Human Resources

I don’t live in Lake Wobegon.

I live in Lake WoeIsMe: All of the children are a little below average.

Or maybe I just have a bad attitude.

I’ll be frank: If I just met you, I assume that you’re inept. Not because you necessarily are inept, but because I’ve been blindsided too often in the past by the mistakes of people who I foolishly believed to be competent. That ain’t gonna happen again.

I understand that not everyone views the world through my gray-tinted glasses. I’ve met folks who are shocked by my attitude: “Mark, that outside lawyer from Honduras just told you that you’d win the case. Why are you acting as though we’re going to lose?”

“Because the lawyer is probably incompetent.”

“Why do you think that? He comes highly recommended by Smith.”

“Why do we think that Smith is competent? Or that Smith knows enough about the Honduran guy to have a right to judge him? My working presumption is that people are incompetent until they prove otherwise.”

“I’m shocked by your attitude, Mark. I’m exactly the opposite. When I meet new people, I always assume that they’re good at what they do.” . . .

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Inside Straight: Assuming That People Are Idiots”

Over the last three weeks, we have heard from an In-House Insider, an opinionated source of insight into Biglaw-client relations — see here, here, here, and below. As with the three prior installments, the only changes I made to the Insider’s words were those done to protect their identity, and Insider was given the opportunity to revise their points once I added the questions and commentary. Again, I thank Insider for the candid observations and thoughtful opinions on these core issues….

AP: Any serious observer of Biglaw can see that firms continue to struggle adapting associate development to the new state of Biglaw-client relations. What can Biglaw learn from corporate clients like yourself on that front?

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A lot of in-house attorneys dream of reaching the top someday. And when they fall short of becoming the Managing Editor for Above the Law, they look to general counsel positions instead.

You get paid the big bucks, fly first class everywhere, and get to boss around outside law firms. What’s not to like?

I decided to find out. I checked with several general counsels (GCs) and chief legal officers (CLOs) (note — no one at my company), to learn what they think really sucks about being at the top of the legal hierarchy….

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Tom Wallerstein

It was our new receptionist’s first day at our office. I was in our kitchen, and I found a potato wrapped in a paper towel. Because it was a raw potato far in the back of one of our unused kitchen drawers, I had no idea how long it had been there. Months, maybe. So I asked Cassidy, the new employee, “Is this your potato?”

Cassidy was slouched nearly horizontal in her chair. She looked at me with an expression of vague annoyance, and reached up to remove her iPod earbuds. She mumbled a response but didn’t really answer me. So I asked again, “Cassidy, I was just curious, is this your potato?”

“Huh?”

I repeated my question for the third time and finally she replied, “I don’t know. Maybe.”

I tried a different approach. “Let me put it this way. Have you brought a potato into the office in the six hours you have been working here?”

“Um… Yes.”

Progress! “Well, then I think it’s safe to say that this is your potato. Mystery solved.”

The earbuds went back in and we let Cassidy go the next day. She called our office about a week later, asking to retrieve a pair of scissors and… you guessed it, her potato….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “From Biglaw to Boutique: Bad Hires”

Some years ago, information technology and research firms realized that they could thrive only by attracting and retaining employees with two very different skill sets. These firms needed both great scientists and great managers.

Great scientists, however, were being undervalued, while great managers were being given too much dignity. In many corporations, the more people under your supervision, the more authority, respect and, often, pay you command. How could IT firms keep pure scientists — who loved thinking great thoughts and creating great inventions, but loathed managing people — happy? Wouldn’t those folks become frustrated as they saw their peers — less able scientists, but great managers — move ahead in the ranks?

Those firms pioneered the idea of creating dual career paths. One path was the standard route to success: Manage people; control a P&L center; prosper.

But the second path was the innovative one: Lead specified projects; work with key clients; generate new ideas; prosper equally!

After the IT firms blazed that trail, sales organizations soon followed suit. Those outfits needed both great sales people and great administrators. So they created dual career paths, offering routes for advancement (and power, and riches, and corner offices, and all the rest) to both types of people.

Isn’t an analogous dual-career-path model worth considering, both at law firms and in-house law departments?

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An old Arab proverb says that there are four types of men:

“He who knows not and knows not he knows not; he is a fool — shun him.

He who knows not and knows he knows not; he is simple — teach him.

He who knows and knows not he knows; he is asleep — wake him.

And he who knows and knows he knows; . . .

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Inside Straight: Identifying Dangerous Employees”

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 . . . .

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Partner meetings should be better. As I discussed in last week’s column, Biglaw firms tend to hold glorified lunches, sprinkled with some generic info-passing, instead of real informative meetings for partners.

It does not have to be that way — even if your Biglaw firm ascribes to a “partners are just our highest-paid employees” ethic. And especially if your firm is serious about involving partners in the firm’s business as much as possible in these days of behemoth Biglaw firms.

What kinds of improvements to partner meetings would I advocate implementing?

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Buying In: Partner Meetings (Part 2) – What Should Happen”

For many Biglaw firms, by the time mid-October rolls around, year-end activities are already gaining momentum. Planning for collection drives, a push to get potential laterals interviewed, and financial performance numbers-crunching are all usually well under way. Biglaw’s increasingly centralized administration and management means that most partners are spared from any involvement in those activities. Your typical partner may get an update email or two, or hear about the gear-up for year-end at a partner’s meeting, but that’s it.

But every partner is asked to play the review game. Every year. For everyone from assistants, to paralegals, to associates, to even fellow partners sometimes. And some partners are subjected to 360-degree reviews from their charges. I have a hard time seeing the value of those.

The whole process is thankless, time consuming, and generally useless. It is more akin to “security theater” at the airport than an actual system for providing effective feedback and incentives to Biglaw participants….

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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 . . .

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