After over 20 years of managing a business law firm, I’ve come to think of my job as akin to herding cats. Attorneys have strong, independent personalities that don’t always mesh well. However, I’ve learned these traits can actually be channeled in productive ways if handled properly. I’ll share two stories that illustrate this.
Several years ago, I interviewed an attorney who, on paper, seemed perfect for our firm. However, his references, whom I knew personally, warned he would be toxic and incompatible with our culture. I was enamored by his dazzling resume though and hired him against their advice.
Initially, he charmed clients with his experience. But over time, troubling behaviors emerged. He kept staff late “on call” in case he needed support, sending them on personal errands like food and coffee runs instead of letting them go home.
As a manager, I waited too long to take action. His behaviors hurt our culture and my reputation as a leader. Eventually he left, but the damage was done. I learned the hard way that no matter how skilled, someone at odds with organizational values will sow dysfunction.
More recently, another incident provided contrast. An “old school” senior attorney long seen as imperious began mistreating support staff. Believing junior roles existed to serve attorney needs, her temper and yelling had apparently gone unchecked for some time.
The truth emerged shocking brutality when she dressed down a staff member over email for a minor issue. When I found out, I immediately called a meeting between her, the staff member and our senior administrator. I made clear such abusive behaviors would not be tolerated, no matter her seniority. And that she couldn’t continue to work for us unless her behavior changed. She walked.
The staff member seemed stunned that I would confront this powerful attorney so directly over staff mistreatment. But it reverberated for years that we prioritize the experience of all employees, no matter where they fall on the org chart. Sometimes “herding cats” means protecting kittens from nasty tabbies run amok.
These two stories illustrate sharply divergent approaches to managing strong personalities. In one, I let damaging behaviors fester, eroding team cohesion while in the other, I confronted the issue directly.
I learned that leadership means making judgments informed by principles, not credentialed resumes. And “herding cats” requires establishing mutual understanding – including what crosses the line. Clear cultural priorities allow managing even the most willful attorneys by appealing to our shared professional values of respect and integrity.
Sure, attorneys cultivate strong independent streaks and opinions. But every orchestra needs both string sections and percussion. As conductor, my aim is not whipping distinct talents into uniformity, but providing enough structure so distinct melodies harmonize.
With that insight, I embraced the improvisational spirit of jazz over rigid orchestral forms in managing our legal stable. Does this permit controlled chaos at times? Absolutely. But the right framework channels individual strengths into a symphony rather than cacophony.
There have been plenty of learning moments over the years – like the two stories shared above. At times I waited too long to address problematic behaviors that then became harder to correct. At others, decisive action reinforced cultural pillars that prevented erosion of mutual trust and respect.
Herding talented thoroughbreds is never easy – they still need room to run free and fast. But apply the right care and guidance, they can win races together rather than trip each other up on the track. So while attorneys may seem like intractable cats at times, I’ve learned great rewards come from embracing each one’s “distinctive meow”.