In this post, I’m going to continue looking at the story we tell ourselves about how a law firm is “supposed to work”. The goal, as always, is to see if that story is true, and question what might happen if we start telling a different story.
Last time we talked about the billable hour. This time, I think we have to look at how the traditional law firm model drives the “Keeping up with the Joneses” chase for higher and higher salaries that leads to bad results for clients and unhappy lawyers.
Obviously there are variations to this across firms, and I don’t pretend to know everything about how this works. One thing I know troubles many lawyers in this model, though, is the competitive aspect to it. The idea is, being compensated for your work at a law firm involves competing against your teammates by necessity.
But does it? As always, I think once we look honestly at what we’re doing and what our motives are, a better way can emerge.
Let’s face it…
If lawyers were trained to be good at business, we wouldn’t be so worried about pegging everything to the billable hour/covering overhead at all costs/making sure profit is divided up to the last penny model. We’ve built a business model that does what we know best – competing with other people and minimizing risk! But unfortunately, this is a recipe for misery on so many levels.
The competition established among lawyers by the current model encourages and rewards higher and higher levels of billing. Today, this is the way law firms gauge business performance – look at all this profit! All of our partners have a house, a vacation property, and kids in private schools! Great! Couldn’t be better!
But wait… what about – a whole lot of these partners are unhappy, divorced, feeling stuck, unfulfilled, don’t see their kids….
Isn’t the hard truth that the current model would be intolerable to most people if it weren’t so financially lucrative? The problem compounds when it comes to millennial lawyers, who have been proven to be less motivated by the idea of sacrificing their life outside work in service of money. (Don’t believe that? See this article by recent law school grad and Supreme Court Clerk, Aly Haji.)
So, is there a better way?
Law is an interesting mix of lone wolf work and team effort. Depending on the type of law being practiced, a lawyer can be closer to one end or the other of this spectrum.
If you’re looking at your own firm or (like many partners I know) dreading the annual compensation meeting or process, ask yourself a few questions:
- Why do we even need to know who the top income earners are? Does the firm benefit by making lawyers feel they are in a constant quest for more money/prestige/work?
- What keeps lawyers at the firm? Does the financial compensation paper over myriad other problems each year?
- Why are people fighting so hard over money? Isn’t it because if they’re going to work with total lack of control over their time, mental health, and family/relationship commitments, money takes on increased importance?
If the answer to these questions troubles you, consider the following:
- If the main win is financial, it may drive a lot of excellent lawyers away. Not everyone values money above all else.
- If the main win is financial, it also seems like a recipe for disaster for the ones who stay. Heart attacks, divorces, the type of things that might keep people stuck in the firm but dead inside.
- Clients aren’t looking for lawyers who prioritize money for themselves above all other values.
Some things don’t change, and it’s true that money can’t buy happiness. So why set up a business model that delivers money at the expense of so many other basic things?
How we do it at Inter Alia…
Competition among our team is not a “thing” at Inter Alia. We each control our own practice, and assist other members of the association when we need each other. We have no rankings by income, no pressure to bill, no pressure to do anything really other than great work.
We’re trying to create a culture of equality among our lawyers, where lawyers don’t get the right to oppress other lawyers for any reason including hierarchy, gender/race, greater wealth, higher billable hours, or years of experience. We don’t want our firm structure to create incentives for people to flake on their families, ruin their relationships, or live unhappy or sick lives to make sure the firm stays profitable.
Strangely, this is somewhat innovative. But totally and completely intuitive from our perspective.
I think this has the power to improve diversity in the profession, and to increase retention and career satisfaction for a whole lot of lawyers. I say this as a person who has always been privately driven but never comfortable with public competition. Maybe that’s because I’m a woman and a first-generation university grad, or maybe it’s just who I am. But I think there are other lawyers – maybe a lot of them – that do great work, but for a variety of reasons are uncomfortable with the idea of public competition being baked into their job and compensation.
Elements of this model are possible for all firms to pursue and could substantially improve outcomes for lawyers, their families, and their clients. My experience is that these approaches are also profitable, and (I believe) better positioned for future success in a changing world.
So, worth a shot to treat the practice of law within a firm model a bit more like a team sport? We’re in this together, after all.