Is there a way around the high levels of discontent experienced in the legal profession? Leadership expert Andrew Hughes writes.
I make a habit nowadays of asking senior lawyers whether or not they enjoy their jobs. Surprisingly, many of them don’t, but they see it as a means to an end. Plus, they think it’s too late to do anything else. Some even see their careers as wasted years.
Occasionally I speak to someone within the ranks of the profession who really does enjoy the work they do. Those lucky few have usually found their larger contribution to the community in what they do, working in an area in which they are talented. More than that, they have structured their role so that they do plenty of what they love to do. Their success demonstrates the impact of genuine employee engagement. It also illuminates an escape route from the alarmingly high levels of discontent experienced in the legal industry.
The way its always been
In many ways the HR problems in the profession aren’t all that surprising. While there has been radical change in many other industries, the rate of change in the legal profession has been less than glacial. A common theme seems to be “it was good enough for me so it ought be good enough for you.”
I learnt early in my career that passion and a desire to genuinely contribute to the broader community (or be part of something bigger than yourself) were not generally seen as particularly useful traits - unless they lead to more billable hours or new clients. However, if you were a good biller, you could get away with just about anything.
I also learnt that having new ideas was not a talent anyone seemed overly interested in. Better to learn how it had always been done and follow the tried and tested method.
(Ironically, when I moved into the senior ranks I was expected to generate lots of new ideas. Unfortunately, as I’d spent the previous 10 years demonstrating that I could think like everyone else, it was a harder process than it ought have been.)
The point is, these practices are almost Dickensian - they don’t fit well in the 21st century and nor do they encourage loyalty, trust or commitment.
Values have changed
As illustrated by the ‘problems’ firms are experiencing with X and Y geners, there has been a global values evolution. These generations are less willing to accept the same incursions on their family and social lives in return for rewards in the future. They are also less tolerant of organisations that fail to give them the opportunity to be part of a larger cause, one that exists outside of a profit motive or the meaningless client service guff that is often dished up.
The large firm structure and the historical leadership practices in the legal profession are at odds with this new dynamic. If neither radically changes, it's hard to see any of the current problems abating.
What’s the answer?
The answer is not a larger pay packet. Ultimately, the profession needs to rediscover its passion and grander reason for being, inviting its members to take a similar journey.
A good place to start is to approach leadership from an empowerment perspective, rather than seeing it purely as a license to exert power. A fundamental part of leadership is maximizing the positive impact the leader has on their teams. In that context, leadership becomes less about what happened in the past and more about what will get the best results in the future, both short and long term. It becomes less about the leader and more about the led.
Getting people engaged in a business is not just a process of articulating a goal or a journey that they can intellectually accept. It’s about also engaging them emotionally – creating an environment where they can fulfill their values and contribute to something bigger than themselves. It’s a process of providing the oxygen to the fire that burns in everyone.
And therein lies the challenge.
Andrew Hughes is a leadership expert and coach with Dare2XL. Prior to that he was the chief client partner in a national firm. Andrew writes leadership and coaching articles regularly at http://dare2xl.typepad.com