Protocol and work supervision in the law firm

I was speaking to a friend of mine the other day. She had just started a new job.

“One of the most stressful things is knowing when it’s appropriate to bother my boss,” she told me worriedly. “I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, and I feel like such a pain when I bother the partner. He shouts at me when I ask for clarification.”

I had forgotten! A year out of practice, and everything fades into obscurity. It was something that I was always very stressed about. My favourite boss said “Never worry about walking in and asking me a question! Don’t even knock. Just walk in and ask.” It was good. I knew from the start that I could always walk in and ask him whatever I wanted, and he would always listen. He would never laugh at my questions, either, or be sarcastic. I did always knock, however, because I’ve been brought up in that old-fashioned kind of way.

It’s a big problem for a junior lawyer. In the years I was in practice, often my experience was as follows:

A partner (or other boss-type person) lobs something on your desk and mutters “sort it out” in a grunting sort of way. You look at the papers, and realise you have no idea what it’s all about. After 15 minutes of staring at the papers, looking through precedents and databases, and still with no glimmer of an idea as to what you are supposed to do, you tentatively walk over to the partner’s office. He’s on the phone and he waves you away in an irritated manner. You keep checking every 5 minutes or so, but he’s still on the phone, glaring at you every time you peep in. Three quarters of an hour later, he’s finally off the phone and you ask your question. You get an incredulous stare. “You mean you don’t know how to do that!? Oh, for goodness sakes, give it here. I don’t know why I didn’t just do it myself.” He snatches the paper off you and starts hurriedly amending it.

It seems to me that many law firm partners (and many bosses) have absolutely no idea how to manage people and how to delegate effectively. Their instructions are unclear, useless or assume that the junior employee has 30 years legal practice under her belt. Then, when the junior employee tries to ask her boss what to do, she is treated as if she is an imbecile. It’s particularly hard when you start a new job, because you’re getting used to processes and personalities.

This is yet another way in which the law firm is inefficient and badly managed. Given that the way in which law firms make their money is by charging per six minute unit, the junior employee cannot maximise her billable hours if she is given bad instructions. She wastes time looking into matters which are irrelevant. She wastes three quarters of an hour waiting to get clear instructions. She could have finished the task already and have moved on to the next task if the partner had just taken a few minutes and bothered to instruct her properly. Now she’ll have to stay back late to finish. Moreover, the employee loses confidence and her morale plummets. She wonders why on earth she’s in this job!

It’s not in the interests of the law firm to operate in this way, and it’s not in the interests of junior employees. But I think many lawyers still have an idea that they don’t have to know how to manage people. It’s this attitude which leads to firms haemorraging junior lawyers. I really don’t understand why firms are unwilling to do anything about it or to address the problem. As Shop Steward has recently noted, they seem content to lose young lawyers in droves and replace them with a fresh batch. How short-sighted and stupid.

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5 Comments

Filed under law, law firms, morale

5 responses to “Protocol and work supervision in the law firm

  1. Shop Steward

    This is so true.

    I was asked in a job interview yesterday to give an example of when I had felt let down in a team situation.

    My answer was that I had never been let down by someone to whom I had delegated work. I had, however, occasionally felt let down by the poor communication of those above me – ie. inadequate explanation of what it is they wanted from me.

    I got so carried away with that part of the answer, I completely forgot to answer the second (and key) part of the question: “What did you do to remedy the situation?”

    Bugger.

  2. the angry bee

    Clearly you are not alone in your beliefs – see this article .

  3. B-)

    Nor is this something which is new or unique to Australia.
    Another pertinent article was written back in 2002 after Clifford Chance came a resounding last in a worldwide survey of associate satisfaction in big firms.

    http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1032128826242

    Sorry, too late to do html tags tonight…

    (and what I would love to have a sneak peak at that famous 13 page memo, if anyone still has a copy)

  4. Anonymous

    I’ve been in my new job for 2 months now but I feel less useful than the administrative staff.

    The problem with small tier firms is the lack of structure.

    I’m not quite sure of my position in the firm and feel like I am being under-utilised. Yet, being a junior lawyer with only a few years experience in a different jurisdiction, my partners are not prepared to give me complicated work which would take them less time to complete. This of course worsens the problem and can only be alleviated with more direction and guidance. Obviously the partners have no time invest in training and this only perpetuates their growing workload.

    Does anyone else feel this way? If not, can anyone suggest where I can find some help about this issue.

  5. Legal Eagle

    Dear Anonymous,

    I totally understand how you are feeling. I moved to a medium tier law firm at one point in my career, when I had only previously worked in a large firm. I had a very similar experience.

    The advice I can give you from my experience is:
    1. It will get better with time. As the partners get to know you and trust you, they will give you more complex work.
    2. Lawyers have a tendency to think that they should be able to handle everything all at once straight away. But in truth, it takes a while to get used to different systems, so don’t give yourself an overly hard time.
    3. If you are feeling very dispirited, try and raise the issue with your supervising partner in a constructive manner.

    Cheers, LE

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