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People I Met Practicing Law The Mentality and Attitudes of Lawyers

The Narcissist

There was once a law firm which had a particular department which experienced some turn-over in its associates. Lots of turn-over, actually.

The department in question was headed by a lawyer with a ‘strong personality.’ I am not qualified to give a psychological diagnosis of this lawyer, but if I were, I would probably say that this person was a narcissist. If I was being nice.

I have been keeping tabs on the associates who left the narcissist’s department, and I see some pretty accomplished folks. I have it on good authority that few of these lawyers refer work back to the firm, although some of them are well situated to do that.

Why would that be, you may ask? Well, probably because the department head had to prove to all of their colleagues that the departures were not their fault. So, this person bad-mouthed the departing lawyers. Everyone in the firm was told how awful each departing person was. The lawyer leaving was always lazy or incompetent or lacked initiative. Since the departing person was always more popular among the associates than the narcissist, word always got back to them.

I can think of one exception. In that case, the departing lawyer became in-house counsel to a huge corporation. Having many friends at her old firm and after many years of not referring any work to her prior firm, she eventually relented on the strict condition that her former supervisor could not go anywhere near any of her files. But, for the most part, the departing lawyers simply cut ties with their former firm.

As you can imagine, the firm in question was frequently in the market for associates in this particular department. Finding new recruits became more and more difficult as the years went by, because word had spread that working in this department was unpleasant. Client service was affected. Turn-over costs were incurred. Good people were lost. But still, the firm could not or would not reign in this department head, redirect their career path or even impose a financial penalty. I am sure that many of you can guess the reason for that. Strong personal billings.

Law firms tend to be like that. People with strong billings can get away with a lot of stuff. Lawyers tend to be good at recognizing revenues and poor at identifying the costs that sometimes come with that revenue.

Now someone with a sophisticated business background might think that this story does not hold water. Surely a department head would not be well compensated when the net revenue of the department as a whole is suffering from the chaos of constant departures. And certainly the cost of the turn-over would be figured into the compensation calculation. But sadly, no. Real businesses compensate department heads based on the success of the groups which they lead. Law firms tend to compensate people based on their personal production and client origination credits. They often award the title and responsibilities of ‘practice group leader’ to individuals who are personally productive as opposed to choosing people who are good leaders.

There is much talk about the legal profession being ripe for disruption. Long overdue would be a simple idea:  Run it like a damn business!

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