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

Law firms, and in-house law departments, should be outer-directed.

I realize that I just invented the word “outer-directed,” and sensible people might choose to call this concept being “client-focused.” But “outer-directedness” is broader than mere client focus — and I invented the word, so it’ll mean what I want it to mean.

At a firm, lawyers should naturally be client-focused, in the sense that client work comes first and most internal matters come second. “Outer-directedness” implies not just client focus, but a more general external focus — devoting efforts to impressing the world, rather than to impressing others within the firm.

We should naturally spend our professional time serving our clients. And, in a law firm setting, we should spend our semi-professional time gazing out through our office windows, not peering inwardly down our own corridors. If a case just settled and you have some free time, spend that time impressing the world, not your colleagues. Join a non-profit board, work for a bar or trade association, write an article, give a talk. Raise both your personal and your firm’s profile. That benefits the world and serves institutional purposes. Don’t spend your spare time impressing your colleagues.

We should of course be nice to each other, but that’s civility, not having an undue inner focus. I’m opposed only to the stuff that goes beyond civility, which I’ll delicately call “office politics”….

Every minute that we spend tooting our own horns internally is a minute that we’re not spending pursuing our clients’ interests or raising our collective profile in the world. So those minutes are wasted.

Everyone knows this. “Client focus” or, more broadly, “outer-directedness,” is the name of the game. That’s what adds institutional value, and that’s the attitude we must instill in ourselves and in our colleagues.

So why is it so impossibly hard to instill that attitude? Why do so many people spend so much time trying to impress the colleagues with whom they work?

Because, in many contexts, playing office politics is an awfully good path to success.

Context does matter here. In a small law firm with, say, 20 lawyers, everyone knows everyone else. And everyone knows what everyone else is doing.

Publish an article? Everyone knows.

Win a case? Everyone knows.

Serve on a bar committee? Everyone knows.

In fact, everyone doesn’t just know. At many small law firms (or at least the one where I worked, many years ago), everyone also swings by your office to say ‘attaboy, too, giving you lots of psychological satisfaction. Small firm life might not be for everyone, but it has certain advantages. One of those advantages is that it’s easier to be outer-directed, because colleagues are more likely to know what you’re doing and to appreciate your efforts.

Increase the size of the institution, and that probably is no longer true. In a large law firm, most folks will never hear of your accomplishments if you don’t toot your own horn internally.

This isn’t necessarily bad. You may actually enjoy practicing, and thinking about, the law. You may have no taste for administrative crap, and no interest in running a practice group some day. So do it your way: Impress the world, and let the firm come along for the ride. You can still build a practice and a career without playing internal politics.

But people realize, correctly, that maintaining a purely outer-directed bent at a big firm is fraught with peril.

As an associate, you write briefs and work on the young lawyers’ committee, while some other associate is sucking up to the folks on the partnership committee. Maybe yours is the theoretically preferred route to achievement, but you’re surely running a risk there.

Even as a partner, you can choose to spend your time taking depositions and writing law review articles, while some other clown is ingratiating himself to the managing partner.

After three years, you’re respected in the community and being cited in the scholarly literature, but the sycophant controls the tickets to the loge.

After ten years, you’ve become a pretty famous fellow, but the toady is the partner in charge of the office.

When Flotsam and Jetsam, Inc., a potential new client, calls to request a meeting, the call may be routed to someone with a leadership position in the firm. The leader may choose to invite himself disproportionately to those meetings. Over time, the leadership position can yield real benefits. (As a former partner at an Am Law 20 firm recently told me, “The guys on the client development committee were great at cross-selling services. To the other guys on the client development committee.”)

Those benefits are not limited to business opportunities. The flatterer who holds an administrative position, for example, may now control a budget, and you do not. So when the adulator wants to fly off to Scotland with three potential clients for a weekend of golf, it’s no problem finding 15 grand in the office budget to pay for the trip. But when you ask for 500 bucks for a day-trip to New York to speak to 300 in-house counsel, there’s somehow no room in the budget for it.

This may not be an insurmountable problem; you can probably finesse the issue. You can pay your own way, ask the sponsor of the talk to pick up the tab, schedule a flexible business trip to take you to New York the day before your talk, and so on. But you’re doing it the hard way.

Moreoever, control of the budget has other implications. People outside the firm aren’t stupid. Who would you rather have on your non-profit board — the diligent lawyer who’s conscientiously built a name for himself over the years, or the guy who controls the office budget and can prompt the firm to kick in 25 grand to the non-profit’s annual benefit?

Again, this problem isn’t insurmountable. It’s just that, by being outer-directed, you’re forcing yourself to do things the hard way. Other lawyers at the firm see this, understand the implications, and act accordingly.

Because playing office politics often yields benefits, folks devote time to office politics; lawyers become inner-directed. Firms ought to discourage this, because inner-directedness helps the individual only at the institution’s expense, thus hurting the common good. But it’s awfully hard, and perhaps impossible, to design systems that are insulated from office politics.

I’ve heard the managing partner of a large law firm lament that “twenty years ago, Joe Smith spent a huge amount of time working for the good of the firm, and he never asked for a title other than ‘partner.’ Why is everyone now grasping for administrative positions?”

Perhaps the answer is that the firm was smaller twenty years ago, and everyone knew about their colleagues’ accomplishments, and there were fewer issues about controlling budgets and who would invite whom to beauty contests.

Firms should think hard about how they can encourage their lawyers to become outer-directed. The answer plainly lies in rewarding people who are outer-directed, showering wealth and power in their direction. But it’s awfully hard for a manager to reward the subordinate who’s been most outer-directed instead of the sycophant who just moved into the house next door to yours and regularly joins you for golf.

In-house law departments must think about the same issue, although in slightly different terms. Who should lawyers report to — other lawyers, or business people? If lawyers report to business people, the lawyers are motivated to respond promptly to the needs of the business. But the business folks may be less able to assess the quality of the lawyers’ work than other lawyers are, and there may be other reasons to have lawyers report to other lawyers.

We can’t eliminate human nature, but sound management practices should permit us to improve institutional performance by encouraging optimum behavior.


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 [email protected].


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