Hot Off The Press — March/April 2020 BFAB Newsletter

March/April 2020 Newsletter

Career Counselors, Law Firm Managers, Law School Educators, Law Students, Practice Advice, Pre-law, Young Lawyer | Comment

Thought For the Week: Calibrate yourself and your expectations so that you can get up every day and avoid disappointment. Governor Andrew Cuomo

Thought For The Day | Comment

What Can Law Firm Leaders Learn from a Pandemic?

Law firm leaders come in all shapes, sizes, skin colors and backgrounds.  They are both male and female, young and old.  Some are effective, and some are not.  And the differences in their effectiveness as leaders are especially apparent during a challenging time like a pandemic, which changes all the traditional rules in a very traditional profession.  Like wheat and chaff, like milk and cream.  Only the best rise to the top — or, at least, that is the way it should work.

So, what can effective leaders learn from a pandemic.  It is an odd question, but it needs to be asked.  It is easy to be an effective leader during good times — and much more challenging to be an effective leader during bad times.  But that does not mean that there is not a lot of wisdom to be gleaned during challenging times.  The lessons that law firm leaders take from the way business is being done at this time may determine the true value of their organizations for years to come.

Here is some of what we can learn from the days of COVID-19:

  • The debate over the value of telecommuting/working from home is no longer worthy of much discussion.  Law firms will be almost as productive during this challenging time as before and after, especially the large ones.  Measuring this new-found knowledge against the cost of bricks and mortar offices and lost time during long commutes will be the new debate.
  •  “Face time” will never be as revered as it was in the past.  Technology has eclipsed the necessity of the face-to-face practice model to an impressive degree and has brought about the best substitutes we ever could have imagined.  And those innovations are too valuable to be cast aside for a return to old methods of practice.
  • The team approach is being recognized for its true value.  Bringing the team together on conference calls and Zoom meetings is being necessitated by a scattered and isolated workforce and the need to keep the team informed and together in these uncertain times.  And it is working very well.  Inquiries about the individual challenges team members are experiencing have become common place, and team members are sharing their personal situations.  The impersonal nature of the law firm is being replaced with heart and humanity, which has been hiding for too long, and which will result in cultures of caring and more satisfying workplaces.
  • The connections between law firms and their communities are front and center at this time.  The needs of the community infuse our conversations and encourage our charity.  We miss what we no longer have in terms of the services and the service providers we took for granted, and that reality should invigorate and expand our pro bono practices as we understand the reality of our new world order.

So, what changes can law firm leaders make in policies and programs to meet these new realities?  How can they take advantage of the wisdom of these challenging times?

The answer lies in the cultures that law firms create — positive cultures versus negative cultures, caring cultures versus toxic cultures.  The choice is up to the leaders, and here are a few ways that law firm leaders can end up on the right side of the values challenge:

  • Demonstrate support for the worker not just for the work.  Too often the emphasis is on the client and the work.  The spotlight rarely shines on the worker — especially at the associate level — and that is a mistake.  Through this crisis, we are getting a truer picture of how life impacts work.  Now life overlays work more than ever, and young lawyers are meeting the challenges.  They are caring for small children and elderly family members at the same time that they are meeting work deadlines, participating in Zoom meetings, and keeping up with administrative tasks.  This does not happen easily, and they need to know that leadership understands that and appreciates it.  Leaders should acknowledge the effort in a phone call or an e-mail.  Ask how employees are managing and what the greatest challenges are.  Anxiety, social isolation, and financial concerns are at levels that are very difficult for most people, and that should be acknowledged.  Let them see the empathy and the personal touch that is within you.  That kind of outreach REALLY matters.
  • Create positive law firm cultures.  The culture of a law firm is everything.  It drives work satisfaction, the quality of the work product, and retention decisions.  Who is on your team matters to achieving positive results.  Change hiring policies to make sure that the people you add to the team can be counted on to benefit the team.  Don’t hire lawyers full of hubris, who care little for others and will destroy the esprit de corps.  Put the emphasis on team players, and reward the entire team.  How you treat employees is critical to success in business.  The soft skills of positive communication are key to good employee relations.  Don’t verbally abuse those who report to you, and don’t create false deadlines just to flex management muscles.  Don’t isolate and ignore colleagues so that they feel on the fringe of the team.  Be inclusive.  Seek out conversations.  Encourage confidence.
  • Embrace kindness and compassion.  Choose it.  Embrace it.  Live it.

Be informed by these challenging times.  Learn from them.  Remember them.  Start now to develop the positive values you need to accompany your organization into the future, and include them in your succession plans.  It is a win-win — for those at all levels of your workforce.  And that is a worthy goal.

Career Counselors, Law Firm Managers, Law School Educators, Law Students, Lifestyle, Practice Advice, Pre-law, Young Lawyer | Comment

Thought For The Week: Courage is contagious. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver. Brené Brown

Thought For The Day | Comment

Are Law Firms Training Leaders or Followers?

I have been wondering about this for years.  Are law firms training effective leaders — or are they simply creating followers?

We are seeing a lot of ineffective leadership in public office these days on both sides of the aisle — “leaders” who would rather tell us what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear.  And some of that ineffective leadership also is right here in our own profession.

Effective leaders have plans to make things better.  They do not shy away from leadership because they know that will create models for followers.  And followers do not have the vision to capitalize on the talent of people and create thriving organizations. 

There is plenty of evidence that we are creating followers in our profession — that the so-called “leaders” are not effective leaders themselves and, therefore, don’t have the ability to train effective leaders.  Or worse — that the leaders have the ability to be effective but don’t really want more competition for the leadership and management positions.  After all, why train the competition?

Too many law firms are failing at leadership.  They are failing at leadership for women lawyers, and they are failing at leadership for young lawyers.  They are failing at understanding that leadership begins at the top and trickles down.  For most people, it is skill that is taught and one that is learned.

Instead of effective leadership, we too often are modeling ignorance, avoidance and lack of caring and creating legions of followers for those negative traits and behaviors.  And this negative training trickles down to middle level managers — the ones the structural hierarchies of Biglaw firms have created and the ones who can be particularly toxic as they function without positive role models.  If they do not have effective leaders as role models, they will not become effective leaders and managers.  They cannot be who they cannot see.  It is that simple.

These middle level managers are the senior associates and non-equity partners, who have no training in management and leadership, yet are tasked with management and leadership responsibilities.  They too often are afraid of taking risks and making decisions that may result in harsh responses from upper level managers, and, to avoid that result, those in the middle sacrifice those at the bottom.  Too often these middle level “managers” flex their management muscles and prey on newbie associates, who have barely figured out where the restrooms are.  These “managers” get off on their little bit of power and leave bodies in their wakes. 

This style of mismanagement results in too many entry level lawyers deciding that they do not want to be used and bullied for sport, and they leave.  It is not that they cannot do the job.  It is that doing the job is just not worth the sacrifice of personal and professional dignity.

That result cuts against everything I know about retention of talent, and it should not happen.  If one is to become an effective manager/leader, then one must have management and leadership training.  Nothing less.  And middle level managers can only learn effective management and leadership skills from those at the top.

Leaders must be willing to spend time training future leaders.  They must lead by example and be good mentors and excellent role models.  They must take time away from billable hours and client development to assume those leadership responsibilities, and they must embrace the importance of the work.  They must become invested in the futures of young lawyers, and they must understand how vulnerable those young lawyers are to becoming discouraged when they are ignored, islolated, and treated like fungible goods.

Think about the most painful associate reviews that go something like this:

You are not meeting expectations, and we are not sure you have the right stuff.  According to some of your managers — no, we cannot give you their names — you are lacking in skills.  No, we do not have any specifics or any recommendations on how you can improve those skills.  Let’s talk again in six months.

This is wrong in so many ways.  This is not good leadership.  This is ignorance, avoidance and lack of caring.

What can you do to turn things around?

If you are a senior lawyer, get in the game.  Become part of the solution.  Make a leadership plan and embrace your responsibilities for its success.

If you are a junior lawyer, who needs leadership, ask for it.  Make a case for why it is good for you and also good for the firm.  Focus on the present and the future and a positive succession plan that includes YOU.  And forget the past.  It’s over.  Don’t waste your time and energy on woulda, coulda, shoulda. 

Then you will be thinking like an effective leader.  Watch your stock rise!





Career Counselors, Law Firm Managers, Law School Educators, Law Students, Practice Advice, Pre-law, Young Lawyer | Comment

Thought For The Week: Great opportunities to help others seldom come, but small ones surround us every day. Sally Koch

Thought For The Day | Comment

Will Kindness Prevail in Law Firms Beyond the Days of Coronavirus?

The coronavirus pandemic has been devastating to so many lives and complicating and stressful to so many others.  It has left many experiences in its wake that will best be forgotten, if that is even possible.  Images from the news each night, alone, will be hard to forget.

As much as we want to forget much of what has gone on in America during the last 90-plus days, there are some things that I hope we remember.

I hope that we remember the kindness.  I hope that we remember the caring.  I hope that we remember the civility.  I hope that we remember the power of community.

My focus is on young lawyers and their experiences in their chosen profession.  Much of what I write about concerns private practice in law firms for the simple reason that the majority of lawyers in America practice in that setting.  In my experience, and as research confirms, law firms have not been bastions of kind and caring behavior.  They have not emphasized good manners and civility in defining acceptable behaviors, and the goal of creating community has not been high on the “To Do” lists in many law firms.

In 2016 I wrote an article for Corporate Counsel magazine where I called out the greed of law firms for the first time.  Since that time, I have addressed it at law firms, law organizations and law schools throughout the country, and the greed of law firms has become a topic of discussion by many other law profession observers since that time.  However, it continues to be a very big problem.

Greed has driven a lack of humanity within the walls of law firms and has encouraged toxic behaviors that pit lawyer against lawyer without recourse.  Profits have ruled above anything else, and workers have been treated as fungible.  These management behaviors spread fear and discontent and leave bodies behind.

But now it appears that we are presented with a great opportunity to right the wrong.  Today we see how positive values can lift people up during a crisis.  Today we see that kindness counts.  Today we see the importance of caring and creating a community of support.  Today we see that it is possible to embrace a kinder and, yes, gentler profession.

It is refreshing and gives me hope to know that these better behaviors can thrive in law firms.  I see it when managers send compassionate e-mails wishing their colleagues well and sharing thoughts about future law firm operations and staffing issues.  Where that kind of information was rarely shared in the past, today it is commonplace and expected of effective leadership.  I hope those managers and leaders understand how important it is to the young people, who rely on them and who are frightened and insecure about their futures.

I see it when managers acknowledge the effectiveness of working remotely instead of fighting it with passe arguments about the importance of face time.  Face time is important, but it is not all important, as it has been regarded in the past.  Managers and effective leaders now know that business as usual may never be “as usual” and that the work will go on.

I see it when management takes care to avoid furloughs for junior lawyers, choosing first to reduce partner draws and keep the ship afloat in the least invasive manner.

And I see it when leadership recognizes that these new behaviors are the ones that will go the distance.  Behaviors and policies that will encourage rather than discourage young people to flock to our profession for all the best reasons.  To become soldiers in the mission to improve lives through legal services — with managers and leaders who are positive role models.

So I encourage all lawyers to look at the practices of their law organizations and ask what can be done to extend the kindness and the regard for positive human experiences beyond the threat of COVID-19.  Talk about it.  Co-opt others in the discussions.  Make managers and leaders know that the behaviors during COVID-19 are important beyond COVID-19.

Let’s usher the toxicity of many of our institutions out the door and the mental and physical tolls on our professionals with it.  Let’s refuse to tolerate the kind of behavior that is so stress inducing that it threatens the humanity of our workplaces.

Let’s take advantage of the lessons of today for a better tomorrow, an improved profession, and professionals who love traveling the road they have chosen.

Career Counselors, Law Firm Managers, Law Students, Practice Advice, Pre-law, Young Lawyer | Comment

Thought For The Week: April is the cruelest month. T.S. Eliot

Thought For The Day | Comment