Biglaw, In-House Counsel

Inside Straight: What Lawyers At Firms Don’t Do

I’ve suggested in the past that law firms generally don’t bother with managing people, and I’ve heard a chorus of complaint: “But all I do is manage people! I’m a senior associate, and I spend my entire days begging, cajoling, and threatening junior associates and legal assistants to do their work. How can you say I don’t manage people?”

Read my lips: You don’t manage people.

You manage projects, and you mistakenly believe that’s managing people.

If you were managing people, you’d be doing about a half dozen things that are not currently on your plate . . . .

First, you would be having weekly one-on-one meetings with the people who report to you. You would be discussing the projects they’re working on, providing advice about how to move forward, talking about new projects that might require attention, and gently taking the temperature of the folks on your team.

All of that, naturally, would not be billable time, so law firms don’t bother with it. But many corporations (or human resources departments within corporations) view this as the essence of creating and maintaining a cohesive team.

If you were managing people, you would meet once every six months with each of your direct reports to discuss their performance. Depending on your corporation’s policy, one of those meetings might not directly affect the employee’s bonus, but at least one of the two meetings would. You would explain what the person did well during the year, what he did poorly, how he might try to improve, and how he might broaden his professional horizons, by working with new people, taking on new responsibilities, or attending formal training sessions. At the year-end meeting (at a minimum), you would rate the employee’s performance and tell him the amount of his bonus.

At a law firm, those tasks are often dropped on the desk of a single partner in each office, who may never have worked with the associates he’s “reviewing,” and the “review” consists of reading comments provided by others and explaining that, other than the comments he’s reading, the partner has nothing to say.

Most associates, and most partners, participate in this process only by filling out forms evaluating people who worked with them during the year.

Pssst! The folks in human resources would be apoplectic if they knew that’s how your firm was handling things. That is not state-of-the-art people management.

If you were managing people, you would be working with the people who report to you to develop career paths for them. Given the hierarchical structure of most corporations — eight people report to one person; that person in turn is one of eight direct reports to the person above her in the organization — career paths are sometimes hard to see. What if the person above you in the pyramid is competent at his job, but not so good as to be a likely candidate for a promotion? And the boss is young, in good health, and happy in his job, so retirement, death, or moving to a new job are not on the horizon. What’s the underling’s career path in that situation? (Career paths are particularly hard to define in “support services” — such as information technology, human resources, finance, and, yes, law — in which the corporate hope is to reduce expenses over time. Unlike the revenue-generating functions, no one can pretend that support functions are a happily ever-expanding pie.)

Admit it: You haven’t given a moment’s thought to that subject at your law firm. Everyone at your firm has instead happily accepted the [perhaps fictitious] career path of: Do lots of great work; make partner. Do more, greater work; become rich, powerful partner. Retire. Die.

That’s much easier than giving individual thought to each employee’s future.

What about hiring? At a law firm, you spent a half hour chatting with a candidate about your firm’s pro bono program and the topic of the applicant’s student note. You then figured that the applicant was in the top 25 percent at a top ten school, so all of your colleagues would be in favor of making an offer, and you might as well check the “offer” box, too.

Tough duty, huh?

At a corporation, you’re not typically hiring scores of people, many of whom will prove lazy, inept, or unlucky and ultimately be left by the wayside. You are instead hiring a single person who must actually perform a specific set of tasks competently while fitting into the organization. If you choose poorly, you’ll likely be saddled with having that sad sack report to you for years before you can “manage him out.”

That casts a whole different life on the hiring process, doesn’t it?

When someone underperforms, you’ll be required to summon that person into your office, put him on a performance plan, and then meet with the person weekly to discuss whether the person is performing up to plan.

Ever see that at a law firm?

And remember: Several of these skills — giving performance reviews, designing career paths — are not innate. They’re learned skills, so your corporation will ask you to take an hour (or two, or a day) of training to help you perform the managerial aspects of your job more competently.

Can you imagine a law firm devoting non-billable time to that?

Half of my readers at this point are sadly disappointed in me: “Shoot. Herrmann used to be a reasonably intelligent lawyer. And now he’s actually accepted all that human resources crap. I guess going in-house really does turn your brain to mush.”

But the other half of my readers are cheering: “Thank God someone’s spreading the word! Law firms are absolutely abysmal at managing people. If they devoted some resources to HR, firms would have happier, more engaged, more productive employees, and their clients would benefit.”

Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between. But I’m quite confident in the Bushian reference I used to open this column:

Read my lips: Lawyers at law firms do not manage people.

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

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