Management

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. . . .

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Partner, can you spare a dime?

Last week, we discussed the first part of an interesting essay by former managing partner Edwin Reeser that appeared in the ABA Journal. Today we’ll tackle part two.

Are you still depressed after reading in-house lawyer David Mowry’s recent reflections on the legal profession? If so, maybe stop reading here and come back later.

But if you’re willing to wallow, on this Friday the 13th and Yom Kippur, venture beyond the jump….

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PPP: pennies per partner?

Former managing partner Edwin Reeser is one of my favorite analysts of the legal profession (or industry, as the case may be). He recently wrote an interesting and thoughtful piece for the ABA Journal with a great title: “Law firms in the Great Recession: looking for change in all the wrong places.”

I’m a sucker for a good double entendre. Here, “looking for change” has at least two meanings. First, there’s “change” in the sense of reform. Second, there’s “change” in the sense of “spare change,” reflected in the sad way that law firm are rifling through the couch cushions — de-equitizing partners, laying off associates and staff, and cutting other costs here and there. These marginal steps have helped keep profits per partner up in the wake of the Great Recession, but they’re no recipe for winning the future.

So what should Biglaw be doing to promote long-term success?

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I went through my first 360-degree review — where those above, beside, and beneath you in the organization all anonymously evaluate your performance — two years ago. Never one to shy away from abject public self-humiliation, I shared the result of that review in this column. I revealed that my biggest “blind spot” two years ago was in the area of celebrating the accomplishments of folks on my team: I thought I was pretty good on that score; those who worked under my supervision begged to differ.

I told you that I would fix that problem, and I did. During this year’s 360-degree review, my score for celebrating our accomplishments was a solid 4.0 — 0.9 better than two years ago, and precisely how I’d graded myself this time around. It had actually been pretty easy to solve this problem: I distributed emails celebrating our victories more often and to wider audiences; I stopped by folks’ desks to congratulate them on wins; and I was otherwise more sensitive to letting the world know when my merry gang of litigators did nice work.

Now that I’ve solved one management problem, however, another one naturally reared its ugly head during this year’s 360-degree review . . . .

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One firm just started pocketing 20 percent of partner pay.

Many lessons can be drawn from the collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf. We’ve learned, for example, that it’s dangerous to have a law firm name that’s highly susceptible to puns. (Dewey know why that is? Howrey going to find out? Heller if I know.)

Another lesson: avoid excessive dependence upon bank financing. When a firm starts to spiral downwards, that spiraling can be accelerated by a bank calling a loan, not renewing a credit facility, or otherwise taking steps to protect itself that, while reasonable for the bank, can be damaging to the firm.

Firms have responded by turning to their partners for more financing. An increasing number of firms are issuing capital calls to partners or requiring high capital contributions.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that one law firm has instituted a new policy of withholding 20 percent of partner pay….

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Sorry, the Layoff Lady hasn’t gone away.

Sorry, folks — we couldn’t make it two full weeks without a story about law firm layoffs. We continue to hear reports about them, which we publish as we get sufficient corroboration for each one. If you have information to share, please email us or text us (646-820-8477; texts only, not a voice line).

Thus far, layoffs have hit support staff the hardest. Junior staffers often bear the brunt, since some of the layoffs are seniority-based.

But senior people, including law firm management, are not immune to the cuts. One law firm recently laid off two executives, along with about twenty staffers…

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Last week, I came across this great blog post: The Merits of Not Throwing Someone under the Bus. It touches on a few issues that come up all the time during the practice of law (and probably at any job that involves contact with other human beings, which I’m pretty sure describes a few of the legal ones out there, but correct me if I’m wrong).

In sum, Joey P. found herself in a situation in which she opted to be a team player by correcting some minor edits in a motion that another attorney in her office had prepared and then sending the document out to the client. Doesn’t sound like it would amount to anything, does it? Well, there was a big, dumb mistake in the motion, and the client emailed Joey to point out the blunder (while cc:ing a couple of partners because clients tend to be super nice and thoughtful like that).

Joey explained to her partner what had happened and wanting to be a team player, she took responsibility for not noticing the mistake made by the other attorney and decided not to rat that person out.

The way she handled the situation was pretty admirable (especially for a lawyer). There are, however, a couple of other steps that I would have taken if I had been in her situation that I think would have helped to further team dynamics and also to prevent a poor, innocent associate from being blamed for someone else’s screw-up….

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Everyone needs a little help sometimes. Even Biglaw attorneys. But Biglaw firms are not the kind of place to find it. No matter what level you are on. The higher up you are on the food chain, the lonelier it can be. And with the good ship Biglaw puttering around listlessly like the Triumph “cruising” through the Gulf, it is no wonder that everyone wants whatever edge they can get. Forget about glamorous trans-Atlantic voyages, most Biglaw captains just want to keep their ships pointed in the right direction nowadays.

And so we have entered a bit of a “coach moment” in Biglaw. As in everyone recognizing that coaches are good. They help you develop a “practice” (otherwise known as finding clients able to swallow your hourly rate), or teach you how to “manage” people and things, or even help you “balance” your life. (By the way, “balance” keeps away “chair sores” from too many hours reviewing term sheets.)

And “Coach” can remind you that an hour in the gym a couple of days a week is a pretty solid idea for someone whose other regular exercise mainly consists of the following: (1) open desk drawer with right hand, (2) reach into box of processed sugar-based item, (3) grab said item, and (4) place in mouth. (Interchange hands for best results. A Biglaw gut or jiggle to be proud of is literally within reach.) Since most people can’t get break such wonderful habits on their own, coaching can help….

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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.” . . .

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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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