Management

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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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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Long ago, my law firm won an appeal, and we were thinking of publicizing the victory for the benefit of both the client and our firm.

“It’ll be good to get some attention,” I said to the senior partner.

“It’s easy to get attention,” said he. “Just run naked down Market Street at high noon. We don’t want attention. We want good attention.”

The same could be said of corporate law departments: It’s easy to get attention. It’s harder to get attention for simply doing a good job.

Suppose you wanted your corporation’s law department to be the darling of the press and be nominated for “law department of the year” honors. What would you do?

It’s easy: Make the type of big, public announcements that draw attention: “Our law department is announcing three major initiatives. First, we’re announcing a pro bono initiative. All of our in-house lawyers will devote at least 500 hours per year to pro bono matters. Second, we’re implementing a diversity initiative. [Insert details here.] Third, we’re completely eliminating reliance on the billable hour. Henceforth, all of our law firms will work on flat-fee or other alternative billing arrangements.” (There are surely other items that one could add to this list, too, that are escaping my feeble imagination.)

Gin ‘em up. Send out a press release. Presto! Your law department would be the toast of the town. People would be beating down your doors seeking interviews. But what would you have accomplished?

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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; . . .

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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?

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