happiness correlates to share price; as a group, corporations with happy employees outperform corporations with unhappy employees. So HR consultants will survey your workforce to assess employee happiness, identify issues, and suggest solutions. The surveys are pretty sophisticated, but my layman’s take on it was that the consultants assess three basic attitudes, which they characterize as “Say, Stay, Strive.” (Forgive me when I oversimplify, or completely butcher, these measurements in the next several paragraphs. If you want professional HR advice, hire HR professionals; if you want a cretin’s interpretation of what some HR folks said last week, keep reading.)

“Say” assesses what an employee would say when asked about his or her employer. The basic thrust is, “If asked by an outsider, would you say that our company is a great place to work?” Naturally, an employer wants to see a lot of yeses in response.

“Stay” asks how likely the respondent is to change jobs in the next year. The employer want to see little anticipated movement.

And “strive” asks how likely the respondent is to give extra effort (work late, or the like) for no extra pay to help the employer. (I’ve made this post too easy for you so far. I’ll let you guess what an employer wants to see in response here.)

Two things struck me. First, if law firms ever assess these sorts of things, I’m not aware of it. And if the calls and e-mails that I receive are any indication, it might be worth a look, for reasons of both compassion and economics. As a matter of compassion, it’s good to make employees happier. As a matter of economics, if employee satisfaction correlates to corporate share price, it probably would also correlate to, say, profits per partner.

The second thing that struck me is that law firms may have a slight advantage over in-house legal departments on the “say/stay/strive” front. My sense is that a fair number of lawyers at firms “strive” not for their law firms per se (as to which many lawyers, at all levels, appear to be indifferent), but for their clients. (“I don’t care if I’m at Firm X or Firm Y, but I can’t let down the folks at Superior Products Co., who I’ve been working with for years and who depend on me.”) The law firm benefits when the individual lawyer “strives” for clients.

In-house legal departments don’t have that luxury. When the employer and the client are one, there’s no chance that a lawyer’s high performance on behalf of a client will spill over to the employer’s benefit. An in-house lawyer who’s disaffected from the employer is simultaneously disaffected from the client, so job performance will suffer. (I suppose that you could find “client” dedication on a more personal level at a corporation: “I really don’t like Superior Products Co., where I work, but I could never disappoint Joe Smith in the widgets department, with whom I’ve worked for years and who depends on me.” But given that Joe and the lawyer work for the same company, that strikes me as less likely.)

Ultimately, I drew two lessons from what the HR folks had to say. As to law firms, leaders might want to be more sensitive to the job satisfaction of their lawyers. And, as to in-house legal departments, we should be uniquely sensitive to job satisfaction, because we may be more at risk than firms.

Earlier: Prior installments of Inside Straight

Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law.

You can reach him by email at

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