Law Firm Management: An Oxymoron?

I’ve seen the workings of several law firms over the past thirty years, either through my own experience or that of friends and relatives. In most cases, law firm management is an oxymoron.

Everyone is dissatisfied – support staff, new lawyers, senior associates, junior partners, rainmakers, and senior counsel. While dissatisfaction is rampant in any work environment, lawyers tend not to understand management and even to scoff at its importance. Except when it comes to billing and collections.

There are some law firms on the 100 Best Places to Work lists, but they usually make these lists because of the perks they offer – such as working from home or on-site day care – that don’t require strong people management skills.

Here are some of the horror stories I’ve heard in recent years:

  • Firms tell new law school graduates they will have jobs, but don’t give the new attorneys any idea when their start date will be.  The prospective associates then fret over whether to commit to another job, and wonder whether they will be able to make the transition when the firm is ready for them. Firms are also slow to inform new associates about signing bonuses, salary and benefits.
  • Managing partners and mentors leave senior associates in the dark about how partnership decisions are made.  In most firms, these decisions are highly subjective. Associates never know who blackballed them, and they might linger in limbo for years, thinking next year they’ll grab the golden ring for sure.
  • Attorneys at all levels treat support staff as drudges, subject to verbal abuse and unreasonable deadlines. No judge would put up with this behavior from attorneys in the courtroom, but lawyers feel free to scream at their secretaries and paralegals in the office.
  • The management committee sets partners’ compensation in secrecy, on the theory that if nobody knows what anybody else makes, no one will be jealous. But somehow the information gets out, or the speculation is worse than the truth. 
  • Partners don’t know whether they are truly “partners” under the law, or “employees” of a corporation. The firm’s deductions from partner compensation may not match how the firm is structured on paper or how it operates in practice. Partners and employees have different rights under the law — many employment laws, such as Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, don’t protect partners, yet how many partners in today’s mega-firms truly influence the firm as owners?
  • Senior attorneys feel shunted aside after thirty years or more of contributions to the firm. Many firms have no graceful way to ease an attorney’s route to retirement. Some old lawyers shuffle in to empty offices to read their mail; others leave disgruntled taking decades of experience that could help new lawyers in the firm.
  • Even the partners with large books of business who bring in the most income to the firm feel under-appreciated. Firms don’t know how to balance recognition of the relationships that brought in the clients and the work that keeps them.
  • And even the firms’ Employment Practices groups treat employees poorly. You’d think this group would know to avoid sexual harassment, but unfortunately, harassers seem to be spread equally across the workforce.

Legal conferences these days are full of sessions about “practice management” and “project management.” But law firms would do better to add “people management” to their vocabulary and legal education programs.  Unfortunately, lawyers seem to think they are too smart for that “people stuff.”

Large firms usually have HR departments, but HR gets no more respect than the secretaries. When an employee problem develops, the attorneys have no patience, and ask HR to “deal with it,” meaning “Get rid of the person. Yesterday.”

Certainly not all firms fit the picture I’ve created. But many do. Do you recognize your firm in one or more points of what I’ve described? If so, what are you doing about it?



Filed under Law, Management

2 responses to “Law Firm Management: An Oxymoron?

  1. Mike Lance

    Unfortunately, many of the issues you describe can be attributed to large corporations as well. I've had the opportunity to work for several of the largest telecommunication firms in a somewhat senior position and I can attest to the fact that no one is happy there either and for many of the same mismanagement reasons.
    Good managers seldom are recognized. Individual contributors receive more recognition. More telling is a story that circulated about the promotion policies of telecommunications companies.
    All of the candidates for a promotion were asked to climb atop six foot step ladders and kiss the ceiling. As they did, the ladders were kicked out from under. The candidate who stuck to the ceiling longest received the promotion.

  2. Mike, I agree with your perceptions of corporate life. Hadn't heard the story about the ladders. What a shame.

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