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The Arrogance of Lawyers. Will It Be Their Undoing?

Editor's Note: I received a note from a reader that wanted to post something that they felt would be a good fit for the discussions we have on this blog. In their own words:
As a long-time fan of 3 Geeks, I was compelled to add to the useful pool of content published here. I do this anonymously, based on the topic I address.
There are many of us on the "Admin-Side" of the law firm that see things that make us simply shake our heads. It was refreshing to talk with someone that wanted to point a few things out that really bothered them, not about how attorneys practice law, but rather on the business of running a large law firm and all of the professionals employed at the firm hired in the persuit of maintaining that business. We're more than happy to post it here, and share with everyone, all while allowing the administrator to keep their day job. - GL


After working in the legal industry for many, many years, I wanted to add my voice to those lamenting the treatment of us so-called ‘non-lawyers.’ Mr. Furlong has previously posted on this topic, but my inside experience at a firm may add another dimension to the dialog.

My basic premise is that lawyers do not value those outside their profession. They deem anyone not a lawyer a ‘non-lawyer’ as a clear distinction between them and everyone else. They hold this opinion to the point that a person’s credibility and ability are first determine by whether they
a) have a law degree, and
b) they use this degree in practice.
The base opinion seems to be that if you as a person were truly capable, you would have gone to law school landed a job at a reputable firm. Absent that achievement, your abilities must be below that of lawyers.

As an example, too many marketing professionals at firms are treated as glorified secretaries. They may have deep experience and truly valuable marketing skills and experience. However, most of what they do is dictated to them by the lawyers in a firm. Mind you, these are lawyers with no training or background in marketing. They make marketing decisions based on what they want to hear, not on real market information about what a customer would want to hear.

In my role as a firm administrator, I endure constant complaints from lawyers about trivial issues. The issues may be real (printers out of ink, conference rooms without the right color of notepads, parking spaces not allocated according to seniority, and the like), yet the treatment of my staff and me can be horrendous. I have never witnessed similar treatment to another lawyer in the firm. So why is it OK to treat ‘non-lawyers’ this way?

My assumption is that this comes from a position of arrogance. If one deems themselves as more capable than everyone else, why would they show them respect and consideration?

Although this arrogance can be manifest in other ways. Lawyers seem to pride themselves on their ability to tear-down others’ opinions. When a new concept is presented to them, instead of trying to understand the value of it, they focus on the details of the proposal looking for signs of weakness. As an example, in a client proposal they are more likely to attack the grammar than consider the strategy of the proposed approach. Bad grammar to them is an indication of poor thinking and therefore an indicator that the suggested strategy must be wrong. Looking for ways to disprove every suggestion leads to every suggestion being attacked and rejected. All it takes is two or three lawyers to be involved, and any idea can be torn to shreds. So this combination of arrogance and the tendency to attack instead of understand makes lawyers poor business people.

Many friends ask me why I have worked in this environment so long. There are benefits. Lawyers are smart and challenging people to work for. They keep you on your “A-Game.” However, I sense that this arrogance is catching up with them. It is my opinion that lawyers need to understand and embrace new ways of running their firms. 3 Geeks writes about this need all of the time. So this arrogance and unwillingness to embrace new ways and to recognize the value of other professionals may well be their un-doing. I for one am beginning to question how long things can continue like this and how long I want to stay a part of the whole law firm world.

But who knows. The day may soon come when I will actually be recognized and treated as a true professional. I suppose at this point it is a matter of my patience and how soon this might actually happen.

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18 comments:

Bonnie Russsell said...

Attorneys are my clients and they treat me very well. This was not true when I worked in-house.

Mike O'Horo said...

Much of what you've observed and experienced about lawyers' attitudes toward non-lawyers (the existence of such an ego-centric term speaks volumes) is widespread, but it's not the whole story. To it I'll add that few (large firm) lawyers have any business experience at all, so they're understandably ignorant about the various functions required to operate a business successfully.

It's not just that they don't respect the marketing director because he or she isn't a lawyer. It's that they don't understand or respect marketing per se. From there, it's easy to see how they'd not respect a practitioner of a discipline they don't recognize as such.

Relative to marketing and sales, there's another exacerbating factor: During "The Golden Age of Law Firms," as The American Lawyer described the 20 years prior to 2007, sustained high demand for legal services meant that firms were hugely successful without any real marketing or sales. Because rainmakers experienced business-getting as easy, and 90% of lawyers didn't have to do anything at all except fulfill the work the rainmakers brought in, firms concluded that there wasn't much to the marketing stuff. If you think something is easy, you're not going to respect someone trying to give you advice about how to do it.

Now that the demand curve has changed permanently, marketing and sales (there's that bone-chlling word) will become in law the definitively critical capability that they've long been in the rest of the economic world. Until then, law firm business development practitioners and trainers will continue to be the Rodney Dangerfields of the world: No respect.

Allison said...

Not all attorneys are arrogant... but some are. I saw an article of yours in the Texas Bar Journal.. If this is Greg. Good article.

Mitch Jackson said...

Interesting article. Like any profession, you get the good with the bad. Social media is changing everything for the better. Increased transparency and more consumer options will result in a reduction and maybe someday, even an elimination of the type of experiences you describe. I'm proud to be a trial lawyer and enjoy treating others with respect. That has everything to do with how I was raised and nothing to do with my occupation. By the way, I enjoyed the article :-)

Rita K said...

I enjoyed reading this article, but I have usually experienced the opposite in the firms in which I have worked. Yes, there were arrogant attorneys, but even the most arrogant appreciated my work and often told me I was worth more than most associates. My inclination to correct the grammar in the post, instead of just enjoying it, bothered me though. I will try to "pursue" a better frame of mind when reading a post. ;)

Unknown said...

In my days of working for Big Law, I was once yelled at by a partner for stopping to help a secretary with a technical issue she was experiencing. According to the partner "technical problems are for other people to deal with."

Enjoyed the article but under "real" issues are listed: the color of legal pads and parking spaces. These are "real" issues? Wow.....

Anonymous said...

I think the arrogence of the law firms are evident in that it is the only place of work where the size of the firm only counts the lawyers - as if no one else matters or helps to contribute to the firm's success.

Anonymous said...

I'm respected and treated well by almost everyone here at the firm INDIVIDUALLY. What I do find is that the culture of the firm and overal organization does not value my professional knowledge and the value I could add if I were more respected and involved.

Anonymous said...

I've been working in law firms as a non-lawyer for 30 years. While senior partners are indeed crusty and resistant to change, I've found that the most difficult lawyers to manage have been the fourth or fifth year associates that are trying to make partner. They think they know everything, they're unable to accept suggestions and are unwilling to adapt new and perhaps better processes to their cases. As someone that has spent a lot of time repairing misguided processes, usually implemented by an attorney, it's disappointing that my knowledge, experience and insights are so quickly dismissed. It's all I can do not to say "what did I tell you was going to happen?" when it all comes undone.

With regard to business sense, I feel like most successful lawyers understand that their best advice may not always be about case strategy, but guiding their client to a successful, low cost result that makes business sense for the client.

I think we're at a cross roads in this industry as clients begin to wonder why their case doesn't have some sort of process flow or project management. Corporate clients implement such structures in their businesses and just can't understand why their legal counsel won't do the same.

Moe said...

@Unknown I think the "real world issues" were intended to be tongue in cheek. I have experienced both ends of the spectrum when I was in-house. Even as a vendor, I was once shrieked at by a client's attorney in front of a secretary - not even that attorney's secretary! My friends in the Medical industry tell me physicians are not much different so I guess we have to take the good with the bad. Or move to another industry.

Ashley Casas said...

Though I enjoyed the post, I would also add that I have worked with a few lawyers and they are incredibly nice. Maybe I just got lucky.

Steve said...

There are many professions that fall into this same dilemma – such as Doctors and Politicians. They can be extremely nice and still be extremely arrogant, all at the same time. It's part of what makes them succeed at their 'day jobs' but makes it tough on those professionals they hire to help them run their business.

Anonymous said...

I experienced the same arrogance while working for one of the big accounting firms in Canada. The CAs (Chartered Accountants) didn't value anyone who was not a CA. They weren't sure they needed an HR department (since they obviously know everything about HR themselves), they saw nothing wrong with bidding on jobs for which they had no expertise, and routinely screamed at lower-level workers. I think there's something about a scenario where the "professionals" do the core work of the business, and the "non-professionals" support them that fosters this type of attitude.

Anonymous said...

Hooray!
I have been saying this for years as a law firm librarian. The response I receive is "lawyers pay my salary". Lawyers and ABA have elevated their profession themselves. I have worked with with European lawyers from many countries and they do not behave like US arrogant lawyers.

Jim Hanlon said...

As someone who has never worked in the legal industry directly, I would guess it has as much to do with thinking of yourself as a revenue producer as it does with having a JD. In my profession (tech sales) I think there is a tendency for people who are bringing in the revenue- especially those who fancy themselves 'rainmakers'- to put themselves a notch above the people who support those clients, create the product, etc. Of course I don't do this, but I have definitely seen it as an overall pattern at least within technology sales. If law firms do adopt professional sales teams of non-lawyers, I'd be interested to see where they fall in the pecking order.

Sonny Cohen said...

Well, I’m not quite sure I can connect the premise (arrogance) with the conclusion (undoing). For the client, a/k/a the one that pays the bills, the arrogance may be construed as a good thing. At least at first. But in the end it is not so much undoing as sub-optimization for all parties that is the outcome.

I’ve experienced this sociopathic behavior as a client for 20 years and then as a service provider for the last 12. As a business-owning client with frequent high 5-figure annual legal fees, unresponsiveness, jargonation, abstraction and lack of business sense resulted in considerable churn of my legal counsel. And, astonishing but not entirely surprising, few lawyers or their firms ever followed up to discover why the business was lost. As a service provider, I simply experience bad decision making – a result of failing to empower the people, employed by the firm, who have the marketing and business insight to reach the conclusions of greatest benefit to the firm.

I think I see things changing albeit slowly and inconsistently from firm to firm. First, the competitive landscape dictates a change or die outcome. Second, firms are reorganizing around more executive management and permitting professionals to run the business of law with greater latitude. And third, the quality of the internal professionals is rising to the opportunities being provided them.

William Charles said...

As, it is saying that one fish dirt all the pound, I think same is here, we guys just have suspects all attorneys are alike.

John Andrew said...

This is a kind of infamy for those good lawyers; I think folk just set up their mind for lawyers, which tough to get throw out of their mind. But, it’s not like that overall we are all the human being. Many times folk way of behaving change due to his job and environment.

 

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