Posted by: johnocunningham | April 25, 2018

An Overlooked Key to Success: Enforcing Standards of Conduct

Recently, the ABA Journal published an article by Karen Kaplowitz, entitled “Abuse of Power Within Law Firms: The Rainmaker Dilemma.”

This was an excellent piece that summarized the internal struggles that law firms face when contemplating disciplinary action against revenue-generating partners.

Having worked in both law firms and in-house corporate law departments, I see a number of ways in which law firms would do well to imitate their most successful corporate clients (and not the dumb ones that lose money and employees on the way to Chapter 7):

  1. When a power partner is accused of any form of misconduct, there should be a true independent fact-finding investigation and recommendation (would you tell a corporate client to investigate their own wrongdoing and reach their own conclusions without the aid of “outside” counsel?)
  2. Every law firm should have clearly articulated standards for behavioral conduct, preferably in a written “Code of Conduct” and those standards should be most strictly applied to the leaders of the firm – if you don’t enforce standards against the leaders, then nobody believes those standards are real.
  3. At a minimum, any violation of standards should result in progressive counseling, and any repeated violation requires termination. NO exceptions.
  4. Every law firm should go through leadership training at a serious b-school to understand how culture and values – or lack thereof – can make or break both the top line and the bottom line. If you want to deflate and de-energize your entire workforce, just try slapping a power partner on the wrist after they have engaged in bad conduct. You might as well post a sign in the halls that says “Our Firm: love it or leave it as is.” Oh, and if you want to lose clients on a massive scale, try being the subject of a front-page story or just a posting in “Above the Law” on workplace harassment, abuse or wrongdoing. By the way, nearly half the in-house counsel I have surveyed told me they have steered business away from firms after noticing or hearing about workplace abuse.
  5. Every law firm should consider appointing and empowering a well-respected senior officer to be in charge of ethics and conduct, and that officer should join the Ethics Compliance Officers Association or some similar professional organization to study and compare approaches to setting and reaching aspirational goals for behavior. The ethics officer also needs to learn and to communicate the proven economic value of good conduct.

Based on my interviews of some of the most successful managing partners at large firms around the country, I will add that firms would do well to look at the UP side of disciplining or terminating abusive rainmakers or other partners. As an extremely successful managing partner once told me after leading an effort that turned his firm from a sinking ship into a regional powerhouse, “You have to deal with the 800-pound gorillas to be successful, and that includes taking them out if necessary.”

These heavyweight abusers often sap the energy of their partner peers, as well as associates and staff working under them, and that has a huge impact on firm-wide productivity. They also tend to ignore any goals of rules set by others while enforcing their own personal dictates in Draconian fashion. No successful corporation would put up with it for a minute, but somehow professional service firms have let it go for way too long.


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