Lessons From Lawyers: How Not to Manage Staff

After placing last in American Lawyer's ranking of law firms based on a survey of attorneys who had not yet made partner, Clifford Chance asked its staff the reasons for their discontent. Almost all the reasons could easily apply to accounting as well as law firms. The key gripes:

  • A 2,420 billable hour requirement. Associates felt they had to bill at least 2,420 hours a year in order to receive a bonus. They said the stress was dehumanizing and encouraged "padding" of hours on client bills, inefficient work and other problems.
  • The assignment system. Associates said the assignment process was an "old boys' club" and work was doled out on the basis of favoritism.
  • The performance review process. The perception was that the firm had no interest in mentoring staff or reviewing their performance with an eye toward making them better lawyers. Negative feedback was generally heard once a year and for the first time in annual reviews tied to compensation.
  • Poor communications. Associates said they were kept in the dark on matters of firmwide strategy and even on matters involving office moves. They seldom had contact with partners and worried they would be fired unexpectedly.
  • Animosity toward pro bono work. Some associates see pro bono work as an ethical responsibility and a chance to get practical experience, but they find it difficult to do given the stress on billable hours.
  • Partner indifference. Partners were said to have abdicated their responsibility for mentoring and training up-and-coming attorneys. Associate comments included, "The partners deeply resent paying the associates' salaries and bonuses."
  • Insufficient training. The billable hours requirement was also seen as thwarting training. Associates felt they could be included in conference calls and meetings, even if the partner didn't want them to bill the time to the client.

Most of the complaints were seen by the firm's leadership as misperceptions stemming from poor internal communications. Managing partner James Benedict said, "I felt like I was reading about a law firm I didn't know. We clearly have a problem that we need to address, and we're committed to that."

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