Attorneys’ inflated self-esteem can wreak havoc on many areas of life. That’s one of the reasons many attorneys find healthy, peaceful relationships elusive. It’s also why we’re the butt of countless jokes. Heck, it’s the widespread disdain for lawyers that no doubt prompted Steven Spielberg to make the scene where the T. rex devours the lawyer in “Jurassic Park” the film’s moment of comedic relief. He wouldn’t have gotten the same crowd-pleasing reaction if this dino’s dinner had been a software engineer.
Also, the halos that lawyers see around their own heads are problematic when it comes to running a law firm. One area where this is particularly evident is in the way attorneys reject the contributions of law practice professionals without JDs.
Lawyers, Lawyers everywhere
The problem is deeper than the mindset; it is structural. The fundamental composition of law firms differs from that of most other companies in ways that often lead us to systematically overestimate the importance of attorneys and underestimate the business people and employees who power the firm’s engine.
Most of the large, non-legal businesses that we typically think about, talk about, or advise on are made up of separate departments that focus on specific tasks. By working together, administrators, sales departments, recruiters and managers strengthen the entire company together. The owners, hoping to keep the profits alive, pass some of those benefits on to these key team members who made it all possible.
However, what makes law firms unique is that practicing attorneys hold many key positions in the firm. Lawyers are often a company’s management, sales team, recruiters and product all rolled into one. In addition, they typically own the company themselves. Law firms are structured less like a Fortune 500 company and more like a collective of plumbers or carpenters. With all the marble in our offices, we are artisans at heart, working not with steel or wood but with PDFs and privileged protocols.
Who is important?
The challenge with this concentration of roles and power within law firms is that it often systematically leads to a rigorous leadership mentality in which there are two types of people they work with: lawyers and everyone else. The haves and the have-nots. And that two-tiered thinking leads to two-tiered treatment.
The lawyers who own the firm run it. They generate most of their revenue directly, have all the leverage and incentives to give themselves large salary packages, numerous benefits and perks, and ample freedom to conduct their business lives as they see fit. Few employees who are not lawyers are given the same luxury. Consider how many law firms offer attorneys unlimited vacation time and flexible work arrangements, but require their employees to spend mandatory time in the office and strictly measure and limit their days off.
And these are just the objective differences between lawyers and non-lawyers. The general tone and atmosphere of a law firm can also convey that the opinions and treatment of attorneys are far more important than those of employees. I’m sure that many team members at law firms without JDs have had the experience of coming up with good ideas to improve their workplace, only to be blocked from implementing those ideas unless they can convince an attorney to do the work accept and work towards it. In some law firms, attorneys are allowed to get away with unprofessional or abusive behavior that would result in immediate termination for a non-lawyer. At worst, this two-tiered system can result in companies exuding a downright dystopian “Hunger Games” vibe.
Every time we reinforce the perception that lawyers have a different set of rules and responsibilities than everyone else, we push our non-lawyer colleagues a little closer to the door.
Displace people when we need them most
Non-lawyer business people such as marketing, HR, finance or IT are often at particular risk of feeling undervalued and belittled in law firms. We expect these professionals to work side-by-side with us on issues that are fundamental to the success and growth of the business, but often minimize their input and do not give their advice proper weight. Sometimes this can lead professionals to look for another company that rates them higher, such as the entire marketing team that just moved from Cooley to Fried Frank. In other cases, however, it can push them out of the legal sector altogether, in favor of industries less captured by a single segment of the firm’s workforce.
For once, the business professionals actually have some leverage. Even given other economic indicators, vacancies remain difficult to fill, meaning competition for talent is fierce. While many attorneys are slow to recognize this, our business and administrative team members are talented and needed to keep our offices alive in an increasingly competitive marketplace. If we don’t appreciate them, the Big Four accounting firms and alternative legal services firms that are steadily eroding the market share of law firms certainly will.
This is not a tenable situation. Because as confident as we attorneys may be that we can overcome any challenge, attorneys should not be involved part-time in the management of large organizations that involve hundreds or thousands of people and potentially billions of dollars in annual revenues. We need dedicated, experienced employees to manage our complex businesses on a full-time basis. To attract and retain these people, companies must treat them better than second-class citizens.
Show, don’t say
The best way to correct bad behavior patterns within an organization is for leadership to demonstrate the right course of action. At my company, we work hard to show how much we value our business people from the top down. We regularly invite our business professionals to meetings and allow them to attend regularly. We actively seek their input into firm decisions, and our management team seeks to show our trust and confidence in them.
This shouldn’t be unusual. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that people who’ve devoted their careers to marketing, human resources, corporate governance, accounting, or the myriad other aspects of running a great company will have a better idea than a bunch of amateur JD’s. We may own our firms and we may be the product that drives sales, but a great law firm cannot survive on lawyers alone in today’s environment. We need our business people, and today we often need them more than they need us.
One of the major issues in legal practice in the 21st century was the maturing of the large law firm model. It used to make sense to run our offices like a hoard of budding employees, but today’s complex legal marketplace requires thinking more like a traditional commercial enterprise.
This requires us as attorneys with oversized representation and influence in our offices to recognize that oversized influence does not equate to oversized competence. We have vacancies in our companies, but we can’t be the only people the company listens to or wants to serve. We have colleagues who bring brilliant ideas and valuable experience. We ignore or underestimate them at our peril. So why not control that ego, let go of the reins a little and try to listen to the people who are using their talents full-time to make your business as strong as it can be? It never hurts to treat people with respect, and this small change can make all the difference to your business.
James Goodnow is CEO and managing partner of the company NLJ 250 Fennemore. At 36, he became the youngest known executive director of a major law firm in the United States. He earned his JD from Harvard Law School and attended Cambridge Business School (UK) where he wrote his Masters thesis on how to use entrepreneurial strategies to infuse innovation in law firms and established companies. James is co-author of motivate millennialswhich ranked #1 in the New Business Management Releases category on Amazon. You can connect with James on LinkedIn, Twitteror email him [email protected]