Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Partner Issues

Inside Straight: Are Law Firms Unnaturally Mean?

Law firms are not unique.

There are many professional services firms in the world, and there’s no reason to think that corporations would naturally be nicer than law firms.

But I’ve recently heard words spoken by in-house lawyers that I swear you would never have heard at a firm.

Get a load of this one: “The document that Galt distributed had many typographical and other errors. I believe Galt needs some coaching on document presentation.”

“Coaching on document presentation”???

I never heard the concept expressed quite so pleasantly during my decades at law firms.

And that’s just one of many times corporate life has recently seemed nicer than law firm life . . .

When Mr. Big was giving a presentation at a law firm, the underlings naturally planted a few questions in the audience, so Mr. Big would not be standing uncomfortably at the lectern, or waiting uncomfortably during the conference call, when the Q&A session began. What do you call the audience members to whom you assign questions to ask, to fill the silence if no one else speaks up?

At a law firm, those people are known as “stooges.” Or maybe “plants.” Right?

Not so, in-house. Why, those people are the “discussion leaders.” How nice: “Discussion leaders.”

How about a law firm’s reaction to a completely incompetent lawyer?

I’ve heard senior lawyers say — of associates, junior partners, and other senior partners: “Are you kidding me? We can’t use Roark for that assignment! This involves a hard issue.”

That’s about the level of empathy one learns to expect.

But in-house?

“Roark is struggling with his current role. We must consider reassigning him to see if we can find another job that’s a better fit.”

Have you ever heard anyone at a law firm say that they would try to reassign a lawyer to find a better fit? Not in my experience. At a law firm, you use another lawyer once. If she’s great, you never let her go. If she’s educable, you work with her for a while and see what happens. If she’s a disaster, you never ask her for help again.

She can be “reassigned” alright — to any other partner willing to suffer that quality work. But she’s sure not getting reassigned to anything we’re doing for my clients.

(Two asides: First: Okay, I admit that I’m overstating things slightly (but only slightly) here, to make my point. Second: If you’re wondering about Galt and Roark being my hypothetical lawyers this week — instead of the usual Smith, Jones, and Doe — chalk it up to politics. Between Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, and Ayn Rand, my head is spinning. So I decided to spin it in the direction of Ayn Rand.)

How about worrying about the levels of “engagement” of employees?

At law firms, people don’t worry too much about nudging an associate (or even a partner) out the door. If the guy can’t hack it, he’s outta here. You have a problem with that?

But corporations fret this stuff. If we send one person packing — even if he truly deserves it — everyone worries about how others will react. “The mood in the department is not very good these days. We must be sensitive to employee morale.”

I can’t believe that partnerships are inherently different from corporations in the way they treat employees. Perhaps in-house law departments are under less stress because, unlike lawyers at firms, they’re not tasked with generating revenue. But I’d expect that factor to cut both ways in terms of morale: Departments that are not revenue-generators may not be treated with the same respect as folks on the front (or is it the bottom?) line.

Maybe corporations are nicer because they have human resources departments, and those folks spend their lives worrying about things like employee morale.

Or maybe organizational structure explains the difference: Historically, law partnerships were up-or-out institutions, and that creates a pretty intimidating work environment. Most corporations have never been that ruthless, and perhaps that’s reflected in how the two types of institutions treat employees.

Or maybe, as is always possible, I’m missing the boat entirely. Perhaps my limited experience is atypical, and law firms are not generally tougher places to work than corporations are. After all, I’m hardly a fountainhead of knowledge. You know my anthem: You’re welcome to shrug off my hypotheses. I’ll be interested, as always, in hearing the experiences of you, the living, in the comments.


Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer 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 and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.

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