The Exceptional Lawyer

August 27, 2008

Your Pit Crew

Filed under: Uncategorized — joshuahornick @ 1:22 pm

Law is increasingly a team sport.  The team includes colleagues, those people with whom you kick around ideas, and your pit crew, the people with whom you work shoulder to shoulder or who support you.  For your work to be exceptional, your pit crew must be

  • skilled,
  • loyal, and
  • enthusiastic.

For the moment, I want to focus on loyalty and enthusiasm.  Emerson said that nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.  That’s true.  For your work to be great, you must be enthusiastic.  If your pit crew is not enthusiastic, it will detract from the quality of your service.

Some people are enthusiastic by nature.  Most people, however, only become enthusiastic when their environment, their circumstances, call it forward.  Some pit crew will be enthusiastic because they are ambitious, others because they really believe in what they are doing, and others (most, I think) because of their relationships with the people around them.  Most enthusiastic pit crew become that way because of the relationship they have with you and the enthusiasm that you bring to the process.  That is, they become enthusiastic because they really want to help you or because your enthusiasm is contagious and they get caught up in it.

A loyal pit crew shows up.  And, tends to show up enthusiastically.  A loyal pit crew applies its best efforts.  It doesn’t let things slide.  Your best work requires that your pit crew will burn the midnight oils on occasion and do it enthusiastically.  The loyal pit crew does not let you down in terms of quantity or quality.  Loyalty is the characteristic that underlies the desire to show up and do their best all the time, even more than personal integrity.

The quality of your relationships with your pit crew can make all the difference in their being loyal and enthusiastic.  While you don’t have to be all lovey dovey with them, it is important that you treat them with courtesy and–most importantly–respect their humanity, see them as whole human beings, not merely workers.  This means having their best interests at heart and acting accordingly.  It requires knowing more about their lives and taking steps to support them in personal ways.  That could mean giving appropriate X-mas presents or noticing a down mood and suggesting someone take the afternoon off.  Such a sensitive approach engenders the high levels of loyalty that will help make your work exceptional.

This type of loyalty also increases the likelihood that your pit crew stay in tact over time.  Retention of a good pit crew is very valuable.  You work better with a group with whom you have experience.  It also creates the opportunity for the pit crew to build its skills to meet your needs.

[This entry was inspired by a conversation I had with a partner in a large (for VT) Vermont firm.]

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August 19, 2008

Mentoring Associates: A Litmus Test for Partners

Filed under: Uncategorized — joshuahornick @ 9:17 pm

Earlier today, an associate, seven years out of law school, at the Chicago office of a leading firm, ranked partners’ effectiveness in supporting associates’ career development at 6.5 out of 10.  On a grade scale, that would be a “D.”  This is a big deal, and it’s very curious.

It’s a big deal because a firm’s effectiveness relies on well-developed associates.  It makes associates happy.  They stay.  The substantial cost of getting (and training) new associates is diminished.  Also, the associates do better work, both because they are happier and because they are better-trained.  Clients that are served by these associates receive better legal services.  Partners also get the benefit of more loyal, harder and better-working associates.  If the partners at a firm give anything less than A+ career development support to associates, they are shooting themselves in the foot.

The curious part is that law partners know this.  They know the importance of associate career development.  Law partners tend to be extremely smart people, people who know not to act against their own best interests.  So, what’s going on?

I can identify at least three causes that ultimately boggle smart partners ability to provide the kind of associate career support that we’d expect.  

The first of these is cultural and varies greatly by firm and geographical location.  One partner with whom I spoke last month started her legal career in Montreal.  There, she said, she received excellent mentorship.  It’s part of the firm culture.  She described the mentor process as “incredibly useful.”  Her mentor partner took a great interest in her development and took the time to make sure she was honing her craft and learning the ropes of the business.  My research so far indicates that, while a long way from the Montreal experience, firms in smaller cities tend to make more time for their associates than in larger cities.  

Second, making it even harder to break the cultural rut is the pressure of American big-city law firm life.  The former Montreal lawyer told me that the whole firm stopped working for a social hour at the end of the day on Friday.  Almost everyone showed up.  The culture there seemed to have a lot more elbow room, room to socialize, room to relax, room to mentor associates.  The culture of pressure relates to and exacerbates the culture of not mentoring.

As any executive coach or OD consultant knows, it’s a challenge for a firm to change its culture.  It’s doable, but it’s a challenge.  The same associate who gave the 6.5 ranking told me that his firm had adopted a mentoring program, which was great for about a month.  Then, it was forgotten.  Lasting cultural change requires ongoing support until the change has become routine.  As a result, many firms are stuck in this non-mentoring cultural rut.  But, firm culture is only part of the problem, and it may be the smaller part of the problem.  

The third cause has to do with the partners themselves, not the culture of the firm.  The same associate ranked partners “genuine concern” for the professional development of associates at 7.5 out of ten, a “C.”  One way of looking at this is that the concern of partners accounts for a 2.5 point drop (from a perfect 10 to a 7.5) and the firm culture pulls the quality of associate support for career development down to the 6.5 level.  

How do we account for this lack of genuine concern?  I expect it is a combination of pressure, inertia, and a failure to see the big picture.  This is where the idea of a litmus test comes in.  

An exceptional lawyer’s judgment is largely immune to pressure.  An exceptional lawyers will fight inertia to attain valuable results.  And, most importantly, an exceptional lawyer’s good judgment is founded on a solid, big-picture perspective.  These are qualities that distinguish exceptional lawyers from the rest.  A partner’s involvement in mentoring associates may be a particularly good litmus test for these qualities.  While there are many measures of an attorney’s success, such as income, rainmaking, win/loss record, size of deals closed, client list, and experience, they don’t always point to an attorney being immune to pressure, bold in the face of inertia, or having big-picture perspective.  This is not to say that a lawyer who mentors associates is necessarily exceptional, but it is a useful metric in making that determination.

August 14, 2008

Cleverness v. Intelligence, a Key Distinction

Filed under: Uncategorized — joshuahornick @ 8:24 pm

In executive and life coaching, we often utilize distinctions between words to clarify points.  Two of the more commonly used distinctions are “react vs. respond” and “want vs. need.”  One key distinction in the realm of exceptional legal practice is that between “cleverness” and “intelligence.”

To be exceptional, a lawyer must be intelligent, not merely clever.

“Clever” comes from the Dutch or Low German word meaning “to cleave.”  A clever lawyer can cleave things.  She can separate one point from another.  She can dissect arguments.  She can understand minutiae.  Her research skills may be fine.

On the other hand, an intelligent lawyer puts things together.  She sees a complete picture of the situation.  She senses the case or deal in its entirety, sees it from the perspective of every player and from a birds eye view, above the interests of all the players.  She then melds together all those perspectives to sense the whole.  She grocs it.  Significantly, one of the perspectives of which she is aware is her own position, her own desires and motivations.

So, as you immerse yourself in a deal or a case, as it starts to come into focus for you, see if you are being clever.  If so, consider how you can play with your perspective to invite intelligence into your understanding.

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