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