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

Managing people at big law firms is easy: You don’t!

First, you don’t have anyone to manage. As an associate, you have a secretary. That’s it. And you share your secretary with other people, so you have only limited responsibility for giving annual reviews.

As a typical partner, you also don’t have to manage anyone. You still have a shared secretary. And you’re asked to complete associate evaluation forms once every year, which you dutifully do. Some other poor clown is stuck with the job of reading to associates the results of the review forms and saying, “I can’t really answer your follow-up questions, because none of these comments are mine.” Unless you’re responsible for some unusual duty — evaluating contract attorneys, or legal assistants, or some such thing — a partner at a law firm doesn’t manage people at all. (Chatting with an associate about an upcoming meeting or event, or discussing the contents of a brief, constitutes either doing work or being human. It doesn’t count as personnel management.)

Second, “career paths” at law firms are no secret. The “career path” (such as it is) for a secretary at a law firm is fairly obvious, so your secretary won’t ask much about it. And the career paths for lawyers are obvious, too. If you’re an associate, work hard and do good work, and you’ll be a partner some day. (I’m not passing judgment on whether this path is realistic or not; I’m saying only that, to the extent that it exists, everyone knows what the path is.) If you’re a partner, your career path is equally obvious: Work harder, and do better work, and bring in clients, and you’ll be even richer and more important some day.

Nothing to it. Everyone knows the game, so managing people is a no-brainer. No muss, no fuss, and (if you’re like me) you don’t even notice that you’re not managing people. You might even deceive yourself into thinking that you are.

Would that it were so easy in-house….

In-house, you actually have people to manage. Within a corporation, you’ll have some number of people who report directly to you. (The precise number will vary by the size of the place where you work, your position, and random chance, among other things. Historically, conventional management wisdom suggested that supervisors should have seven to ten direct reports. More recently, some management gurus have suggested that flatter organizational structures require, and new technologies permit, supervisors to manage more direct reports.)

For each of your direct reports, you’re the person primarily responsible for overseeing and evaluating work product and ensuring that the employee is productive and engaged. That means that you must encourage the employee as appropriate, provide constructive criticism as necessary, prepare and deliver annual reviews (which includes providing information about such things as bonuses and raises), and otherwise be responsible for assisting in someone’s professional development. If you’ve worked only at a law firm, you may never have done this before.

Moreover, “career paths” are very different at corporations than they are at law firms. At a corporation, you can’t honestly tell people that working hard and doing good work naturally results in some clear job progression. After all, there’s just one general counsel at a company; no one’s creating co-general counsel slots to provide career paths to the folks who report to the GC.

And that’s true of everyone in the law department: If a supervisor has eight direct reports, then one of those eight can move into the supervisory role only when the current supervisor is promoted, leaves the company, or dies. Those are relatively rare events, so career paths can be tricky to see. The employee can receive pay raises or bonuses, be given more job responsibilities, or be given a different job title, but there’s not unlimited room for promotion (as many law firms suggest to lawyers that there is).

Managing people is a skill that many lawyers at firms have never learned, practiced, or even thought about. In-house lawyers don’t have that luxury.


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 (affiliate link).

You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.


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