Many biglaw leaders should take heed.

In last weekend’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, columnist Peggy Noonan lamented the loss of what she called “adult supervision.”  (http://www.peggynoonan.com/article.php?article=531)

Commemorating the 50th annivesary of To Kill A Mockingbird, she recalls the “wise and grounded Atticus Finch, who understands the world and pursues justice anyway, and who can be relied upon.”

She then rattles off a list of world leaders whom she regards as young — President Obama is 48; British Prime Minister Cameron is 43; Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (no relation) is 51. Noonan says they could benefit from the presence of wise advisers like the venerable Finch.

Of course, there’s an obvious problem with her analysis: Finch himself was about the age of the “young men” she now finds in need of wise older counsel. So she misses an essential point: Wisdom is neither the exclusive province of the old nor the assured destination of advancing age.

But Noonan states an important truth when she views the modern world and observes that “there’s kind of an emerging mentoring gap going on in America right now.” She sees it in “a generalized absence of the wise old politician/lawyer/leader/editor who helps the young along, who teaches them the ropes and ways and traditions of a craft.”

That is undoubtedly true for much of biglaw. Why?

There are exceptions within and among firms, but this development flows directly from the MBA-mentality that now dominates most large law firms. It forces leaders and everyone else to focus on short-term metrics — individual billings, billable hours, associate-partner leverage ratios.

The resulting behavior is predictable. Each individual’s drive to attain and preserve position in accordance with such metrics leaves little room (or time) for the personalized mentoring that turns good young lawyers into better older ones. There’s no metric for measuring the future contribution that mentoring makes to the current year’s average profits-per-equity-partner.

For firms adhering to the pervasive biglaw model, the absence of a mentoring metric makes all the difference. In Hildebrandt Baker Robbins’s 2010 Client Advisory to the legal profession, one of the pioneering consultants responsible for the proliferation of biglaw’s misguided metrics aimed at short-term profit-maximizing concludes, “There is a management adage that ‘what gets measured gets done.'”  (http://www.hildebrandt.com/2010ClientAdvisory)

I would add this corollary: Throughout biglaw in particular and the world generally, that which lacks a metric gets ignored.

Unfortunately, some of those things are important.


  1. This is a wonderful piece–I found it first this afternoon via Twitter, which led me to the American Lawyer post. I proceeded to retweet the piece, stunned to see heretical wisdom of this type published by the American Lawyer. Dizzy with the thought I might have a kindred spirit in the Heartland, I felt compelled to post a grateful comment, track down your blog, then your author website, then a photo, scratching my head all the way over the karma of it all. 30 years, parallel universes, eerily similar world views.
    Classmates. There it is. You and Mr. I. Nelson Rose, gaming counsel extraordinaire, led a tremendously interesting discussion during our law school reunion last year. I had just retired from 30 years of practice myself. I have now cleverly put all this together.
    Great blog. I’ve got to run now–racing off to order your novel….

    • Thanks, Betsy. The article I mentioned in that discussion — “Transitions: Finding Yourself Outside the Practice of Law” — was just published in the current (Spring 2010) edition of the ABA’s Litigation quarterly.

      • I agree with your point about the shortcomings of focusing on what can only be measured by metrics. But, of course, the absence of having adequate mentoring is just one shortcoming of the obsession with numbers in managing a law firm. For instance, to name a few, there are many other non-metric factors that critical to the success of a law firm including having sound leadership, a sound compenation system, sound principles in decision making, and a strong healthy culture. In sum, what a firm is like on the inside (i.e. its operating principles as well as its “touchy-feely” elements) which may not be easily measured by metrics (or seen on the outside) is what, in the end, really drives success including the firm’s economic results. Bottomline, having a heathy work environment, working as a collaborate team, making decisions that lead to long term stability even if it adversely impacts short term operating results, contributing back to society through pro bono work and many other internal factors and values are also very important in determining a firm’s success. While achieving competitive economic results is essential, it is a mistake to overlook the first importance of getting things right on the inside. When done right, what you are like on the inside makes a real difference in attracting and retaining great clients as well as great legal talent.

  2. Steve,

    I just read this post and the ABA article, and I have to say that I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment about the emerging mentoring gap at large law firms. I began my legal career where you spent yours, and took for granted the mentoring and training that I received there. For personal reasons, I left Chicago and joined another (relatively) large law firm in the midwest. At this firm there was a widespread apathy among the partnership in developing the legal skills of its associates. There was no meaningful formal training and — equally important — there was a lack of interest in doing any mentoring. I left the firm to pursue a different legal path, but keep in contact with some of the associates there, and they all talk about how they feel lost. Other law school colleagues at other firms have told me similliar stories. Now, as you note there are firms out there that do a good job, but, they do seem to be in the minority. Great post. I look forward to reading your novel.

  3. When I was a summer associate a few years ago, one of the then-about-to-retire partners was explaining how the law used to be a profession, but somewhere along the way turned into a business like any other. He was right. Fast forward to the present, where I’m a few years into my career and more concerned about whether my review will focus on the hours I’ve billed (or not billed), rather than if I’m really developing the skills and judgment that I’ll need to be successful in the profession. It’s a shame, because ultimately, if you don’t develop the skills and the judgment to sustain a practice beyond your first few years, billing hours will be the least of your worries.

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