A Curmudgeon's Perspective
When You Find Yourself in a Hole
Editor’s Note: Catch up on all the crankiness in the “Curmudgeon’s Perspective” archives here.
“I don’t know what to do!” he cried. “Now we’re forming committees to make decisions.”
I had listened to his travails for the last year as his firm slowly moldered and law firm management chased its tail. Morale was bad, profits had slipped down over time, senior partners had become unhappy with their compensation, and the firm’s reputation had taken a couple of hits.
“Worst of all,” he lamented, “they hired a new consultant that has us rebranding, changing the letterhead and arguing about website features. They’re looking for rainmakers in markets we’ve never been in!”
I commiserated with him as I had done before, but could see he might finally be ready to hear some advice.
“When you find yourself in a hole,” I told him, “the first thing you do is quit digging.”
He gave me a confused look, so I outlined my approach.
1. “This is law!” First, go back to basics — nothing fancy. Make sure you and your firm are doing good solid work for your clients. It’s like the losing football team at half-time whose coach says, “This is football!” If you are a law firm, make sure you’re clear “This is law!”
2. Break the chains. Second, make sure you have eliminated barriers to getting good work done. Don’t introduce new systems, unless the ones you have are failing spectacularly. Make the systems you have work for you. If you spent a gazillion dollars on a new system that doesn’t work, quit using it. Go back to the old way or find a simple replacement. The money you have already spent is “sunk cost.” It’s gone, and doesn’t figure into future considerations. Retrenching may be necessary.
3. Remember who your clients are. Reinforce your relationships. Often, there’s a tendency to drift away from the old, familiar clients in favor of newer, more exciting ones. It sounds like the seven-year itch, and it probably is. Relationships with clients (and significant others) need to be cared for. They need to be tended and groomed and fed from time to time. They need to know you care. So, get out of the office and talk to your clients. Make sure all the lawyers in your firm are doing this.
4. Stop rearranging the deck chairs. Make sure everyone knows who’s in charge, and that whoever is in charge knows it, too. Everyone needs to know who they work for and what it is they need to do. I know one firm that responded to a lack of leadership by splitting managing partner duties between two attorneys. Not only the lawyers in the firm felt lost, but the admin staff and managers never knew who was in charge. You can spend your time on consensus, group think, teams and committees, or you can spend your time making things happen. Sometimes that fancy-smancy stuff is worthwhile, but rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic is not going to keep it afloat. Get a grip and get things done!
5. Lastly, consider why you are there in the first place. Was it the people, the work or the clients? Was it fun? Now, consider what it would take to make it fun again. If it’s beyond any hope of recovery, then get out. If there’s something salvageable still there — and there probably is — your challenge is to dig through the layers of bad morale, bureaucracy, ennui and distraction to bring it back to the light. Find others who agree and are willing to make it happen.
So, quit digging and start pulling yourself and the firm out of the hole.
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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