Making Lawyers Behave Nicely With Each Other

Reading to the Kindergarten Students The Florida Supreme Court wants lawyers to behave nicely with respect to their opponents.  Here’s how the court’s recent action is described in a press release by the American Board of Trial Advocates:

Commenting that `concerns have grown about acts of incivility among members of the legal profession,’ the high court noted ABOTA’s efforts to stress the importance of civility in the practice of law.  The Supreme Court emphasized to Florida lawyers old and new that practicing law is an honor that comes with responsibilities, paramount among which is civility, an often overlooked cornerstone of the legal profession.  The Court added to the Oath of Admission the following: `To opposing parties and their counsel, I pledge fairness, integrity, and civility, not only in court, but also in all written and oral communications.’

It’s well and good that some lawyers will show their kinder and gentler sides to their opponents, but what about colleagues within their own firms?  The hard truth is that law firm knowledge management faces some rather particular challenges based on the population we serve.  If you doubt this, take a look a some of my earlier posts on lawyers and lawyer personalities:

Now, let’s consider some specific challenges that all knowledge managers face.  Jack Vinson has done a terrific job of gathering in one place some things we know to be true about how people share knowledge.  In Rules of Knowledge Management, Jack starts with a summary of Chris Collison’s amusing take on Tom Davenport’s “Kindergarten Rationale” for sharing:

  • You share with the friends you trust
  • You share when you’re sure you’ll get something in return
  • Your toys are more special than anyone else’s
  • You share when the teacher tells you to, until she turns her back
  • When toys are scarce, there’s less sharing
  • Once yours gets taken, you never share again

These observations of kindergarten children are entirely consistent with what we know about “mature adults” operating in a work context.  In fact, the lack of trust coupled with some nasty lessons learned about the downside of sharing can lead to an epidemic of information hoarding within an organization. If this is what happens in the general working adult population, what can you expect from a lawyer population? Given their natural skepticism, high degree of autonomy, low sociability and resilience, and adversarial natures (see What Makes Lawyers So Challenging?), this group may find it even harder to share than your typical kindergartener.  While I’m not sure it is possible to change anyone’s fundamental nature (and that certainly is well beyond the capabilities of a knowledge management group), we can work with senior management to change the environment in which lawyers operate. Taking guidance from Fighting the Knowledge Hiding Epidemic, I’d suggest the following strategies:

  • Build trust — emphasize positive relationships among employees
  • Demonstrate the mutual benefits that result when colleagues share information
  • Treat all workers fairly and respectfully, thereby reducing feelings of injustice and the need for retaliation

At the end of the day, perhaps we are really about trust management rather than knowledge management (to the extent either trust or knowledge can, in fact, be “managed.”) [Photo Credit: Kathy Cassidy]

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What Makes Lawyers So Challenging?

What makes lawyers so challenging?

No, this is not the beginning of a lawyer joke! Rather it’s the question that was answered at an informative session held at the Practising Law Institute in New York City.  As part of a day-long program on legal project management, the organizers asked Mark I. Sirkin, Ph.D., to speak about the personality traits of lawyers and their suitability to lead or serve on project teams. (Dr. Sirkin is the co-managing partner of Threshold Advisors, LLC and was formerly a consultant with Hildebrandt.) Using recent research and the Hogan Personality Inventory Scales, Dr. Sirkin identified the following challenges:

  • Lawyers are not designed for teamwork. Most lawyers have the personality trait of Autonomy, which means they would prefer to do their own thing rather than work with others.  Further, not only do they score high in Autonomy, but also in Skepticism and Pessimism. They are trained to assume the worst, look for problems, issue spot. Taken together, these traits can make them hard to be around.
  • Lawyers don’t find it easy to work with others. Lawyers score below the general population in Sociability (i.e., the need for social interaction) and Resilience (i.e., they are thin-skinned).
  • Lawyers are trained for independent action. Law schools traditionally have emphasized individual performance. Contrast this with business schools, which require teamwork from their students from the beginning.
  • Law firms traditionally have rewarded individual performance. If the compensation system of a firm is individualized and competitive, it does not provide incentives for teamwork and cooperation.
  • Lawyers feel fungible. If a lawyer feels like a fungible billing bot, that lawyer will find it hard to identify and pursue an inspiring goal. Sharing inspiring goals is key to establishing team spirit.
  • Lawyers tend to be adversarial. Dr. Sirkin’s data show that many (if not most) lawyers tend to be adversarial by nature. Further, they are tough-minded and tolerant of conflict.
  • Lawyers have high Urgency. A high Urgency score indicates a tendency to rush to action.  Most lawyers score high in Urgency, which means that they tend to lack patience for the early planning that is required for project management and teamwork.
  • Lawyers are not detail-oriented. The data supporting this assertion will surprise lawyers and their critics alike.  When compared to the general population, lawyers tend to be more “big picture” people and less focused on small details.  To the extent lawyers do focus on details, it is often because of their Aesthetics score, which tends to push them toward providing good work product.

While a lifetime of hearing lawyer jokes may predispose you to believe that lawyers have few good traits, the reality is more nuanced than that.  Their self-selection over time tends to concentrate particular traits within the profession, but those traits have been viewed as necessary for survival until now. That said, lawyers at the top of their game are highly functioning individuals who have accomplished a great deal of good in the world.  Nonetheless, from a purely self-referential perspective, I do find this research troubling. What is clear is that the personality traits of many lawyers make them less amenable to general law firm knowledge management efforts. When reinforced by an “eat what you kill” compensation system, they apparently have little incentive to share, cooperate or collaborate.

However, the problem goes far beyond law firm KM. In fact, this discussion left me wondering if the people who had been so successful in a profession that traditionally emphasized independent, adversarial action might now be ill-equipped for the new style of lawyering involving project management, focused teamwork, effective knowledge management and transparency.  Obviously, firms will need to change their training practices.  Will they also have to change their hiring practices?

[Photo Credit: slgckgc]

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Wasting Your Life

After years of sitting quietly listening to the complaints, I’ve finally had enough. Critics of the legal profession and the billable hour speak of all lawyers as if they are identical, mindless billing machines. While many (but not all) of us do account for our time by the billable hour, that does not necessarily mean that all we do is live and breathe solely for the purpose of driving up our hours. Some of us actually have lives outside the office. A few of us even have things in addition to the law that interest us. And many of us still believe that we are members of an honorable profession that serves clients and the public good.

My colleague, Rees Morrison, included in a recent blog post the following assertion by Raymond Bayley that he found curious.  For my part, it reminded me of the false conclusions you can reach when you don’t consider all the factors that motivate lawyer action:

…several studies show that lawyers spend more than 20 percent of their time looking for things. If you can bill 400 or more hours annually looking for things, there is no incentive to build a better knowledge management system to eliminate this wasted expense, unless you provide services on a fixed fee basis, as we do at [Mr. Bayley’s firm].

No incentive? What about self-respect?!  Even if I could spend 400 hours looking for things (and get paid for the effort), I wouldn’t.  Why? Because it’s a colossal waste of my time and my client’s money.  Why would I want to spend hour after hour engaged in such soul-sapping activity?

When I plan state of the art law firm knowledge management systems, I’m focused on improving the quality of the services we provide to our clients.  I’m also interested in training lawyers and adopting a responsible approach to risk management.  Finally, I actually take some satisfaction from the fact that these systems make the lives of the professionals in my firm easier and more productive.  The last thing I should be worried about is that efficiency gains will lead to a decrease in billings.  Why?  Because it is healthier for a firm to generate revenue through efficient, high quality service than by cheap tricks that artificially pump up billable hours at the expense of client satisfaction and lawyer self-respect.

Regardless of whether we provide services on a billable hour, fixed fee or pro bono basis, I’ll still keep looking for ways to improve the quality and efficiency of those services.  Why?  Because it’s the right thing to do.

As for those nameless lawyers who allegedly spend their lives as mindless billing machines, someone should remind them that it’s not actually about billing clients.  It’s really about not wasting your life.

[Photo Credit:  Mike Licht]

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Can Thinking Like A Lawyer Be Bad for KM?

Michael Melcher believes that thinking like a lawyer is bad for a lawyer’s career.  He lays out his interesting arguments in a recent piece for the ABA Journal.  Here are the lawyerly attributes that he believes handicap lawyers when thinking about their own careers:

• Analyze rather than explore.
• Focus on flaws and potential problems.
• Look for clear precedent.
• Require solutions of general applicability (“what would work for lawyers”) rather than specific applicability (“what would work for me”).
• Defer action in situations of uncertainty.
• Be skeptical about possibilities.
• Avoid taking risks.

In Michael Melcher’s view, “What works for legal analysis doesn’t work for personal growth. That’s because the processes of attaining career fulfillment and growing as a professional are not all that susceptible to logic.”  Personal growth requires action (to provide experience) and then reflection (to make sense of the data gathered).  Trying to think your way through the unknown is rarely successful if you don’t have sufficient experience or data points to ground your analysis (or fear-mongering) in reality.  The same could be said to be true about planning law firm knowledge management projects.  If you apply these patterns of thinking to the planning process, you could well end up with:

  • An overly restricted range of options because you haven’t allowed yourself to explore and dream before analyzing the issues.
  • Mediocre options because you’ve eliminated potentially good choices prematurely due to your focus on flaws and problems rather than opportunities.
  • Unimaginative choices because you’re unwilling to do something your peer firms haven’t already tried.
  • Safe but boring options because you want to avoid risk and uncertainty.

In short, the result is too little too late.

So how do you quiet your excessively critical thinking?  How do you allow yourself the freedom to dream and be creative?

[I’m indebted to Stephanie Kimbro for bringing this article to my attention.]

[Photo Credit:  Claire Dancer]

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