A Curmudgeon's Perspective

When You Find Yourself in a Hole

By | Mar.26.15 | Curmudgeon's Perspective, Daily Dispatch, Law Firm Culture, Law Firm Management

Otto Sorts

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!”

Quit Digging

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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3 Responses to “When You Find Yourself in a Hole”

  1. Mike O'Horo
    26 March 2015 at 9:25 am #

    Good stuff. Your point #5 brings to mind some wisdom from the CEOs featured in Jim Collins’s bestseller, “Good to Great,” who all said a version of “Get the wrong people off the bus, and the right people on the bus. Then, let those right people set the direction of the bus.” Sometimes, the malaise originated, and is sustained by, one or more partners who are toxic, but are tolerated because of the business they bring in. Everyone fears the loss of that business more than they fear the destruction of the firm. That’s very expensive business. Better to get off your butts, start replacing that revenue, then cut out the cancer in your midst.

  2. Timothy Rowe
    26 March 2015 at 2:44 pm #

    Absolutely some great advice given in this post! I listened intently to the advice to fix what was broken, I reasoned with myself should I make this post on this platform because this platform always offers great advice, I would like to offer another tip. What if there was a strategy and a system in place to help not only this attorney that is already in a pit but the same system could help others avoid this pit how can I get the attorney to not only consider it but try it out.

    Before I make my comments, if you check my reputation you will not find that the information I present here now in my reputation. There is a reason and a solution for that but this post is not the place to address that. If you are an attorney in a similar situation as described in this post I am inviting you to contact me and let’s discuss what can be done.

    The great advice of getting back to basics, the thing I see is this problem will repeat itself again unless steps are in place to prevent it.

    Bear with me just for a moment. If this attorney or any other attorney had a system in place, on his/her own platform to capture feedback and reviews, feedback from clients, associates, staff members, partners it could prove to be the most valuable system to add to the great advice already given.
    It’s a system that everyone knows that the information would be captured and the information would be available for you as the attorney to review anytime you wanted to.

    A system that encourages the staff members to ask everyone to leave feedback on this platform for every single encounter, and everything entered would be seen by the attorney to carefully consider what was said and make adjustments as needed. Why wait until everything starts to go downhill and then put extra efforts to fix the problem and then even more steps to implement to move forward?

    This post “When You Find Yourself in a Hole”, point #2, how do you know there are barriers, what method are you using to gather this information, if you have no system in place to capture feedback and reviews, in this market you most certainly need one. I have a simple one, but first let me say this, here is a completely FREE opportunity that all attorneys have at their disposal and it hardly ever used. Most attorneys miss another key opportunity to get new business and showcase their expertise because they don’t know how to market their reputation.

    Google which is a free search engine has given you a platform to list your business and every attorney that is in business has one, your accomplishments, a place to showcase your reputation and you completely ignore it, and that is your Google + page. You should know that today people are going to look up information about you before they ever contact you. They are going to look at your Google + page, how many reviews are showing on your page now? How long has it been since the last review was posted? Most attorneys have one or two, you have been in business for how long, you say you are good at what you do, and no one, not even 6 or seven people have left a positive remark about you as an attorney or the great work you say you do.

    All of the excellent steps provided in this post “When You Find Yourself in a Hole” will help you especially #3, if you followed this advice and asked your clients to leave you feedback and rate your service do you think you can get them to do so? Use Caution Here, I have made mention several times about getting this information entered from your own platform because you do not want people to just randomly go making statements about your services online because you don’t know what they are going to say.

  3. David Hughes
    26 March 2015 at 6:51 pm #

    Oh Otto, I love your columns. I have been following Attorney-at-Work from Australia for a couple of years. I am a partner in a small-ish firm and with two other guys, split from a much larger firm some 10 years ago this year.

    The larger firm was in a deep, deep hole and was hiring bigger and more expensive excavators to dig, baby, dig. Our only way out seemed to be a hole deep enough we could exit through China.

    But we saw the light, left and started our new firm with a blank piece of paper, and our only thought being advice tip #5 – in fact, the only thing I would change in Otto’s column is to re-order and place #5 at #1: if you forget what made you fall in love with the idea of being a lawyer in the first place, then nothing you do will ever be enjoyable and all else is doomed to fail. Sooner or later.

    So Otto, thanks for the reminder and keep up the great columns.

    All the best from Oz