Posted by: johnocunningham | November 22, 2016

Bad Actors, Culture and Winning

I recently noticed numerous references on social media to an October 28 FORBES magazine article by David Parnell, entitled: “Law Firms Surveyed – Bad Actors Present Challenges for Leadership.”

Apparently, this piece about toxic law firm environments created by unregulated bad behaviors, struck quite a chord with those in the law.

It did a nice job of summarizing the bad behaviors most often cited as troublesome by workplace colleagues, the challenges of dealing with these bad behaviors, the current processes for dealing with it, and the potential additional solutions.

What I found most interesting about this article, and my comments thereon are as follows:

  1. While 87 percent of firms have written value statements, only 20 percent have specified sanctions for behavior not aligned with values. Comment: Lawyers deal with and craft codes of conduct for clients all the time, and many even draft legislation that specifies penalties for non-compliance. This should be an easy fix that will pay dividends and make it easier for managing partners and executive committees to regulate bad behavior.
  2. Although most firms have no specified sanctions for violating firm values, more than half of firms have dismissed partners in the last five years for behavior inconsistent with firm values. Comment: With regard to this circumstance, you would think that firms would want to move quickly to put written policies and sanctions in place, if only to defend the firm against lawsuits by bully victims and fired bullies alike.
  3. Bullying and lack of respect clearly came in first place among the cited bad behaviors within law firms – nearly 90 percent of respondents cited this as the most common “bad behavior.” Comment: There is no excuse for lawyers acting this way, as our profession is supposed to protect others, set an example, and avoid even the appearance of impropriety. If bullying is reported this commonly, clearly something is not being done about it.  Why?
  4. Only 33 percent of firms reported that they have a formal complaint process for bad behavior. Comment: This is perhaps one reason why bullying continues to be common, which further damages the image and the reputation of a profession already under siege, as well as harming the firm in which the bullying takes place.
  5. An estimated 75 percent of detrimental actors among partners have compensation equal to or higher than the firm average. Comment: This is probably the biggest reason that bullying neither gets reported or dealt with on many occasions. The fear is that the bully might take their book of business out the door, but the reality is that the bully’s origination numbers are likely inflated because he fights over them like a wolf over raw meat, and there is no measure for how many originations he defeats or how many client defections and valued employee defections he causes. As the article points out, the bullies can also chase away potentially huge lateral contributors.

A number of highly successful managing partners that I have interviewed are of the belief that dealing promptly and effectively with bad actors is essential to workplace productivity and long-term stability, and one who was particularly successful cited bully control and elimination as “economic addition by subtraction.” I think this is right. A raft of materials has also been written about the importance of this issue in the world of corporate culture, and both academics and executives have concluded that workplace culture and behavior are critical components to long-term success.

As Lou Gerstner, former Chairman and CEO of IBM once wrote: “Until I came to IBM [as CEO] I probably would have told you that culture was just one among several important elements in any organization’s makeup and success — along with vision, strategy, marketing, financials, and the like… I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it IS the game.”

Furthermore, as Parnell’s article points out,  Stanford professor Robert Sutton and other business gurus have made the case for adjusting hiring practices to align with cultural values, and this is where real bully control begins – at the front door. “The best firms spend an inordinate amount of time, sometimes even using psychometric testing, to ensure that a candidate is socially competent and if they obtain evidence to the contrary they don’t try to fix the problem, they just don’t hire the problem,” Sutton reportedly has said.

So, if you want a winning and collaborative culture, you have to deal with it at the point of hiring AND the point of firing. How well this gets articulated and communicated within your law firm may be the key to your success.

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