Obviously, there’s always going to be office politics, even if there are only two people in a workplace, and even when everyone usually gets on well together. It’s just human nature. But what I want to talk about is when office politics becomes so all-consuming that getting the job done seems to become secondary. If you’ve worked for a while and in a couple of different workplaces (like I have) you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a feud between two of my bosses. Let’s call them Boss 1 and Boss 2. Things had gotten so bad that they weren’t talking to each other any more, although they had once been friends. One day, Boss 1 was on the phone. The client called me and said that he wanted an answer from us now. I had drafted a response, but I hadn’t been able to see Boss 1 all day. I explained to the client that I had not been able to see Boss 1 to get the okay to send the required e-mail. The client said, “Well, run it by Boss 2, he’s very experienced with this stuff.” The customer is always right. I ran it by Boss 2. Boss 2 thought the e-mail was good and made a few amendments. He signed off on it. I sent it.
Ten minutes later, Boss 1 stormed into my office in an incandescent rage. “How dare you send that e-mail without telling me?” Boss 1 shouted. I explained the circumstances, and said that I had shown the e-mail to Boss 2 on the client’s instructions. “I don’t care what the client says. You’re not allowed to run things past Boss 2!” I was told. “He is not to be consulted on anything to do with this file.”
Well, I’m afraid that I got quite angry. I said the following:
“I don’t give a s**t about the feud between you and Boss 2. I do not doubt Boss 2’s experience and competence. When the client explicitly asks me to consult Boss 2, I will do so, regardless of office politics. From my point of view, the really important thing is to keep the client happy and to do a good job. In this instance, I think I have achieved this objective. I refuse to accept that I have done anything wrong.”
I was very blunt because when I am tired and irritated, I tend to say exactly what I think. In fact, I tend to say what I think as a general rule (which is both a blessing and a curse). Usually, I am somewhat more circumspect, but I really, really hate that kind of rubbish.
All I want to do at work is to do my job and to do it well. I don’t want to have to navigate rivalries. In a workplace context, I think it is important to be professional. If you need to work together to keep the client happy, you do so (regardless of personal likes and dislikes). Of course, it’s always easier if you get on with the person you’re working with, but that isn’t always possible.
I think office politics of the type described above is a blight on working life. It makes work unnecessarily stressful. It also means that it’s harder to deliver a good result to the client. It really surprised me that two grown lawyers were behaving like children in the schoolyard: “I’m not talking to you, so there!”
It seems to me that many law firms really lack the capacity to deal with office politics and management issues. Some partners don’t have a clue how to manage people. You don’t get partnership because you are good at managing people; you get partnership because you are good at gaining and retaining clients and racking up massive bills. It’s just a matter of luck if a partner also happens to be good at managing people. Sometimes I would be amazed watching a partner I knew with clients. He was so sensitive and compassionate. He managed the concerns and questions of the clients perfectly, which was often in stark contrast to his management of junior employees. I couldn’t quite work out what made him tick.
Speaking to friends in other industries, it seems that management (or total lack thereof) is a big issue in many workplaces, not just law firms. However, in my opinion, it’s particularly lacking in law firms because it has never been considered to be important. No wonder law firms are haemorraging young lawyers. We don’t want to have to put up with the kind of idiocy I have described above.