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Law Practice Management

Law Firms: Don’t Tolerate Jerks

By William Cobb

Why do so many firms protect their jerks — and what can you do when you’ve had enough of bad behavior?

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, says one thing is very important to the success of an organization: people, unified by a set of core values and a positive vision. Jerks, however else you want to define them, are those who violate core values and are indifferent to the shared vision.

No More Looking the Other Way

During tough times, lawyers tolerate the jerks in their firms because those jerks control a lot of business. But there are serious and costly consequences to looking the other way.

  1. Time. Jerks take up a lot of the firm’s time because their personal agendas run counter to the firm’s “business as usual.”
  2. Clients. Jerks in the ranks can cause clients to leave the firm. Jerks don’t listen to clients and, because of outsized egos, they overprice their own services and obscure other timekeepers’ roles. Jerks hoard the client relationship thinking that, should they leave, the client will leave with them. But clients don’t want to work with jerks — eventually, they learn to distrust them, then the firm and then every lawyer within the firm. They assume the jerk culture is the firm’s culture.
  3. Staff turnover. No one wants to work with a jerk. And the resulting turnover costs the firm money. Jerks expect people — other lawyers, administrators, paralegals, assistants, everyone — to be at their beck and call 24/7. Their poor project management skills render them unable to plan, organize, staff and execute matters efficiently, and that means others spend wasted and frustrating time on tasks that produce no value. Jerks don’t manage, they bully.

How Do You Get Rid of These Jerks?

Rally your lawyers and establish a foundation of collaboration. That is different from collegiality. Collegiality is defined as a group of professionals bound together by a common profession but independent of one another. Collaboration is a group of people bound together by common values and a common vision, and accountable to one another for the accomplishment of that vision. So take these steps:

  • First, identify your values. What are the core values that have made your firm successful in the past? What did the founders value in serving clients? How did they represent clients? How did they listen and respond to clients? How did they bill clients for “value added”?
  • Own those values. Recommit to those values — or values that you’ve refined to suit today’s practice.
  • Allow your values to guide you. Make all management decisions within the firm in a way that supports those values — strategic planning, performance assessment, compensation, hiring, marketing, everything.

Once your core values and firm vision are inculcated within the firm, jerks cannot exist. They have two choices: conform to the norms or leave. Then, without jerks, you can all focus on building the future of the firm. 

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William Cobb

William Cobb was managing partner of Cobb Consulting, based in Houston, where he consulted on strategic issues affecting law firms and general counsel helping them improve their competitive positions for over 40 years. An active member of the ABA, he wrote “A Planning Workbook for Law Firm Management,” the first of its kind for law firms. He was a prolific author and featured speaker for the ABA, The State Bar of Texas, the International Bar Association, the American Lawyer Magazine and many others. Bill died September 15, 2021, at age 78.

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