Ask the Experts, Associate Advice, Biglaw, Partner Issues

From Across the Desk: See Talent. Kill It.

That law firms are all about talent is a commonplace. Too bad that so many lawyers seem to have an uncanny knack for knocking the wind out of the sails of the most spirited contributors.

I dare you to tell me that you don’t recognize at least a few colleagues who exhibit some of the behavior described in The Three Habits of Highly Effective Demotivators, just picked as one of the top posts of 2013 on Booz & Company’s “Strategy & Business” publication. If these colleagues are at your firm now, you know what to do; if they used to be at your firm and you took the necessary measures, congratulations. (Just be on alert that you may have to do it again.)

The author uses the example of a real, but disguised, high-tech startup in the academic sector, whose CEO—otherwise brilliant—was referred to internally, sotto voce, as “the DM,” standing for “the DeMotivator”:

[The CEO, Lawrence] had a positive genius for turning eager beavers into disheartened slugs. A few moments in his presence were enough to sow doubt where there had been clarity of purpose, depress energy where it abounded, undercut confidence, and instill frustration. Lawrence had an artist’s touch when it came to disheartening people.

Our correspondent decides to interview some people at the firm in an attempt to find out exactly what behavior patterns Lawrence exhibited, and she found—you saw this coming—three.

First, regularly tell people how to do things they’re already doing. Extra credit for this if they’re doing it quite well.

“This is a kind of two-fer in the demotivation sweepstakes,” since it completely diminishes the target of your micromanagement, making it clear that you have no clue about their contribution or their competence, so all their efforts will be for naught. Then, when the targeted employee actually accomplishes something valuable for the firm, who deserves the credit? The DM, of course, whose prudent intervention set the stage for success.

Second, ensure that when you’re planning to inflict criticism and embarrassment on someone, you choose to do so in front of an audience the target really cares about—the larger the audience the better.
For example?

Our correspondent relates the story of one of the highest-performing business developers at the startup, who always cringes when it comes time to introduce clients to the CEO—which is essentially what her job is all about:

I’m always totally on edge because I’m waiting for Lawrence to come up with some fresh way of making me look like a complete jerk. Just last week I brought reps from a new online learning service in Scandinavia in for a demo of one of our coolest tools. They were loving it when Lawrence piped up, “And here Cassie was convinced you wouldn’t understand this technology!”

Finally, cultivate surprise.

This works best in combination with confusing people about what’s actually going on and what the firm’s priorities are. In Law Land, it typically involves the relative priority of various documents—what needs to be redrafted or finalized when and who needs to see it to ensure it’s indeed in presentable form.

Ideally, you can synchronize this with weekends or, better yet, major holidays: Set the target off on a faux emergency exercise in completely redoing a lengthy and complicated document, to be ready for others’ eyes on the morning of the first business day after the break, then berate them (see #2, above) for having focused on the wrong document, or the wrong issues in the document.

Make sure your advance instructions are always sufficiently conditional, contradictory, or confusing to give you plenty of plausible leeway in denouncing whatever decision the target came to in prioritizing their work.

Compound the pressure brought to bear on the target by citing the very urgency of the work as magnifying the consequences of their erroneous judgment.

The IT director of our anonymized tech firm related that he had:

more than once invited a client to meet to discuss a strategy, only to find that Lawrence has already talked to them without letting him know.

As with many demotivators, Lawrence has a ready explanation for his behavior: “We’re moving at warp speed, we don’t have time to worry about who gets credit or who talks to who.”

Brilliant, you have to admit.

Now, the particular genius of these behavior patterns, for present company, is how naturally lawyers gravitate towards them: They fit us, frankly, like gloves.


  • We love telling other people what to do and how to do it because, you know what?, we actually do know better than they how to do it. Truth be told, we know better than virtually everyone how to do virtually everything. Even if it would be beneath us to actually do any of it ourselves.
  • Firm subscribers to the principle that the most effective process is always open, transparent, and widely attended, we not only celebrate public humiliations, we view private dressing-downs as irretrievably lost opportunities. That, we are confident, will teach them.
  • Finally, since we are past masters at the art of the English language, it is inconceivable to us that our instructions could have been unclear or our intentions misperceived. Clearly, the responsibility—and the blame—can only be laid at the feet of our benighted minions.

These high-tech folks have nothing on us. We bear within us the native potential to be the high priests of demotivation, the board-certified masters of disheartenment, the unerring marksmen of talent killing.

Recognize anyone you know? You know what to do.

This is the latest installment in a series from Bruce MacEwen and Janet Stanton of Adam Smith Esq. and JDMatch. “Across the Desk” takes a thoughtful look at recruiting, career paths, professional development, human capital, and related issues. Some of these pieces have previously appeared, in slightly different form, on

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