Lawyers should be more Intolerant


Lawyers should be more intolerantIntolerance is wonderful.  In fact I would almost go so far as to say that being intolerant is one of the more useful characteristics that a lawyer, or a law firm, can have.

If attorneys were, as a whole, more intolerant then I think the legal profession would be a significantly better one.  Alas, tolerance has become the catch cry of the 21st century, and intolerance is not longer as politically correct as it used to be, irrespective of its target.

Here I will explain how firms are tolerant to their detriment, and how you can go about starting to change the system.

Intolerance is a Virtue

The trick, as I have hinted, is to ensure that a firm’s intolerance (and yours) is directed towards a valid target.  In this case I propose that a proper and respectable target for intolerance is that of the under-performing professional staff member.  Not the staff member themselves, of course, but we should be intolerant of the performance issues they are having.

Under performance may come in a number of guises, the most obvious being a financial one (not billing enough).  However, ordinarily, the financial aspect of under performance is a side issue, a symptom if you will, rather than a cause.

I would like to say that it was a symptom of an inferior lawyer, but often that is not the case either.

Often, an under performing individual is a symptom of the firm’s tolerance of that person’s failings, and its inability or unwillingness to put proper systems in place which foster improvement.

What about Performance Reviews?

Performance reviews for lawyers are, at best, a joke.  I’m sorry if you are an HR manager reading this, and have these under your control.  However, 6 monthly or annual individual self-reported performance reviews are a complete waste of time and money.

Why? What these systems encourage is a matching of financial reward (your results at such reviews ordinarily being linked to your salary as a lawyer) with individualized performance.  In some cases areas for improvement are identified and the individual is then free to return to their under-performing environment, none the wiser that nothing will, in fact, change until they go through the motions again on the next performance appraisal.

The under-performing individual is “penalised” by not being paid as much as the well performing individual.  The firm then congratulates itself for having a system to identify and “deal with” the underperformers.

In fact, what the firm has is a system that successfully does nothing whatsoever about underperformance, relying solely on the individual to do their best to improve (should they even care to).  The burden rests on the individual, and the firm has abdicated its responsibility to coach, to mentor, to train, and to guide the lawyer in their improvement.

How to Obtain Improvement

Of critical importance are these two steps:

  • The identification and articulation of the problem or problems with the lawyer;
  • The necessary coaching to fix those problems.

The first is often the purview of the performance appraisal.  The second is ordinarily non-existent.

However, even the first is often done poorly.  By giving all feedback (usually) in a single lump, a number of things occur.

Firstly, the recipient becomes defensive, receiving as they do a battering to their self-esteem on a raft of issues in a single sitting.  It doesn’t matter how passive they are during the meeting – in their head, they are rejecting much of what is said out of sheer self-preservation.

Secondly, that defensiveness and rejection results in a complete lack of any desire to improve the situation, since the underlying issues fall by the wayside.

Changing Habits Takes Time

I’ve said it before – if you want to change a habit (whether yours or anybody elses) you need to take small, bite size, pieces until it’s done.  It is for this reason the performance appraisal system is a waste of time – it achieves nothing.

Far more beneficial is a constant identification and treatment of issues, absent from any financial implications, with actual strategies and recommendations for habits that will improve the situation.  Telling someone their drafting abilities are terrible is hardly useful.  What about providing them, step by step, with the tools and opportunities they need to improve.  In the long term, your investment will be far more worthwhile.

A benefit here is that moderate or small performance issues do not turn into major ones – they are trapped and fixed within a much shorter space of time.

That is, of course, a time consuming practice for any workgroup leader or partner – but an essential one if they want to raise the bar of their team.

A Bit of Team Spirit

Part of this identification and training needs to be a clear and unambiguous understanding that underperformance is NOT acceptable.  It needs to be part of the culture that such issues (and we will all have them) are dealt with as soon as possible.  Behaviours which might be tolerated for 11 months before a performance appraisal (and therefore become ingrained habits which are far harder to eradicate) will be identified immediately in such a culture – they will stand out like a sore thumb.

Doesn’t mean you have to be a big bully to everyone, snapping and griping at every available opportunity – but it does mean that you need to be on the ball, and that you need to be out of your own head as a practice leader.

Creating an environment of shared intensity will have a far greater impact on the bottom line than simply allowing individual economic rewards to control the firm’s future.

What can I do if I’m not in charge?

Easy – start with yourself.  Be intolerant with the things you know you don’t do that well (I’ve got plenty, let me tell you).  Develop new habits and put strategies in place as soon as you see them, and encourage others to do the same.  Can you help somebody improve their practice in a particular area (without being arrogant or a bully)?  If so – do it.  Tell them how you overcame the issue that they are struggling with.

Start now.  What are you going to be intolerant of this week in your own life?  Let me know in the comments!

Happy Lawyering!