How hard is your work, really?

1 04 2010

Outside the profession, despite the bad press that lawyers get, the majority of people still think of the practice of law as an intellectually challenging job. Fundamentally, I think they are right. It takes time to learn the black letter law that underpins the work, and more time still to understand how to apply it to the wide variety of circumstances that a lawyer will come across in day to day practice. To then present that advice in a format appropriate to the client, to use creativity to solve problems, and to build the relationships and trust necessary to build a long career is tough.

A brain surgeon: is he smarter than you?

But (you were expecting a “but”, right?), within this work profile there is of course a spectrum of complexity. Traditionally, as lawyers became more experienced, they took on more complex work and more junior lawyers stepped onto the first rung of the ladder to begin their career learning to do the less complex work. But somewhere in the middle, things get a little hazy. In the old favourite “Managing the Professional Service Firm”, Maister talked about the classic challenge of under-delegation, and my suggestion for today is to revisit this in your working lives.

When times get tough, as they have certainly been recently, the classic law firm model of having chargeable hours as the main metric for judging performance encourages lawyers to hoard work to keep their figures healthy. Whether that work is done at the right level (or indeed even profitable) is often a question that is not asked.  As firms are restructured to realign the cost base with the reduced revenues that come with a recession, mid and lower level resource is stripped out. This recession was arguably different from the previous two in that more partners found themselves on the move, but irrespective of this, my point is that as the work volume starts to increase, many firms will find they don’t have the right profile of  resources to do the work efficiently.

Have a look at how you are spending your day. Not in a “timesheet-track-every-six-minutes” kind of way, but in a more substantive “where am I spending my time, and who else could do this work” kind of way. Could work be passed down to junior colleagues? Could it be a valuable training exercise? What about automation or outsourcing? If your time was freed-up, how else could you create value for the firm or legal department?

Enjoy your day today, and particularly appreciate the difficult parts that challenge and stretch you!


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4 responses

1 04 2010
Duncan Hannay-Robertson

Malcolm Gladwell explains in his book, ‘Outliers’, you have to put in 10,000 hours to become an “expert”.

What next? Do some of the work, delegate as much as you can to get the team involved (they need to be loved too) then get your business streamlined and efficient.

Businesses so often fail when the “mastermind” leaves or retires and takes all the skills and leadership. It makes business sense to build a team rather than “star” culture.

Often there is too many ego’s to overcome because of the status that comes with being the top fee earner.

1 04 2010
intelligentchallenge

Great comment Duncan; not an angle I’d considered, but I think you are spot on. Another challenge with many law firms is that partners are reluctant to share their clients (2of course it’s a firm client, but it’s MY firm client). This is another reason why the more senior members of the team refuse to delegate properly, and also (from the firm’s perspective) inherently another very good reason why they should delegate!

7 04 2010
William Hurst

I’m not sure that goes far enough. On the deals we do the lawyers work the hardest and get paid the least. Much of their work isn’t that difficult; it’s just writing down what’s been agreed round the table. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I don’t think you need 15 years experience to do it effectively.

7 04 2010
intelligentchallenge

Thanks for your comment William. I’m not sure what line of work you’re in, but I’d be surprised to find a 15 year qualified partner at a major law firm doing the bulk of a drafting on a deal of any description really. Certainly there may be some very technical areas where you may need that type of expertise doing the drafting, but these will typically be a relatively small proportion of the overall deal (in drafting terms). It maybe you’ve seen some extreme behaviour of the type I’m describing (under-delegation) or perhaps just observing parts of a deal which are not representative of a whole. Either way, if the deal is on some type of fixed or capped fee, that type of activity is going to make it increasingly difficult for the law firm in question to make a decent margin!

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