There’s a straight stretch of freeway along my morning commute where most people in the left lane drive well above the 65 mph speed limit. Today, some guy in a big, fancy SUV was driving about 60 in the left lane, and he wouldn’t move over for anything. Other drivers became more and more aggressive in their attempts to get around him or to get him to move aside. Being familiar with this road hog phenomena, I knew nothing short of a bulldozer would get him out of the way. It’s behavior I see pretty frequently at the office.
Most law firms have a senior partner who won’t stop doing things the “old way,” who won’t step aside so someone else can do it more efficiently or better. (Fill in your favorite saying about “pots” here.)
Here’s the thing: For our clients, we need to do a better job of preparing younger lawyers to take over when the senior partners do (finally) step aside.
Yes, you could always use the “John Wayne School of Swimming” method, and throw them in the deep water to see if they spontaneously learn how to swim. But, while quite effective in old Westerns, it’s less so in real life. I’ve seen many an extraordinary lawyer ruined by some partner fond of this macho approach.
Rules of the Road for Teaching Young Lawyers
Not all of us are naturals at teaching or mentoring. I wouldn’t claim it as a strength, but I’ve had good teachers, and there are a few commonsense methods I try to employ.
- First, recognize that your employees and associates (and our kids) learn most of their behavior by watching how you behave. They see what works and what doesn’t. So be thoughtful about what you model. Explain how you solve problems. Discuss how you analyze your clients and their issues. Talk about how you deal with tough problems. (Okay, sometimes us old guys do go on about how tough it used to be in the old days, so keep it short and topical). And then, as they say, walk the talk.
- Feedback is key to learning. My daddy raised bird dogs. He was adamant that we be very clear about our expectations, and reward the dog for doing it right, but punish for doing it wrong. Now I don’t advocate rubbing a young attorney’s nose in the pile she just created, but you can make sure she understands what was good and what was bad about it. This is part of the process so critical to developing young lawyers. And, by the way, telling people what they did right and wrong is a good behavior to model, too.
- A major part being a good teacher is simply paying attention, and getting to know your people. Everyone works differently, and you’ve got to recognize those differences to take advantage of each person’s strengths. Start by giving them responsibility for minor tasks, so that you learn how they communicate and how they work. Then give them more responsibility and freedom to operate independently.
Of course, none of this amounts to much at all if you aren’t willing to let go, and let younger lawyers do things themselves. Sure, you can set checkpoints, monitor progress and be available to help. But you need to stay out of the way and stop being a road hog! Don’t make me crank up the bulldozer.
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.”