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?
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?
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?
My friend Pablo told me that when Monica, a partner, called his home at 9:00 p.m., he knew it couldn’t be good. Why not email? For an instant, he considered letting the call go to voicemail. Taking a deep breath, he answered.
Monica wanted to know “where he was” with the brief Pablo had been working on. She had not given him any particular deadline, so he explained that he expected to circulate the draft for review the following evening. The brief was a motion to dismiss, and he knew the deadline to file was still two weeks away. He was allowing the partner one week to review before she had to send to the client, who in turn would have another week to review.
The partner, however, had a different idea. “I want it on my desk tomorrow by 8 a.m.,” she told Pablo.” “Not a moment later.”
Every firm has them. And partners dutifully show up. Mostly for the free lunch. This month we are serving Tex-Mex. One percenters’s loading up on the free food like a Soviet-era pensioner given the keys to the potato warehouse. It can be a gruesome scene.
So what happens at these monthly gatherings of Biglaw’s barons and baronesses? Nothing important. (You want important stuff, you need to crash an Executive Committee meeting. Or for the increasingly common Biglaw dictatorships, you need to bug Chairman Mao’s office.) At least at the scheduled monthly partner meetings. “Special” partner meetings are a different story. You want those to be boring, like calling for a vote on a group of laterals. “Exciting” special meetings, while good for Lat, are not good news for the average partner usually. Stability is one of the biggest draws of a Biglaw partnership. Stability means no shocking announcements, over which you have no control.
Anyway, here is how the typical monthly partner meeting goes….
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