Ignoring the Issue …

… won’t make it go away.

We all have files that languish with de minimus activity. I used to describe them as “fish files” (they stink!) a term I borrowed from a Grisham novel.

Some firms like to pretend this isn’t an issue. But they know their fee earners, including partners, hoard files or sit on things.

The Art of delegation is non-existent.

Abdication yes:

“It’s not my job” (how I used to hate people who uttered those pathetic words).

The cycle can sometimes be broken where you have a moratorium, making it clear that no one will say anything if you have breached your exactly worded, prolix retainer letter or, worse still, give rise to a notifiable claim against the firm.

In all likelihood though the blame game will still pervade the firm by osmosis or Chinese Whispers (“She/He screwed up again!”).

Why is this such a major issue?

Sometimes it is a lack of supervision; but more likely the problem is pride.

No one wants to admit their failings.

Weakness is simply not tolerated in law firms.

One mistake can often be enough to mark your card forever. How many times have I heard partners talk about junior fee earners as if they were damaged goods. I found this state of mind incredibly hard to understand. It is no different to the scenario when a solicitor leaves. No one said anything about their performance whilst they will in situ but once they leave by the back door, you would think they were a complete waste of space.

Is there a solution?

Team work.

Eh?

You heard me.

Teamwork.

Lawyers are trained in the art of opinion making. It is inherent in the adversarial system that two parties will go to War, each convinced of their own superiority. Any self doubt is buried deep behind a veil of bravado, ego, machismo and arrogance. Talking down to your opponent is essential.

And if you telescope this back to the coal face, even though you are not going into battle with your opponent, nevertheless that mentality ensues within the firm.

It is a cliche that no two lawyers can agree on anything.

And then there is the  fees issue. Most lawyers will say that their cases do no warrant more that one person. Which client in their right mind would pay for two people when one person can and should do the job?

I get all that but what we are talking about is a relatively small number of files (although the problem may be magnified if everyone has the same issue). You want to put forward a serious proposal to break the cycle.

Organise everyone into clusters where they can bring a file along for a brainstorm and agree a action plan.

A few house rule:

  1. There are no stupid questions.
  2. Everyone is expected to contribute.
  3. The client will not be charged for this process. The follow up or action plan is different.
  4. No one is expected to keep a file.
  5. The client’s interests come first, not billing.
  6. Support is provided to action the next steps.
  7. There is a weekly review to make sure that something happens.

Hardly revolutionary I know; but the discipline of forming this sort of meeting will lead to a better outcome for the client. If nothing else it should result in a meaningful consideration of the right person for the job. This is obscured very often because people are so desperate to cling on to work they don’t really think carefully enough if they are the ideal candidate to act for the client.

Summary

Kill off as fast you can the notion that you don’t have a problem. How many complaints do you deal with where delay is the overriding factor?

Clients are tolerant but that not that tolerant. Just because you have this massive reputation doesn’t mean that you infallible.

Be prepared to suck down. Look to others to help you out. Set up your SAS style meeting where you make sure that everyone gets something out of it.

As I have mentioned many times before the service of law firms should be set at the highest possible level and not at the compliance level, which very often seems the case. Too much is taken for granted. This won’t cut it any more. Your clients will walk.

~ Julian Summerhayes ~

 

6 responses to “Ignoring the Issue …”

  1. Louise Humphries says:

    Another post which makes me grateful for the place I work where it’s commonplace to walk into each others office to share the worry of these “fish files”. That someone might feel unable to do so, is a sad reflection of the colleagues around them.

    If I learnt a fee earner in our firm was worried about I file and didn’t feel they could share that with me, I would personally feel I had let them down. Am lucky to have that and am starting to appreciate how rare it seems to be.

    Shame on any lawyer who fails to support their colleagues. I blame billable hour targets to some extent. The sooner they are abandoned the better.

  2. Louise Humphries says:

    Another post which makes me grateful for the place I work where it’s commonplace to walk into each others office to share the worry of these “fish files”. That someone might feel unable to do so, is a sad reflection of the colleagues around them.

    If I learnt a fee earner in our firm was worried about I file and didn’t feel they could share that with me, I would personally feel I had let them down. Am lucky to have that and am starting to appreciate how rare it seems to be.

    Shame on any lawyer who fails to support their colleagues. I blame billable hour targets to some extent. The sooner they are abandoned the better.

  3. Louise thank you for your kind comment. Sounds like you are working in a collegiate way. I only wish that that was more common place. Try this one: how many lawyers refer to the file or the client as theirs? Way too many in my book. Billing is a real issue but also the whole idea of being caught out by your peers and being thought of as inferior to your colleagues.
    Regards
    Julian

  4. Louise thank you for your kind comment. Sounds like you are working in a collegiate way. I only wish that that was more common place. Try this one: how many lawyers refer to the file or the client as theirs? Way too many in my book. Billing is a real issue but also the whole idea of being caught out by your peers and being thought of as inferior to your colleagues.
    Regards
    Julian

  5. Louise Humphries says:

    Not sure when common decency was lost? This is all it comes down to. If a fee earner feels supported, this type of terrible behaviour would stop. I expect that kind of support has to come from senior partners or managers. In my case I am taught daily about kindness to each other as the only way for us all to be happy in a v stressful job.

    As for my file my client again if billing targets are not an issue this becomes less of an issue. It becomes instead about who has suitable skills and balancing workloads.

  6. Louise Humphries says:

    Not sure when common decency was lost? This is all it comes down to. If a fee earner feels supported, this type of terrible behaviour would stop. I expect that kind of support has to come from senior partners or managers. In my case I am taught daily about kindness to each other as the only way for us all to be happy in a v stressful job.

    As for my file my client again if billing targets are not an issue this becomes less of an issue. It becomes instead about who has suitable skills and balancing workloads.

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