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Passion, People and Principles

The Sad Life of the Staff Person

post # 177 — August 30, 2006 — a Careers, Managing post

In Are Law Firms Manageable? (Also published as “The Trouble with Lawyers”) I described a common culture where individual partners did not really want to be teamplayers, working for the “greater good” of the firm. Instead, they focused on their own practice or that of their own small group.

(Lawyers are not unique in having this individualistic, lone-wolf culture, as we have frequently seen in this blog.)

However, as a result of this culture I get lots of emails from people in firmwide staff support roles – like marketing, HR, IT – who ask me “How can I perform my role if the partners won’t cooperate? How do I get individualistic partners to work for the common good and invest time or resources in HR,IT, marketing? How can I do my job if the partners won’t let me?”

(By the way, this is not just a problem of partnerships. The dilemma exists wherever there is an internal corporate shared services group. I’ve worked a lot wit those people, too.)

My answer is always the same: Forget the common good. As a lowly, subordinate staff person it’s not your place to try and convince people who are effectively your superiors to be better team players. If top management has failed in that, you’re not likely to pull it off.

Instead, my advice is to start small and go for an early success. Find a single person, partner or small operating group who WANTS your help. Help them with what they want to accomplish as an individual or small group. Prove that you can help.

You’re not looking for where you can make your biggest impact, but where you can make your quickest impact. If an powerful individual says “I worked with this staff person and they really helped me” then you’ll have your advocate to help get you used by others in the future. You will slowly build influence and power.

When many of them are using you, then you will be well-known enough and influwntial enough to drive for common approaches and collective action.

So, that’s my initial advice for a staff person trying to have an impact in an individualistic culture. Anyone else got suggestions?


Steve Matthews said:

It’s not that bad, David. honest! :-)

Your advice is good, and I think what you’ve described is a fundamental mistake that many outsiders will make when first coming to law firms. Perspective is indeed the key, and project success at the grass roots does go a long way.

I would also suggest that each Partner be evaluated on an individual basis. Some are driven by personal success, some by practice group success, some by firm success. Managers should (try to) provide value to each Partner in a different way, and personalize the approach. Most Partners will also understand that Managers must also prioritize their work (Firm, then PG, the Individuals), and if they don’t, Firm Management usually does. And if they don’t, go work somewhere else! Ulcers are expensive.

posted on August 30, 2006

Gregory Price said:


The item you didn’t comment on directly is that when you find yourself working for an organization that is not team focused, you really need to find a better place to work. Small successes will work on individual basis, but the long term career and appreciation from your firm/organization will still be suspect.

I consider the concerns you raised as “red flags” and I would advise people to consider alternative employment. It’s only a matter of time before something blows up within the power structure of the “lone rangers”.

You advice to build quick successes is solid and on point. However, my experience has told me that some people don’t want to be saved, and your never going to be appreciated by them. So bide your time, build successes and look elsewhere!

posted on August 30, 2006

Mark Gould said:

In my experience (limited to English law firms, but I think this may be true elsewhere as well), support functions will fall on a point between two extremes. On the one hand, there are those whose roles are fairly clearly defined — the PR executive, the hospitality manager or the billing team, for example — and those whose roles are more vague — the professional support lawyer or the marketing director, for example. I think the closer you get to the vague end of the range (which often also brings greater autonomy), the more likely it is you will find conflict of the type that David describes.

My suspicion is that this is because, before law firms became sophisticated organisations with significant support functions, many of the tasks now carried out by people such as PSLs or marketing directors were done by partners. Those partners (or, indeed, their successors) find it easier to be critical of such support staff because they can see a tension between they way a job is being performed and the way that they would do it.

(This is not to say that those doing jobs that partners would or could never do never face problems. They do. I suspect, however, that the reasons for that behaviour are more likely to be rooted in other causes, such as a very hierarchical view of the firm.)

Having identified the reasons why one faces difficulties such as the type that David describes, it is easier to devise strategies to deal with them. David’s suggestion is a very good ones (and I have used it myself in the past), but is not always an option. Sometimes the partner you need to please is the one that is causing difficulties — they know they need marketing help, for example, but they cannot bring themselves to agree with the way that you are doing it. I would deal with this in a sidelong fashion.

Tempting though it might be, I think it will never be helpful to attack the partner head-on — her way is wrong and yours is right. That will only sour the relationship and prolong the agony. However, if you can find a way of engaging the partner and working alongside them by using a combination of their approach and yours, they should see in time that yours is more useful and productive (on the assumption that it is, in fact). They may even come to adopt your views as theirs. The collaborative approach recognises that they have a real stake in the business and need to feel sometimes that even the smallest decisions are theirs, but also allows the support professional to use their greater expertise as fully as possible.

In this way you can build up a good relationship with even the most curmudgeonly partner. (Trusted advisors need trusted advisors of their own.)

posted on August 30, 2006

Matt Moore said:

Lots of good advice here. Two points:

– Having worked in one of the big four in a non-chargeable role, the critical thing to remember is that everyone sees you as a “cost”. You are either chargeable or not. So you have shout about the value you add and get influential partners to do the same. Which means you have to have done something of value for them in the first place! And be prepared to put up with a lot of s**t from people (a related point to add here is that unhappy chargeables will try to take out their frustrations on you).

– I would agree you need to go where the action (and the passion) for where your area is. I was in the situation that my key stakeholder (X), a senior partner, never really engaged with me. However, one of his directs (Y) did – he understood my role and always pushed me to take it further – what a joy! However, I had to constantly explain to my superiors in the support dfunction that yes, I had consulted X on this matter but the real input would come from Y.

posted on August 30, 2006