When I was a second-year associate at the Los Angeles office of Skadden Arps, I shared a secretary with one of the most prominent partners at the firm. I was warned that my work would be ignored because secretaries would focus all of their efforts to serve the partner. Fortunately in my particular case the predictions were overblown and I had a workable arrangement with the secretary.
I didn’t realize at the time that the relationship between junior lawyers and staff is a recurring problem at many law firms. Sometimes the problem is that the junior lawyers have never managed anyone before, don’t realize how little they know, and are condescending to the staff. Sometimes the staff is contemptuous of the junior lawyers and feels that they don’t have to pay attention to their work. As a consultant to law firms, I came across a situation in which a secretary told a mid-level associate that she didn’t have the authority to tell her what to do because “she didn’t pay her salary.”
Tensions, disagreements, and other problems between junior lawyers and staff can arise in many ways. And many firms try to fix this problem by focusing on the conduct of the junior attorney or staff member. The firm sees these problems as HR issues that may require some form of employee discipline.
Too many law firms fail to realize the solution to these problems is often in the hands of the same person-the law firm partner. Thus, a dysfunctional relationship between staff and young associates is often a symptom of a problem of law firm leadership. The answer to the claim that only the senior partner pays the salary of the secretary is that the partner doesn’t pay the salary of any staff members. Clients pay those salaries and every other expense generated by the firm. And partners are uniquely positioned to teach both junior lawyers and staff members the importance of working collaboratively.
Too often, however, the conduct of partners undermines the ability of the junior lawyers to get the support they need. When, for example, senior lawyers give staff members last-minute assignments, the collateral damage often includes that the work generated by the junior lawyer is ignored. And in some firms this dynamic is exacerbated when senior lawyers use staff members to handle their personal errands. Moreover, associates who have been the victims of bad treatment at the hands of partners can perpetuate the problem when they grow up and become partners. It’s a familiar pattern. Victims of bad management and weak leadership are more likely to be bad managers and leaders themselves.
Leadership involves self-sacrifice in the service of a larger shared goal. Too many law firm partners view how they interact with staff members as a private matter. They don’t perceive that they set the tone about how to act and provide both positive and negative examples to both other lawyers and staff members about what is expected of them. Until more partners become better leaders, we should expect problems between junior lawyers and staff members to persist.