When I began practicing law, all I really hoped for were:
- A few partners to take an interest in me as a budding attorney and as a young adult—people who were genuinely interested in my success and would be patient as I learned how to be a lawyer
- Feedback about what I did well and what I needed to do better, during or shortly after every project I worked on, so I could know where I was on track and what I needed to do differently.
- One or two people to coach me on how things really worked at the firm and how to navigate the path to partnership,
- A little flexibility so that I could juggle the demands of my growing family with those of my work, and
- An occasional pep talk from “been there, done that” colleagues to help me over the inevitable bumps in the road so that I could appreciate what made working at the firm special and worth my long-term personal investment.
This short list is true for all lawyers whether we began practice in the 1970’s as I did, in the 80’s, 90’s, or this century, and irrespective of one’s gender, race, culture or sexual orientation. That shared commonality suggests that every person in a law firm would treat everyone else exactly how they wanted to be treated themselves. But we know that doesn’t happen.
When people are not treated well, they become frustrated, don’t work up to their ability, collaborate poorly, eventually leave and sometimes sue their old firm. Morale suffers, retention is poor, recruiting the best talent becomes challenging, the firm’s performance and results suffer, and all that makes it harder to build the business, make money, retain clients and keep the firm going.
So if treating every person in a firm well is good for business and the firm’s success, why are some people not treated well? In my experience, it’s almost never due to bias or discrimination. After all, white guys have been treated poorly by other white guys for decades. Instead, it’s because lawyers worry so much and because we weren’t treated well ourselves.
Law is a personally demanding occupation. We always have the fate of our clients in our hands, and that dependency weighs on each of us emotionally. We worry about our clients and the results we can accomplish for them, which is exacerbated because there are more variables affecting the outcome than any of us can control. We know our clients look to us as their guardians and champions within the legal world and expect that we will always solve their problems and achieve their goals. This is the unrealistic reality lawyers deal with daily, and a key reason why lawyers have one of the highest rates of substance abuse of any occupation.
We also worry about whether the other people in our office who work on our clients’ matters will do a good job—defined as “as good as I would do.” The buck stops with us, and often this feels so overwhelming that we become impatient with the people around us and forget how much alike we all are, as we focus solely on pleasing our clients.
A second reason lawyers treat junior people poorly is because, when we were junior, we were treated badly and so that’s all most of us know. Once we survive those early years and are no longer “junior,” we tend to follow the patterns of the lawyers from whom we learned. We exude a confidence that we know what to do in any situation. As a prominent managing partner once told me, “Lawyers have a natural arrogance to think they don’t need help solving their problems.” Hence, there is no reason to expect this vicious cycle of lawyers treating other lawyers badly will improve.
But in the volatile and uncertain legal industry that has existed since late 2008, no law office can afford the poor results that flow from treating people badly. This must be turned around, but how? I’ll share some thoughts in my next blog entry, so please stay tuned (and subscribe to my blog, if you haven’t already done so).