Human Resources

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.

What does it mean to be light?

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I have two memos sitting unread in my inbox.

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?

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Do law firms set performance objectives for their lawyers?

I worked at two different law firms 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.

Or, if you preferred, you could do it right . . .

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A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the difference between résumé-based interviews and behavioral interviews. (In a nutshell, résumé-based interviews ask applicants for opinions about their personal histories; behavioral interviews ask for factual descriptions of how applicants handled certain situations in their lives.)

I really didn’t expect that to be a controversial topic, but I received messages by the e-mailbag full. Two folks recommended entirely revamping the way we interview candidates for legal jobs, and I’m sharing those two thoughts here — revealing the less controversial suggestion before the jump and the more controversial one after, just to leave you hanging.

My first correspondent, from a large West Coast law firm, said that he liked the idea of doing behavioral interviews, but he didn’t think interviews should be a game of “gotcha.” Thus, we should not surprise applicants at their interviews by asking an applicant to, say, identify a situation in which the applicant was forced to lead a group, what the applicant did, and how the applicant assessed the results. Instead, my correspondent suggested, firms should send to applicants in advance a set of behavioral interview questions that might be asked during the interviews, so the applicants would have a chance to think about their pasts, identify responsive situations, and give considered answers when later asked the questions.

I think that’s a fine idea, but I don’t think it’s a novel one. I recently saw several business school applications, and many B-school essay questions read strikingly like behavioral interview questions: Identify a certain type of situation in your past, and explain how you dealt with it. If business schools think that carefully crafted written answers to those questions yield meaningful insight into whether to admit an applicant into school, then there’s no reason why law firms shouldn’t ask similar questions and give applicants plenty of time to frame their answers.

But my second correspondent was even more radical . . .

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People have occasionally asked me for advice about interview techniques.

My suggestion has always been short and pointed: “Say something smart. Say something funny. Ask a good question. And get the heck out of there.”

What about on the other side of the table? I really don’t trust interviews. I don’t believe that it’s possible to tell during a half hour or an hour whether someone is truly competent or a great bluffer. I never thought I learned much from forcing people to talk about their résumés. So when I was interviewing candidates for jobs at a big law firm, I’d try to identify something that the applicant claimed to know — a practice area, a procedural issue, a case the person had defended — and engage the person on that subject. I figured that I was thus showing interest in something about the applicant while giving myself a chance to assess whether the applicant was sentient.

But now I work at a place that sells human resources consulting as part of its business. That requires folks to think a little harder about interviewing techniques. After all, if you’re offering professional advice about conducting interviews, you ought to interview your own job applicants effectively. I’ve recently been educated on this subject and, as a dutiful blogger, I’ll share with you what I’ve learned. What is behavioral interviewing, and why is it better than traditional interview techniques?

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I saw this all the time at law firms: I’d be in the middle of preparing to argue an appeal — reading key cases, studying the excerpts of the record, and thinking about likely questions from the bench. My mind was completely engrossed in what I was doing. And someone would walk into my office and say, “It went well.”

I had only one reaction: “Who are you again, and what are you talking about?”

Now that I’m in-house, I see this even more frequently. Cases — or legal issues, or administrative inquiries, or whatever — cross the desks of many in-house lawyers at a frantic pace. The things that an outside lawyer, or some other in-house colleague, is thinking about, may not have flitted across your mind in six months. But folks figure that you’re thinking about whatever happens to be on their mind at the moment.

Here’s an example….

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Here’s proof that I view my readers at ATL as family: In this post, I’m going to share with you the results of my recently concluded 360-degree performance review and tell you how I plan to improve my personal job performance. (That may not be quite as sexy as pictures of naked judges, but you must admit that I’m making terribly personal information awfully public.)

I’d never been through a 360-degree review before. As part of the process, I completed a self-evaluation, so we could see whether my self-perception matched how the world perceives me. In addition to my self-rating, I received anonymous feedback from (1) the person to whom I report (who was classified as a “peer,” so that his responses would remain anonymous), (2) five other “peers,” or people who hold jobs equivalent to mine in the company and who work with me occasionally, and (3) seven “direct reports,” or folks who report up to me through the ranks. The human resources guy who discussed the review with me did a very nice job; he knows a fair amount about performance evaluations. (Aon is not just the world’s leading provider of insurance and reinsurance brokerage, but also the leading provider of human capital consulting. This means that (1) at long last, Aon finally just got some free publicity out of my having written this column for almost a year, and (2) we have many colleagues at Aon who do human resources consulting for a living, so they’re slightly better at delivering the results of reviews than the kid down the block or the head of your practice group at your law firm.)

What did I learn from the results of my 360-degree review?

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Years ago, I saw a memo written by a law firm partner who was renowned for mistreating junior partners, associates, staff, and lost children who wandered in the front door looking for their parents. But this memo showed a whole different personality. The memo was directed to a practice leader who had solicited comments about how best to expand the practice. (In case you’re wondering, the memo was distributed widely by mistake. The practice leader told his assistant to gather in one document all of the comments about how to improve the practice, so the comments could be shared and everyone could discuss the ideas at an upcoming meeting. The assistant then took all of the unedited inbound memos and assembled them in a single packet that she distributed to the entire group. Voilà! There was the ogre’s memo, for all to read.)

The ogre’s memo was breathtakingly — what’s the right word here? — “solicitous” to the practice leader: “I’ll satisfy your request for suggestions about how to expand this practice area further, but we should first acknowledge what you’ve achieved to date. When you were appointed to lead this practice ten years ago, everyone thought you’d been sent on a fool’s errand. No one thought it was possible for our firm to compete in this space. We had no cases in the area and none of our lawyers had any expertise. But you’ve defied all the odds. You’ve made this practice one of the great success stories in the firm. You deserve endless praise for what you’ve done, and I want you to know how much we respect — indeed, admire — you.” And so on.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand the fine art of sucking up. (I’m not much good at it, but I understand it.) And I appreciate the wisdom of people like the ogre who try to do their sucking up in private. But I don’t understand folks who do these things publicly. Can’t we control at least the public manifestations of unequal treatment being accorded to people who matter to you and people who don’t?

What am I thinking of?

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Two comments from folks who recently moved in-house prompt this post.

The first comment came from a guy who spent more than ten years with an Am Law 100 firm before moving in-house: “When I was reading the newspaper on Sunday, I realized something. Before I moved in-house, I never truly understood ‘Dilbert’ and the cubicle culture. Now, I do.”

The second comment came from a guy who spent more than 20 years with two different AmLaw 100 firms before moving in-house: “When I moved laterally between law firms, my new firm understood that my time had value. I arrived at 9 on the first day and was working on client matters before noon. My office was ready to go, and we held the bureaucratic stuff to a minimum.

“I moved in-house, and it took days before I could start working. I screwed around with immigration forms and health insurance; I needed computer passwords; when I arrived, my office didn’t have even a pen and pad of paper, let alone a telephone or a computer in it. You realize pretty quickly that you’re in a nonbillable world, and no one seems to care very much whether or not you actually do anything. I figure that, if they don’t care, why should I?”

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Our research shows that inner work life has a profound impact on workers’ creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality. Employees are far more likely to have new ideas on days when they feel happier. Conventional wisdom suggests that pressure enhances performance; our real-time data, however, shows that workers perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do.

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, authors of The Progress Principle (affiliate link), in a New York Times op-ed piece, Do Happier People Work Harder?

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