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Curmudgeon's Perspective

The Lawyer Who Liked to ‘One-Up’

By Otto Sorts

“I never seem to get it right enough with him,” Sara told me, as she expressed her frustrations about being on Terry’s case team. “He always has to do it better than me.”

I nodded. Terry was an ace litigator, hardworking, controlling and driven to win at everything. We had even stopped inviting him to poker night, where several of us got together to play cards, opine about life and drink a little too much. With quarter bets and a $30 limit, usually everyone could play all night. When Terry was there, though, half of us were out within the few hours, and he wasn’t a particularly graceful winner. His need to win made the nights he was there less fun.

It’s a Team Sport

Sara was a sharp senior associate. She’d been around long enough to work effectively on her own, and had a good sense for what was needed, and when enough was enough. I’d hoped pairing her with Terry would help him loosen up and be a little less finicky. And I’d hoped it would let her see how to really dig deep when necessary. Well, it sounded good in my head.

I thought back to how I had been trained to compete when young. In football and baseball, we were always competing with one another, but it was the team’s win, not the individual’s. Sure, we had the “ball-hogger,” the “show-boat” and others to deal with, but over time the team focus and pressure to get along with peers prevailed.

Almost all legal work involves a team effort, even if the team members tend to be transitory, shifting from case to case. And most attorneys know how to work in teams, although frankly, I’m nearly always somewhat critical of their management and leadership skills.

Terry was an okay manager, though frequently too controlling, and very much driven to perfection. Sometimes that was good and necessary, but most often it was distracting and inefficient. Worse in my book, Terry was a crappy leader. He could tell people what to do, but couldn’t get them to understand why, or let them take responsibility for figuring out the solutions.

An aggressive drive for perfection is a sign of insecurity. Over the years, I had tried to assure Terry that what he had to offer was great, but that he needed to work on his style. He obviously didn’t get it. Instead of listening, he wanted to argue and compete with me to see who was right.

His need to win drove everything.

A Real Win

So, I counseled Sara to be patient, to try not to appear to be competing with or challenging Terry, and to aim to create a team context for the work. I noted that this assignment wasn’t permanent, and she should learn what she could from him while she had the chance.

I told Terry that it is important to let associates and staff feel involved and responsible for their own work. It is okay and necessary for him to review their work, I said, but it was not necessary that they do everything the way he would do it. I reminded him that the goal was a successful case, and that we all win if it is successful. It is a team and client win — not just a Terry win.

Terry being Terry, he told me to butt out — that he knows more than any of us, and his “win rate is the best in the firm.” I noted that his mentoring rate was the worst, and he consistently alienated staff and other attorneys. He rebutted that winning was what he did, and he didn’t appreciate being lectured to by “an old loser.”

Obviously, our discussion was not very productive. But it did prove helpful in the long run. I understand that Terry is setting up a solo practice where he doesn’t have to listen to or work with “losers.”

I think we won that one.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

Categories: Curmudgeon's Perspective, Daily Dispatch, Law Firm People Management
Originally published August 27, 2015
Last updated April 28, 2018
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Otto Sorts Otto Sorts

Otto Sorts has been reading law since before Martindale met Hubbell. Of Counsel at a large corporate firm that prefers to remain anonymous, Otto is a respected attorney and champion of the grand tradition of the law. He is, however, suspicious of “new-fangled” management ideas and anyone who calls the profession the legal “industry.” When he gets really cranky about something he blogs at Attorney at Work.

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