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?”
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?”
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….
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?
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 . . . .
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?
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….
How do you keep a client (or a boss) happy? Be “light.”
Everyone has worked with people who are heavy, and everyone has worked with people who are light. Light is better.
You ask a heavy to do a job, and he says that he will. But you’re not at all sure that the job will actually get done. You call two weeks later to ask for a status report, and you receive back an ambiguous response about what’s happening. As the deadline passes, you ask for the finished product. It finally arrives, a couple of days late.
That’s a heavy load for you, the supervisor, to bear. Multiply that by eight direct reports (in a corporate law department) or 20 associates (working under your supervision at a law firm), and the burden is unbearable. All that heaviness crushes you, and, next time around, you go in search of light people.
One of the memos is great; the other one is terrible. I know which is which. And, as I said, I haven’t yet read either one of them.
Isn’t trust terribly unfair?
Think about the many ways that establishing trust permeates a business relationship. Once the superior (whether that be partner, client, boss, or whomever) trusts the underling, the underling can do no wrong. And once the superior mistrusts the underling, the underling can do no right.
Which of the two unread memos in my inbox is great? The one from the guy I trust. All of his earlier memos have been great. They’re crisp, incisive, intelligent, and lucid; the one that I haven’t yet read is surely a thing of beauty, too. Which memo stinks? The one from the guy I don’t trust. All of his earlier memos have left me gripping my head in agony, trying to figure out what in God’s name this clown was trying to communicate and why anyone would think it was worth trying to communicate that drivel.
Trust permeates everything; it’s terribly unfair. Trust infuses more than just the memos I haven’t yet read. Trust permeates silence, too. How can trust permeate silence?
Do law firms set performance objectives for their lawyers?
I worked at two different lawfirms over the course of 25 years, and I remember only one meeting where anyone sat down and talked with me about setting performance objectives. We set the objectives; no one ever followed up to see whether I’d achieved them; and the rest was silence.
Perhaps some firms regularly set performance objectives for lawyers, but that was nothing I’d experienced before I moved in-house.
Many corporate law departments set performance objectives for in-house lawyers, and many people do this poorly. “Setting objectives” is viewed as an annual chore inflicted on the supervisor that he cannot ignore; the computer system keeps nagging him about it and ratting him out to others up the ranks. The supervisor finally relents and types a few objectives into the system: “Meet budget. Work closely with business units. Negotiate alternative fee agreements.”
Now that’s out of your hair, and no one will bother you until next year.
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When Chintan Panchal decided to leave a global BigLaw partnership to start his own firm, he could only hope that he would face the high-quality problem of firm building that many had cautioned him about. Focused on the uncertainty surrounding of a new firm launch, he decided to tackle staffing needs, IT challenges, and financial planning requirements after he had built up his legal practice.
Panchal Associates LLP–a corporate/finance and outside general counsel boutique–was quickly off to a great start. Clients and matters were flying in the door, and Chintan soon had a team of lawyers and staff with a variety of operational needs. To continue building an excellent team and provide them with a competitive benefits package, to expand his physical presence to include a European practice and additional partners, and to scale his operations and IT capabilities to support this growing enterprise brought with it demands of time, money, and expertise. Chintan knew he needed help.
“With the assistance of NexFirm, we have upgraded the capabilities of our firm to meet, and in some cases exceed, the standards we were used to at our former BigLaw firms. Operationally, we can now attract and service clients we didn’t have the bandwidth to support in the past, and continue to build our team with the best and brightest legal talent in the industry,” said Chintan Panchal, adding “It has worked out quite well in our case; NexFirm is an essential partner for us.”
The holiday season is upon us, and yet again, you have no idea what to get for the fickle lawyer in your life. We’re here to help. Even if your bonus check hasn’t arrived yet, any one of the gifts we’ve highlighted here could be a worthy substitute until your employer decides to make it rain.
We’ve got an eclectic selection for you to choose from, so settle in by that stack of documents yet to be reviewed and dig in…
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