In-House Counsel

Moonlighting: The Many Paradoxes of Managing Others

If you’re an attorney in a mid-sized or large law firm, the phrase “people manager” means as much to you as the phrase “spring bonuses” means to me (both of which situations are exceedingly unfortunate). You’re lucky to receive support from a group of under-appreciated administrative assistants, paralegals, and attorneys junior to you. The group supports other attorneys besides you, and in an ideal world, each such attorney would take efforts to manage and train the group.

But, since such things as Dewey puns exist, we obviously aren’t living in an ideal world. In this stark reality of pink slime and the Socratic method, what usually happens in a shared support situation is that some attorneys take the time to train the support group, and others don’t.

Here’s the thing. The attorneys who invest the energy to train the group members don’t end up reaping the full benefits of their investment. This is because the employees they’ve specially trained spend an annoying amount of time engaging in behaviors like supporting other attorneys. So the lazy lawyers at the firm receive an “unjust enrichment” of sorts — they gain the benefits of working with skilled employees, yet they haven’t expended any effort to impart those skills. In fact, the more you spend time training someone, the more likely it is that others will seek that person’s assistance, and that you’ll need to compete for the employee’s support. “D’oh!” would pretty much capture the appropriate response….

When you’re in-house, there are different paradoxes at play. In-house lawyers often have several of these under-appreciated employees who report directly to them. Unlike at a law firm, there’s a lot of incentive to train and provide guidance to your “reports.” First, they have a direct impact on our own workload and work product — the more skilled your reports are, the less time you need to spend reviewing work that you intend to steal credit for.

Second, management ability is evaluated seriously by companies, especially for those of us who don’t have special “ins” with the senior leadership, and instead have to rely on things like, you know, competence, to get promoted. Management effectiveness is weighed at annual reviews, and is also considered at key career moments such as hiring and firing, and only becomes more significant as you move higher up the corporate ladder.

So for in-house attorneys, the paradox isn’t that the more we train, the fewer direct benefits we receive from the trainee. The paradox here has to do with figuring out when enough is enough.

Most lawyers are supernaturally gifted at micromanaging. If micromanaging were a part of our job description, we’d be CEO in five and a half days. Lawyers also tend to be maddening perfectionists. Now put these two together into someone who manages other people, and bingo — it’s like being attacked by a swarm of annoying, buzzing flies at the office. Only not so nice.

We just have such a darned hard time letting go. Assuming that the person reporting to you is fairly competent, incessantly double-checking that person’s work product often leads to one or both of the following undesirable situations: (1) the report’s morale and confidence in his ability to do the job decreases; or (2) the quality of his work product decreases because he knows that you will double-check everything anyway. This ends up making the both of you feel the need for you to continue to review and double-check everything. Our failure to trust the report perpetuates a situation that merits distrust.

On the other hand, if you give a report full responsibility for a matter, a competent employee will begin to develop a sense of ownership for the work product. This will encourage increased attention to detail, since the report understands that no one else will be checking over the work.

The problem is that it’s really hard for people who are naturally micromanaging and perfectionistic to surrender full responsibility to someone else. Especially because we know that if there’s ever an issue with the work product, we’ll be the ones ultimately held accountable. Oh, did I mention that we’re also just a teensy bit risk-averse?

Some of you are thinking, “Hmm, interesting paradoxes… you may have something there…” Others are thinking, “Hey Moonster, those aren’t paradoxes — those are ironies. Get your circular reasoning notions straight!” And others of you are thinking, “Gee, fried chicken sounds good for dinner tonight.” And some of you are absolutely right — after all, it’s hard to go wrong with fried chicken. Just beware of ruining your appetite by engaging a debate about the differences between ironies and paradoxes.

Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company. Also, the experiences Susan shares may include others’ experiences (many in-house friends insist on offering ideas for the blog). You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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