Bullying, Lack of Respect, Me First, Law Firms Suffer the Behaviour they Tolerate

93% of AmLaw 100 firms have experienced bullying, a lack of respect, and “me-first” attitudes among their ranks, despite 87% of them reporting how important it is to have written value statements sufficiently specific to ensure behavior that is consistent with those values. In the first of a series of Leader’s Pulse Surveys, consultants David J. Parnell and Patrick J. McKenna find from the survey results of 124 responding firms (both in and out of the AmLaw 100) that partly to blame is that only one in four firms “have any clear and tough sanctions for behavior that does not comply with their values”. Further, firm leaders tolerate bad behavior among their partners, and often among those who may be considered their higher performing colleagues.

What Kinds Of Bad Behavior?

The top five most common detrimental behaviors that firm leaders cited, say Parnell and McKenna, include: “bullying behavior and lack of respect” (by 89% of respondents); “not being a team player with a ‘me-first’ personal agenda” (84%); “poor matter management habits like getting in time, etc.” (80%); “failure to achieve work quality standards” (76%); and “negative attitude infecting others” (69%).

Among the AmLaw 100 respondents, while these top five were the same, there was a three-way tie at the #1 spot with “poor matter management habits like getting in time, etc.”; “bullying behavior and lack of respect”; and “not being a team player with a ‘me-first’ personal agenda” – all scoring at 93%.

Parnell and McKenna reported that there was no shortage of additional examples of bad behavior raised by numerous leaders: “blocking the advancement of others and acting out”; “failing to share credit and failing to treat staff with respect”; “not managing files to a budget”; “big egos engaged in internal empire building”; “failing to address and support diversity issues”, and even “general poor behavior: the ‘- - - hole factor’.”

Fear Of Addressing The Problem

“It is our view,” say Parnell and McKenna, “that a significant number of firm leaders feel deeply uncomfortable with confronting the inappropriate behavior of their colleagues, thereby delaying or even preventing intervention altogether.” By way of supporting evidence, their survey results indicate that when firms were asked whether discomfort among leadership in challenging detrimental actors has been strong enough to delay addressing the problem, they were told that that was indeed the case in 41% of the firms – about which, they opined, “if we think about it, is a pretty tough question for many leaders to hear, given that they may have to admit some degree of failure.”

The authors of the survey went on to say, “We then went even a step further and inquired as to whether that ‘discomfort was strong enough to altogether prevent leaders from addressing the problem’, and had a surprising one out of four firms – 22% – freely admit that that was the case.”

The consultants report that a very telling observation came from one managing partner who said, “Any of the above could be actionable,” regarding the detrimental behavior elaborated upon in the survey, “but typically is limited to consideration in compensation for partners. However, the status of the partner and the amount of billings appears to affect what action, if any, is taken.”

When asked about how they might confront bad behavior if-and-when they do, the survey uncovered that 82% of leaders would “first confront detrimental actors – one-on-one”, but with some reporting “not as often as we should” and “our less well managed groups and offices just ignore it until someone else has to deal with it.”

The Effectiveness Of Current Methods Of Intervention

So just how effective are those leaders who do confront bad actors within the firm? Many will see little real change in behavior! In fact, sadly, the consultants were informed by 47% of the firms that “our detrimental actors have been repeat offenders despite intervention.” Some of these firm leaders reported a range of responses from “the intervention is often tepid and carried out by the wrong people” to “these actors repeat but less frequently and less severely.”

The consultants conclude: “What is clear to us is that law firm leaders, in order to protect their important cultural and competitive standing, need to not only more actively encourage behavior consistent with their stated firm values, but to also confront those acting out quicker and with more effective methods than they seem to be doing currently. As one firm leader expressed it best, ‘These kinds of problems don’t go away on their own and they certainly don’t improve with age.’”

David J. Parnell is a legal search & placement consultant, ABA author, speaker, and Forbes andAmerican Lawyer Media columnist. Patrick J. McKenna is an internationally recognized author, lecturer, strategist and seasoned advisor to the leaders of premier law firms. For more information or to arrange an interview, Contact: David J. Parnell – 212.390.8087; Patrick J. 780.428.1052

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