It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Author: Murray Gottheil

There was once a medium-sized law firm in Ontario which had two bright, young, industrious associates. Both of these associates were being considered for partnership, back in the day when all young lawyers wanted to become partners. One of the two associates, who I will call Richard, was a shoe-in. The other associate, who I will call Cynthia, was not.

The challenge with Cynthia was that she was just too aggressive in her dealings with people, including the partners, associates, and staff of the firm. Now this was not the usual case of a woman being called ‘aggressive’ when a man with the same attributes would be labelled ‘confident’ or ‘assertive.’ This was an exceedingly difficult woman who was simply not a good match for the culture of the firm.

Included in the arguments advanced to support Cynthia’s admission to the partnership were the usual points about how good a lawyer she was, how much she billed and her potential to attract clients. The counterarguments were mostly about her ‘fit’ with the other partners. There were two key factors in the final decision. One was that Cynthia was a good lawyer. The other was that Richard and Cynthia were exceptionally good friends and the partners were afraid that if Cynthia was denied admission to the partnership, Richard and Cynthia might both leave the firm together. The majority of the partners did not want to take the chance of losing Richard.

And so Cynthia became a partner of the firm. The wise partners who voted against her admission in the first place were proven to be correct. Cynthia may have been a good lawyer, but she was not a good partner for that particular firm. Eventually just about all of the partners came to believe that the firm would have been much better off without her. The partner who had supported her most vociferously even apologized to the other partners for having sold them on admitting her as a partner. This happened after he had outlived his usefulness to her and she had turned on him. Eventually Cynthia left, but not before causing some considerable problems for the firm.

As I think back over my career in the legal profession, it strikes me that this story illustrates a particularly important lesson which it took me way too long to learn.

And what is this pearl of wisdom which I can sense you are now so anxious to hear? It is simply this: whenever in the course of managing a business, a leader decides something for short-term gain instead of doing what he or she thinks will be the best in the long-term, that leader will likely live to regret it. Now of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes your back is to the wall and you have to do whatever it takes to survive to fight another day. But nonetheless, I submit that the general rule holds true.

Perhaps the partners think that it would be a good idea to import a group of lawyers from another firm who promise to bring with them a stable of clients, despite having a strong feeling that the attitudes of the new group are inconsistent with the firm’s culture. They can hardly be surprised when the group eventually leaves with more lawyers and clients than they arrived with.

Or perhaps a major client makes it known that they would like their son or daughter to be hired at the firm, even though that child would not otherwise meet the firm’s criteria for the position. The child is hired and it turns out that the child is not particularly proficient. Eventually the child’s career path is redirected, but not before mistakes are made and staff and lawyer morale are adversely affected. The client is lost.

Or maybe (and this one was one of my many mistakes) a good supplier is shunted aside to make way for a client to provide the services instead. Not only is the new client a lousy supplier, but it is also a difficult and slow-paying client.

I can go on and on because over the years I saw so many law firm management decisions being made for short-term gain instead of being made in a manner which was consistent with long-term goals. They rarely worked out very well.

My favourite quote is from Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.” (Peter Parker learned that fateful truth when he allowed a criminal to escape because he did not think that it was his responsibility to stop him. That same criminal later murdered his gentle uncle Ben.)

When it comes to managing a law firm (or any other business for that matter), leaders have great power, and with that comes the great responsibility to look beyond short-term gain and to focus on the good of the business in the long-term.

If you are looking for guidance with firm management practices or mentoring opportunities for young lawyers, check out Mr. Gottheil’s website:  http://www.murraygottheil.com/