Are Lawyers Horrible Bosses?

By Stephen Furnari - September 2, 2014
Are Lawyers Horrible Bosses?

7 reasons why lawyers make bad managers, and why it prevents them from making real money in their own law practice.

I bet for many of you, bad bosses were a contributing factor in your decision to start a firm. It was for me. It was for my law partner.

Yet when success affords the self-employed attorney the ability to hire staff, we too are often guilty of treating staff poorly.

Given the universality of bad bosses in law firms, it makes me wonder if the practice is conducive to producing “good bosses”?  Here are 7 reasons why the cards may be stacked against us.

1. The profession does not value managerial improvement.

A common complaint among attorneys is that we are not taught marketing in law school. But running a law practice requires many business skills to be successful; training, supervising, and motivating employees among them.  None of these other skills are taught in law school either.

For all the discussion in our industry about marketing and revenue growth, by comparison, there’s very little discourse about managing human capital. Yet, law firms, both big and small, can’t sustain revenue growth without staff to handle the increased workload.

Given the high cost of recruiting, training and retaining new employees, you would think that firms would have an interest in protecting their investment. But as a profession, we don’t seem to do a good job of it.

For better or worse, we live in a world where high billable hours and business organizations are king. If the high salary you are being paid is not enough to keep you happy or motivated, then go get a degree in social work. In our world, we do not seem to place much value on keeping employees motivated and happy. It’s just not a priority.

It makes sense that we focus more attention on marketing; it’s an expense that has a direct correlation to revenue. Spend a dollar on a marketing campaign and, in theory, quickly produce an additional two in revenue.

Investments made in managerial training do not have the same immediate financial impact. But in most cases, human capital is a law firm’s single biggest expense and improving management skills can have a material, long-lasting effect on a firm’s profitability.

Yet, without the instant gratification of increased profits, material expenditures for managerial training are not likely to sustain the interest of firm management.

2. The skills required to do our jobs well are counterproductive to the skills needed for good managing.

The practice of law is intellectually demanding. Nearly every day we are faced with complex, high stress situations and difficult adversaries.  We work long hours of trying to do the impossible: make more rain while billing even more hours.

Good managers can do two simple things: listen to their employees and think before they act.  Simple, really. But when you’re constantly working in reactionary mode, often in an adversarial environment, taking the time to listen and think before acting isn’t always easy. As a result, the staff suffers.

Good managers can do two simple things: listen to their employees and think before they act. Click To Tweet

Then there’s malpractice risk. I often tell my non-attorney staffers, “law is a business of perfection, where mistakes can end careers.” Make one mistake and your personal assets, and those of your partners, are at risk.  With so much on the line, for intellectually and physically drained partners it’s easy to overreact to mistakes, even insignificant ones. Again, the staff suffers.

3. Law firms’ highly skilled workforce enables managerial mediocrity.

The highly skilled nature of our professional workforce enables the managers in our profession to be mediocre and still make money.

Unlike other industries that rely on varying degrees of skilled labor for work production, the legal industry produces revenue almost exclusively from highly trained, highly educated and intellectually capable individuals.

Companies in other industries take raw talent from differing backgrounds, with different learning abilities, and mold them into productive employees. Doing this successfully takes skilled trainers and managers.

By comparison, young lawyers come to their first job already possessing the core skills needed to be successful.

Fundamentally, law school training is all about rapidly learning new knowledge sets and competently applying them to different situations. It’s how we learn to craft legal arguments in areas of law in which we have had no previous experience.  This training also translates exceptionally well when it comes to learning new job skills.

Yes, the young lawyer has much to learn in terms of being able to practice independently.  But if she has the discipline to make it out of law school successfully and possesses the intellectual horsepower to pass a bar exam, chances are she will be relatively easy to train.

Just think about how you learned your craft. There probably wasn’t a lot of hand holding or formal training.

In my first law related job, I was handed a stack of litigation files on the first day and was told to push the cases forward. In my second, I was handed a form of a private placement memorandum and was told to write a new one for our most recent client. No training, just an expectation you don’t *&#% it up.

Chances are you too were handed a file, given inadequate instructions about what to do, and were left to figure it out on your own. If you made mistakes, you took your lumps and, hopefully, never made them again.

Compare this to a customer support job I had with a credit card processor during one Summer break from college.  At that three-month temp job I attended more hours of formal training than I got during the seven years I spent working for law firms.

And yet, surprisingly, we all eventually learn our trade in spite of our employers’ managerial ineptitude.

4. Performing a skill well doesn’t mean you can teach it to others.

Interestingly, the flip side of this same coin is that people who can learn something quickly and independently are frequently incapable of teaching that very same skill to others.

Take athletics and coaching.  How often is the natural athlete incapable of coaching others to achieve his same level of performance? Yet it’s not uncommon for a coach, who could never perform (athletically) at the same level as a natural talent athlete, to produce superstars.

Performing a skill well, and teaching and motivating others to do that same skill, can often be mutually exclusive.

In the case of attorneys, the very same strength that enables us to learn our craft, largely independently, may contribute to our downfall when it comes to managing others.

5. Taking abuse seems to be part of our professional culture.

As a profession, abuse and humiliation seems to be an acceptable part of our culture. From the very first time you are embarrassed in front of your law school classmates by a professor, to getting dressed down by an irate judge, to being largely reviled by a large portion of the general public, lawyers tend to have a high tolerance for abuse.  If you don’t, you will not stay in the practice long enough to be in a position to manage others.

The interesting thing about abuse is how evenly it gets reapportioned to subordinates.  Get dumped on by a client, judge or managing partner, it’s business-as-usual to spread the “love” around.  And you know what they say about poop and where it rolls: always downhill.

For better or worse, it’s an accepted part our part of our culture.

Law is not some middle management corporate job that you haphazardly fall into.  People choose law as a profession.  By the time a lawyer is a year or two into their first job, you either implicitly agree to play by the rules of our culture, or you find something else to do for a living.

A high level of tolerance is a necessity for attorneys to be in a position to manage others Click To Tweet

6. When it comes to managers, the profession has low expectations.

People who choose a profession that requires as much training as practicing law are vested in their careers and serious about their work.  From an employers’ perspective, the management process seems to become more about getting the work done and less about managing behavior or coddling. I see this difference with the non-attorney support staff that I have managed over the years at Law Firm Suites.

They were not generally planning to make careers out of the law.  They didn’t necessarily understand the culture of the practice.  They didn’t derive any satisfaction from seeing a client’s work satisfactorily completed.  They had no vested interest in the culture.

They wanted to be treated fairly and, more importantly, be recognized when they did something good.

Whether managing attorneys or being managed by other attorneys, I had no expectation to give or receive praise. If I wasn’t hassling someone (or being hassled) to get the work done, things were good. That’s a pretty low threshold in terms of managerial competence.

In my experience, this hands-off management style that worked with attorneys resulted in heavy turnover with non-legal staff.

7. Attorneys are skilled enough to navigate away from bad bosses, creating little need to improve the bad behavior.

Attorneys are trained to advocate for a living, which makes them better equipped to navigate the murky waters of bad bosses at a firm.  If you don’t like your supervisor, you have the skills to advocate for a move to a different department (or team within a department).  If that doesn’t work, you call a headhunter. If there are no jobs, you can start your own firm.

We have options. As a result, there is less of a call from employees to improve the managerial skills of inept managers.  If you end up working for a freakshow, our culture is to simply navigate away from it rather than demand that the firm fix the problem.

This seems like a big firm problem, what does any of this have to do with my small firm or solo law practice?

You can make good money in a solo or small firm law practice.  But the only way to make real money is to leverage the labor of others. I talk about this concept in this eBook.

When I speak to my Biglaw expat colleagues, most have this desire to keep their income on par with what they would have earned if still gainfully employed by a firm. And it is totally achievable.

But at some point, for your income to keep pace with the career you left behind, hiring employees will be mandatory.

The problem for small firm attorneys is that employees are expensive and that big, fixed payroll expense can be difficult to commit to with the peak and valley revenue cycle common to a small law practice.

Plus, for most of us, it’s not feasible, financially, to compete with the big firms for talent. But the good news is that you don’t have to.

If you can get good at recruiting, training, motivating and retaining staff, you can hire good quality attorneys, for less money, and get them to stay employed longer, making accelerated firm growth within reach.

No question, managing other people well is difficult. Attorneys tend to be very analytical, and managing others involves dealing with feelings, emotions and motivation; very intangible things. But managing human capital is simply a skill that can be learned.

No question, managing other people well is difficult. Click To Tweet

It costs very little to improve your skills and reap a long term reward. The biggest hurdle is committing to the process.

Plus, it’s one area where small firm lawyers can consistently beat out their big firm competitors.

From workshops to private consultants, there are any number of ways to improve your management skills.  But the first step is awareness about your own limitations.

The very personality traits that draw many of us into the legal profession are often the opposite of the natural manager.   And most of us weren’t groomed to be great managers by our previous employers.

Only by understanding your deficiencies (or acknowledging that you may have them), can you begin to improve this very important skill.

About Stephen Furnari

Stephen Furnari is a self-employed corporate attorney and the founder of Law Firm Suites, the operator of coworking spaces for law firms. Through Law Firm Suites, Furnari has helped hundreds of attorneys launch and grow successful law practices. He is the author of several eBooks, including “7 Deadly Mistakes that Prevent Law Practice Success” and “An Insider’s Guide to Renting the Perfect Law Office”. Stephen has been featured in the ABA Journal, Entrepreneur, New York Daily News and Crain’s New York. Connect with Stephen on Twitter (@stephenfurnari).

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