Firm Culture

Timebombs in the Garden

By now everyone on LinkedIn has heard about Jon, a Cleveland lawyer who wrote a rather nasty email to a recently departed colleague who, having returned from her maternity leave, gave notice that she was leaving for another firm. The backlash was furious. Jon lost his job rather quickly.

From the flood of comments on social media, the idea surfaced that it is likely that Jon’s behaviour was not an aberration, which got me thinking about some of the people who I ran across while practicing law.

In the legal profession, we hold these truths to be self-evident: (i) lawyers in private practice frequently work under pressure; (ii) lawyers are often competitive by nature; (iii) law firms are known for tolerating poor behaviour from high producers; and (iv) many law firms focus on short-term profits rather than success in the long-term. The combination of these factors makes law firms a breeding ground for the type of behaviour exhibited by Jon.

Now, I have never met Jon. For all I know, he is the sweetest man in the world and his behaviour in this instance was in fact a completely unpredictable aberration. I suspect, however, that it is more likely that there were tea leaves that could have been read by management in Jon’s firm, which would have revealed that someday, somehow, when the firm least expected it to happen, Jon was going to create an existential problem for them.

My friend Martin told me about a lawyer in his firm who I will refer to by the purposely gender-vague name of Dale. For well over a decade Martin used to tell me that one day Dale was going to do something that would create a monumental problem for the firm. Martin regaled me with stories about Dale’s exploits and he would implore his partners to reign Dale in or to redirect Dale’s career path. But Dale billed so very many hours, and quite predictably, the firm did nothing. Like Jon, Dale eventually went too far and the firm wished that they had listened to Martin sooner.

There was another lawyer who worked at Martin’s firm briefly. I will call him Aaron. Aaron came to Martin’s firm with a reputation for: (i) having excellent contacts and the ability to generate business; and (ii) having done inappropriate things with a subordinate in the boardroom at his old firm. But boys will be boys, and billings are billings, so Aaron was hired anyway. A few sexual harassment complaints later and Aaron was gone. Apparently, his billings were not quite high enough.

Which brings me, somewhat belatedly, to my point. Behavioural problems in the workplace are like weeds in the garden. They grow quickly when they are ignored, and even faster when their growth is encouraged. They will eventually take over the garden if they are not removed.

The managing partners of law firms should perhaps spend more time tending to their gardens. Some lawyers need to be plucked, before the firm is something else that rhymes with that.

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