Law Firm Accountability and the “Quiet Herd Cutter” Problem

by Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.
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Linda Galindo is a speaker, educator, and author who works with corporations around the world to foster cultures of accountability and high achievement. Earlier this fall, I interviewed Linda. Recently—turnabout being fair play—she interviewed me on a subject of importance and concern to me: “The Quiet Herd Cutter” problem. The interview first appeared on Linda’s blog, The Straight Truth and has been slightly edited for our blog.

LINDA GALINDO:  What do you mean by “Quiet Herd Cutter”?

JATHAN JANOVE:  “Quiet Herd Cutter” is a term describing a form of negative performance feedback. Here’s an example: Let’s say a senior attorney gives a junior attorney an assignment and the senior attorney doesn’t like the result. Rather than talk to the junior attorney, point out the deficiencies in the assignment, and explain what needs to change, the senior attorney simply doesn’t use that attorney again.

It’s like a herd of wildebeests moving across the African savannah. The perceived weak ones quietly get shunted to the side and left to their fate with the jackals and hyenas.

LG:  What are the consequences of Quiet Herd Cutter management?

JJ: First, there’s a good chance that the senior attorney has made an erroneous snap judgment that the junior attorney can’t cut it and thus will miss out on what might have been a long-term beneficial relationship. In a previous blog post on annual performance reviews, I share a personal story about when a senior attorney cut me from the herd; by a subsequent fluke, I got a second chance, which led to my becoming his No. 1 “go-to” attorney.  Instead of making snap judgments, the senior partner should think, “This lawyer graduated from law school, passed the bar, and was hired by a committee of my partners. So what’s a more likely explanation for my disappointment—a failure to communicate, one of us having a bad day, or the junior lawyer lacking what it takes?”

Second, Quiet Herd Cutter management is cruel and counterproductive. The junior attorney may have a sense that things didn’t go right, but not know exactly what went wrong, much less how to fix the problem. As a result, his or her confidence erodes, which leads to similar herd-cutting by other senior attorneys. The pain increases as the junior attorney can’t get enough work to stay busy and can’t make his or her required hours. Instead, the attorney worries, speculates and feels victimized.

Third, it’s highly inefficient. If the junior attorney is truly unable to meet expectations, it’s in everyone’s best interest to find out sooner rather than later and transition him or her from the firm. This minimizes three costs: (1) the emotional cost to both the junior attorney and others in continuing a relationship doomed to failure; (2) the out-of-pocket costs in salary, benefits, and overhead spent on someone who isn’t adding value; and (3) the opportunity cost of being prevented from hiring a replacement who would add value.

Fourth, if the senior attorney is an equity stakeholder in the firm, he or she shirks his or her responsibility to the firm to conserve and increase the firm’s intellectual capital.

LG:  Is the Quiet Herd Cutter problem prevalent and, if so, why?

JJ: It’s very prevalent. Since I began speaking and giving presentations about this phenomenon, I’ve had numerous senior attorneys approach me and say, “Jathan, I thought you were talking about me!”

As for why quiet herd cutting is so prevalent, I think it is a combination of two things. The first is the reluctance people have to confront an employee directly on a performance issue. You might think that attorneys would be different given the amount of conflict they handle in their professional practices. However, when it comes to internal problems, they’re as conflict-averse as anyone else.

The second factor playing into the prevalence of the problem is time pressure. Senior attorneys are under daily pressure to meet their clients’ needs, to hit their billable hour targets, and to grow their book of business. These pressures leave little time or inclination to invest in junior attorneys who need mentoring. It seems much easier to move on to someone else.

LG:  What do you recommend to eliminate the Quiet Herd Cutter problem?

JJ: I encourage attorneys to “DIS” employees. This means that they should provide feedback that is:

  • Direct (and preferably face-to-face);
  • Immediate (addressing issues at the earliest possible opportunity); and
  • Specific (eschewing labels and focusing specifically on what happened, the results of the conduct at issue, why those results matter, and what needs to be done to fix the problem and prevent its recurrence).

In addition, I recommend that senior attorneys make a modest upfront investment into what I call a “Star Profile” from my book The Star Profile – A Management Tool To Unleash Employee Potential. A Star Profile captures the core behavioral characteristics that distinguish a successful working relationship from an unsuccessful one.  For example, the Star Profile of a junior attorney is of someone who:

  • produces first-rate work;
  • responds promptly and reliably to clients’ and senior attorneys’ needs; and
  • treats everyone with courtesy, respect, and professionalism at all times.

Accompanying the profile, I include a brief discussion of what each bullet point means and why it is essential, and I give examples of first-rate work, true responsiveness, and courtesy toward “everyone” “at all times.”

LG: Those sound like great steps, but how do you persuade senior attorneys to adopt them?

JJ:  By first getting them to recognize the problems inherent in the Quiet Herd Cutter approach: the considerable time and energy they expend in having to fix problems, the frustration of not having their needs or expectations met, the challenges in finding the right attorney who is available when needed, and the significant costs described above. I encourage senior attorneys to use the “DIS” feedback method and to develop Star Profiles for junior attorneys as a modest upfront investment with a high likelihood of a positive return.

Linda Galindo is a speaker, coach, consultant, and author of The 85% Solution: How Personal Accountability Guarantees Success—No Nonsense, No Excuses. Contact her at info@LindaGalindo.com.

Jathan Janove is director of employee engagement solutions and the managing shareholder of the Portland office of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C. Follow Jathan on Twitter.

- See more at: http://blog.ogletreedeakins.com/law-firm-accountability-and-the-quiet-herd-cutter-problem/#sthash.JuOCfJZn.dpuf

Linda Galindo is a speaker, educator, and author who works with corporations around the world to foster cultures of accountability and high achievement. Earlier this fall, I interviewed Linda. Recently—turnabout being fair play—she interviewed me on a subject of importance and concern to me: “The Quiet Herd Cutter” problem. The interview first appeared on Linda’s blog, The Straight Truth and has been slightly edited for our blog.

LINDA GALINDO:  What do you mean by “Quiet Herd Cutter”?

JATHAN JANOVE:  “Quiet Herd Cutter” is a term describing a form of negative performance feedback. Here’s an example: Let’s say a senior attorney gives a junior attorney an assignment and the senior attorney doesn’t like the result. Rather than talk to the junior attorney, point out the deficiencies in the assignment, and explain what needs to change, the senior attorney simply doesn’t use that attorney again.

It’s like a herd of wildebeests moving across the African savannah. The perceived weak ones quietly get shunted to the side and left to their fate with the jackals and hyenas.

LG:  What are the consequences of Quiet Herd Cutter management?

JJ: First, there’s a good chance that the senior attorney has made an erroneous snap judgment that the junior attorney can’t cut it and thus will miss out on what might have been a long-term beneficial relationship. In a previous blog post on annual performance reviews, I share a personal story about when a senior attorney cut me from the herd; by a subsequent fluke, I got a second chance, which led to my becoming his No. 1 “go-to” attorney.  Instead of making snap judgments, the senior partner should think, “This lawyer graduated from law school, passed the bar, and was hired by a committee of my partners. So what’s a more likely explanation for my disappointment—a failure to communicate, one of us having a bad day, or the junior lawyer lacking what it takes?”

Second, Quiet Herd Cutter management is cruel and counterproductive. The junior attorney may have a sense that things didn’t go right, but not know exactly what went wrong, much less how to fix the problem. As a result, his or her confidence erodes, which leads to similar herd-cutting by other senior attorneys. The pain increases as the junior attorney can’t get enough work to stay busy and can’t make his or her required hours. Instead, the attorney worries, speculates and feels victimized.

Third, it’s highly inefficient. If the junior attorney is truly unable to meet expectations, it’s in everyone’s best interest to find out sooner rather than later and transition him or her from the firm. This minimizes three costs: (1) the emotional cost to both the junior attorney and others in continuing a relationship doomed to failure; (2) the out-of-pocket costs in salary, benefits, and overhead spent on someone who isn’t adding value; and (3) the opportunity cost of being prevented from hiring a replacement who would add value.

Fourth, if the senior attorney is an equity stakeholder in the firm, he or she shirks his or her responsibility to the firm to conserve and increase the firm’s intellectual capital.

LG:  Is the Quiet Herd Cutter problem prevalent and, if so, why?

JJ: It’s very prevalent. Since I began speaking and giving presentations about this phenomenon, I’ve had numerous senior attorneys approach me and say, “Jathan, I thought you were talking about me!”

As for why quiet herd cutting is so prevalent, I think it is a combination of two things. The first is the reluctance people have to confront an employee directly on a performance issue. You might think that attorneys would be different given the amount of conflict they handle in their professional practices. However, when it comes to internal problems, they’re as conflict-averse as anyone else.

The second factor playing into the prevalence of the problem is time pressure. Senior attorneys are under daily pressure to meet their clients’ needs, to hit their billable hour targets, and to grow their book of business. These pressures leave little time or inclination to invest in junior attorneys who need mentoring. It seems much easier to move on to someone else.

LG:  What do you recommend to eliminate the Quiet Herd Cutter problem?

JJ: I encourage attorneys to “DIS” employees. This means that they should provide feedback that is:

  • Direct (and preferably face-to-face);
  • Immediate (addressing issues at the earliest possible opportunity); and
  • Specific (eschewing labels and focusing specifically on what happened, the results of the conduct at issue, why those results matter, and what needs to be done to fix the problem and prevent its recurrence).

In addition, I recommend that senior attorneys make a modest upfront investment into what I call a “Star Profile” from my book The Star Profile – A Management Tool To Unleash Employee Potential. A Star Profile captures the core behavioral characteristics that distinguish a successful working relationship from an unsuccessful one.  For example, the Star Profile of a junior attorney is of someone who:

  • produces first-rate work;
  • responds promptly and reliably to clients’ and senior attorneys’ needs; and
  • treats everyone with courtesy, respect, and professionalism at all times.

Accompanying the profile, I include a brief discussion of what each bullet point means and why it is essential, and I give examples of first-rate work, true responsiveness, and courtesy toward “everyone” “at all times.”

LG: Those sound like great steps, but how do you persuade senior attorneys to adopt them?

JJ:  By first getting them to recognize the problems inherent in the Quiet Herd Cutter approach: the considerable time and energy they expend in having to fix problems, the frustration of not having their needs or expectations met, the challenges in finding the right attorney who is available when needed, and the significant costs described above. I encourage senior attorneys to use the “DIS” feedback method and to develop Star Profiles for junior attorneys as a modest upfront investment with a high likelihood of a positive return.

Linda Galindo is a speaker, coach, consultant, and author of The 85% Solution: How Personal Accountability Guarantees Success—No Nonsense, No Excuses. Contact her at info@LindaGalindo.com.

 

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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