Ron Freidmann recently posted a question about why lawyers and their clients avoid defining customer service. I posted a comment about ‘fear of accountability’ which got me thinking about why lawyers avoid accountability.
Too many times I have seen good, great and excellent ideas die at law firms based on the fact that they would require action and accountability by the firm’s lawyers. Many times these failures are chalked up to the “non-billable effect” since any projects that require lawyers to spend any non-billable time are doomed to failure.
Most law firm leadership has the authority to mandate such efforts and overcome the non-billable time issue. However, law firms generally avoid taking such steps. Occasionally firms do mandate certain tasks. But this is done sparingly and is usually focused on a project near and dear to the Managing Partner’s heart.
One might argue this approach makes good business sense since it minimizes lost revenue. I suggest though the reason lies a bit deeper. At a prior firm – I constantly struggled with the fact that leadership barley discussed profitability, let alone considered holding partners accountable for it. The reasoning here is that profitability will be divisive, pitting partners against each. This may be true, but how long can firms go on avoiding this necessary and basic business question?
In my (somewhat humble) opinion, I believe this inability to face accountability is the product of reputation fear. Accountability means you will be held accountable by your peers. And when you fail to meet any real or perceived goal, your reputation will suffer. If your practice comes in unprofitable, then your reputation as a firm partner will be tarnished. And the likelihood of having an unprofitable month or quarter at some point is close to 100%.
Why would reputation matter so much? Because reputation is everything to a lawyer. Their entire careers are built on their reputations as great lawyers. Risking that reputation makes no sense at all to them. So they are locked in a lose-lose situation.
The reality is there are excellent lawyers who aren’t profitable – but only because project management, or some variation of that, is not their strength. We don’t expect a brain surgeon to be great at P&L. So why does our profession require lawyers to be great at everything and not just practicing law?
I suspect it’s because for so long lawyers have held themselves above the masses. To maintain their reputation they feel the need to be perceived as “The Best” regardless of the subject. This arrogance may well become their Achilles’ heel. I do not see a clear path to solve this problem for firms, but they really need to find one.
The sad irony is that this fear and arrogance are actually harming lawyers’ reputations. Their unwillingness/inability to face pressing issues and resolve them is leading to broken trust with clients. And this trust is key to the future of their business. In time we’ll see how the jury rules on this.