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You’ve lost that successful feelin’?

The Twila Zone
|Written By Twila Reid
You’ve lost that successful feelin’?

2014 is ending fast. Every firm in Canada has lost some great talent this year to roles outside of private practice. The question everyone asks is “why”? Why do lawyers leave private practice?

It’s quite simple. Success. That’s the answer. Well, the feeling of success. Or, more specifically, the absence of feeling successful.

Success means that little tingle of excitement when you love what you do. Success means engagement. Success means productivity. Success means happiness.

The more complicated part is figuring out how you help someone feel successful. That’s the question every manager and partnership board should be asking.

Step 1: Recognize that a firm’s success requires more than billable hours.

A firm’s success requires high quality legal advice. It requires specialized expertise. It requires mentors and sponsors. It requires relationships, both internal and external. It requires “glue” — people who help the firm stick together and help clients stick with the firm. It requires papers, presentations, dinners, and charitable activities. It requires other things that make the firm unique.

When individuals compete against other individuals the most selfish one will typically win. However, when groups compete, the opposite is true. Groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals. That’s the basic evolutionary theory of morality. Unless you are a sole practitioner, your success involves having a team of altruistic individuals.

Yet, firms are not designed to define success around team-based behaviours. No doubt, these things are difficult to measure. However, academics figured out long ago how to measure performance when traditional metrics do not work — they do it by peer review. Just about anything can be measured by peer review.

Step 2: Recognize that the definition of success has to be individualized.

Success is different for each person. The problem with law firms is they are based on a singular concept of success. They are structured around the concept that billing lots of hours and making lots of money makes people feel successful. This singular thinking is reinforced by models that set artificial hard targets for associates to meet and publish each associate’s hours for all to see.

Billing lots of hours does not result in a feeling of success for all. However, being below the average on a widely distributed published list of hours will most certainly ensure the opposite to feeling successful.

Of course, billable hours and billings are, and will always be, important. However targets should be assigned based on meaningful criteria — for example, average lawyer hours in the previous year. Also, mean, median, high, and low can be distributed for information purposes on a no names basis.

Lawyers, junior ones in particular, need to understand that success is an individualized concept and they need to be encouraged to create their own path, their own definition of success.

Step 3: Build relationships.

Success involves building meaningful relationships, both internally in the firm (with mentors, sponsors, support staff) and with external clients. Isolation isn’t good for anyone. Firms have started to realize this and most have adopted formal mentoring programs. Assess your program. Is it working? Could it be better?

Sometimes juniors ask me what type of law they should practise. In my view, it is not the practice area that will determine how much (or how little) you enjoy your job. Rather, it is the nature of the relationship you have with the people you will be working most closely with. Therefore, choose a practice area where you have found positive, supportive relationships.

Conversely, if you are a mid to senior partner you want to be an effective mentor and/or sponsor so the most talented juniors want to work with you. Are you someone’s mentor? Sponsor? Is the junior aware that you support them?

Step 4: Be positive and constructive in all communications.

As Margaret Wente wrote in her column in The Globe and Mail: “Personally, I’m not sure the carrot-and-stick method is ideal to get either animals or people to behave well. ‘No carrots, ever,’ insists a wise old horse trainer I know. ‘You want the horse to behave because he trusts and respects you, not because he wants the carrot.’ And no technology can achieve trust and respect. It takes actual communication. . . .”

In a business of billing on six-minute intervals, it can be difficult to justify taking that student out to lunch, dropping by that 5 p.m. reception in the boardroom or simply (but meaningfully) asking, “how are things?” However, relationship building primarily relies on good communication.

The key to good communication is good listening and meaningful consultation. This builds trust, which connects people to the firm.

My prediction for 2015 and beyond is that firms will begin to figure out the old one-size-fits-all approach is broken beyond repair. The successful firm of the future will be the one that recognizes and rewards altruistic behaviour with individualized definitions of success.

Happy Holidays and best wishes for every feeling of success in 2015!

  • Right on

    Jim A
    "Groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals. That’s the basic evolutionary theory of morality. "

    Love it!
  • Twila

    Twila E Reid
    Thanks so much for all the feedback I've received on this article. It seems I've really struck a chord with many readers. I appreciate your feedback.