Biglaw, Billable Hours, In-House Counsel, Partner Issues

On The Value Of ‘Wasting’ Time

I wrote several weeks ago about why I should waste time — why I should attend some meetings at which I’m not really necessary. I should do this to learn what folks on my team are doing on a daily basis, to have a chance to work one-on-one with more people who ultimately report up to me, and to improve employee job satisfaction by having a manager show interest in employees’ work.

To my in-house eye, that’s not “wasted” time; it’s “invested” time — time that improves our collective well-being, even though it doesn’t result in my having completed a specific task that the organization needs accomplished.

As I think about it, I see an awful lot of these things in-house that I would never have seen at a law firm. For example, several weeks ago, we decided to invite a junior in-house lawyer to attend meetings of our “Corporate Ethics Committee,” at which a fairly senior group addresses, among other things, important issues that arise through our corporation’s anonymous ethics hotline. We didn’t invite the junior lawyer because his or her attendance was important to the committee’s deliberations; rather, we thought that attending the committee meetings would provide helpful training and give the junior lawyer more exposure to senior people in the department.

At a law firm, everyone would spit in your eye if you suggested that a junior person should unnecessarily attend a meeting simply for the sake of training and exposure: This would constitute either over-billing the client or wasting potentially billable hours. . . .

Think about the difference between law firm management and corporate management. At my 62,000-employee corporation, the CEO regularly holds town hall meetings at offices around the world. In a sense, this is “wasted” time — the CEO is unlikely to hear at one of those meetings important ideas about corporate strategy that he wouldn’t otherwise have heard.

In reality, however, that time isn’t wasted at all. The town hall meetings let employees meet the CEO in person, watch him in action, and have a chance to talk to him. The meetings can be used to deliver corporate messages, and the meetings help the CEO show that he’s interested in individual employees.

At a law firm, town hall meetings are not billable — for either the managing partner or the other attendees — so they typically don’t happen. Riddle me this: Why, at corporations, are these meetings deemed to be an important part of intelligent management, while at law firms these meetings are deemed to be unnecessary?

Back when I was in private practice, I always thought that the partner-in-charge of the office in which I worked missed a trick by not setting aside some time — one morning each week, or one morning each month — simply to stroll the office halls, stopping at secretaries’ work stations, poking his head in associates’ offices, and otherwise checking in with the gang to see how life was going. In large law firm offices, an intelligent manager could improve morale simply by showing his face; in 20 years at a large law firm, I never saw anyone do this.

Remarkably, it gets worse: A partner-in-charge of one office at a large firm recently adopted a policy of leaving his door closed during business hours, and he (or she) hung a sign on the door that said: “I’m busy during working hours. Talk to my secretary, or come back after 6 p.m.”

Needless to say, that sign served its purpose: No one disturbed the partner during working hours and few chose to bother him after 6. He was able to bill some time.

The only thing he wasn’t able to do was to manage the office for which he was responsible — if “management” means intelligent supervision that improves morale in the workplace and creates a sense of shared community, in addition to generating profits. (In fact, plenty of data now suggest that happy employees are more productive employees; creating a better workplace may help to increase profits.)

I don’t begrudge the manager his preference to do legal work rather than to manage; many people would make that choice. I criticize only the person who appointed this partner to his managerial role (and perhaps the partner for having accepted it). Even then, I understand both of the choices that I criticize: On the one hand, the firm-wide managing partner wanted to reward a heavy-hitter for his rainmaking prowess, so the managing partner gave the rainmaker an office to run. On the other hand, the rainmaker wanted to be in charge of an office to (1) impress clients with his important title and (2) control the office budget to be sure that he had ample firm money available to steer to his preferred charities and spend treating clients to fancy dinners and rounds of golf. Neither the firm-wide managing partner nor the local partner-in-charge was precisely at fault (in the odd law firm calculus), but the firm surely paid a price for its management style.

What’s my thesis? If you’re in a managerial role, “waste” a little time; that’s called “management.” Those wasted hours may be the most important investment of your day.

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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