Warlords and Dickensian Factory Owners
post # 4 — January 23, 2006 — a Strategy post
Ellen Ostrow, who is a coach/consultant with a Ph.D. in psychology sent me this question:
I just came back from a meeting on work/life balance in law firms and had an extended discussion with the managing partner of a large firm. His point of view was essentially that if a firm were to implement work/life policies, profits per partner would go down and as a result big rainmakers would leave, thus devastating the firm.
The discussion was particularly interesting since there were two senior Booz Allen managers present who commented that their business model would never give that kind of power to individuals.
I’m not an economist – not even a lawyer. I’m just trying to understand why all the research on employee satisfaction/engagement resulting in greater profitability does not seem to apply to law firms? Can you please help me understand this?
My own lawyer told me pretty much the same thing, Ellen. “We all know we’re making enough money, but it’s a race to the bottom. We’ve got to keep the average per partner profit going up or the powerful guys and the bright, aggressive young lawyers seeking to get to the top of the profession will leave.”
This all reminds me as nothing so much as a dark ages warlord terrorizing the villagers into compliance, while forcing them to pay tribute or they will be left to defend themselves against the roving bands of rogue bandit knights.
There’s another aspect to this. Lawyers have discovered, like the Dickensian factory owner, that you can, in reality, make a lot of money if you work everybody very, very hard and really slash your costs, and don’t give a gosh-darn about the how people (partners, associates or staff) feel about their work-lives.
But as I analyzed in a 2005 article called Are You Abusive, Cynical or Exciting?, while it’s an approach to riches, it can be proved that it is not the approach to riches. “Let’s succeed by working more hours with ever decreasing amounts of support” is not the most sophisticated piece of business thinking I’ve ever heard. Yet it’s exactly what most law firm partners tell me (and you, Ellen) that their firm is doing.
Why do law firms find it so hard to understand that a feudal warlord system forcing everyone to work harder is not the height of mankind’s achievement in civilization? I have spent twenty years trying to say all professions look similar and can learn from each other, but I’m finally prepared to concede that lawyers are different – and it has nothing to do with economics.
Peter Rouse, a UK legal profession consultant, drew my attention to a fascinating quote from Martin Seligman in his book AUTHENTIC HAPPINESS: “Lawyers are trained to be aggressive, judgmental, intellectual, analytical and emotionally detached. This produces predictable emotional consequences…he or she will be depressed, anxious and angry a lot of the time”
People like that are unlikely to be natural democrats, happy to work in a collaborative society. Depressed, anxious and angry? Sounds like a bunch of feudal villagers (and their oppressors) to me!
It only changes, just as history teaches us, when a courageous William Tell or Joan of Arc rallies the common people and forges them into a principled, mutually committed force that can throw off the oppressor and craft a more civil and economically functioning society. I’m proud to say I’ve played a small part in making that happen in one or two places, and not embarrassed to report that, on other occasions, I have not been invited back because I’m viewed as too disruptive and idealistic. Guilty as charged! I continue to believe there’s a better way, and to believe that lawyers are not condemned to follow the model they currently favor.