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A Few Thoughts on Loyalty

There's been a lot of commentary about this National Law Journal article condemning "Gen Y" associates:

Some call them slackers. Others are more diplomatic. But whatever the moniker, "Generation Y" associates are getting a bad rap for what some say is a flabby work ethic and an off-putting sense of entitlement.

Attorneys from Generation Y-those born in 1978 or later-are plenty smart and generally well educated, say firm leaders and industry experts. But these young attorneys also are lacking in loyalty, initiative and energy, so the criticism goes.

My first thought, of course, is that I'm two four years older than this definition of Gen Y, so I'm obviously on-course to become one of the cranky oldsters.

The commentary on the article has focused on the usual suspects: from the associates' side, partners are being exploitative, billable-hours requirements beggar belief, and loyalty declines because odds of becoming partner are declining. From the partner's side, the associates are either (a) simply lazy and whining, (b) don't understand how good they have it, or (c) are overly loyal to their own "class" instead of the firm. Then there's a third side, sort of structuralists, who argue that the problem is more a matter of how these firms are put together: young lawyers come to them often without business or work experience; law firms, on the other hand, often have a management deficiency, because they're run by good lawyers and bad managers; and less loyalty is only to be expected in an environment where few people make partner.

Now, I don't really have any great thoughts to add to this from a legal perspective, as my experience in a Japanese law firm last summer was probably an outlier. But I do have a thought about loyalty, and why I don't put much stock in a random partner's complaints about it.

Before coming to law school, I worked in a few places that had employee retention problems. It's relatively easy to get a job at a firm like that: they'll employ you pretty quickly if you've got talent, because they need to replace the last fellow who walked out the door. It's also pretty tough to get into firms where people don't leave, even in a boom or a bubble: people know when they have a good job at a good firm.

I worked for some very good bosses. (I also dated a manager of similar skill, and watched how she worked.) These were folks who, when the chips down, could get their people to work long, hard hours. Indeed, often they were more demanding than some "tough" bosses, but they received a great deal fewer complaints. In firms with retention problems, few of their team members walked out the door.

This lead to some significant benefits. Their teams were coherent, and thus more efficient. They didn't spend a lot of time making HR decisions. And they could spend time investing in their people, teaching them firm- or team-specific processes that increased productivity. In my twenties, I was doing my best to develop a management style, and wanted to learn from these people.

Every one of these high loyalty (or low turnover) bosses focused on three things. First, they knew each of their direct employees. By this I don't mean that they remembered birthdays or anniversaries (although some did, because they were that kind of people). Instead, they'd bothered to learn what made their employees tick. Some team members worked very well placed next to a high-flyer--they thrived on competition. Others worked better stuck in a corner where they could grow with less threat. Some lit up if they were praised, while others needed that occasional kick in the tail. The bosses made a note of it, and used it.

Secondly, they were all very interested in efficiency. Not bureaucracy or paperwork, but in actually making sure their employees spent the minimum amount of time on busywork and the maximum amount of time on getting their jobs done. One manager I knew was extremely good at this: if a corporate form needed signing by her team, it was on their desk the first thing the next morning with a note to fill it out before starting work. It neither interrupted her staff or kept them at the office when they'd finished up. This efficiency translated into loyalty because it looked a lot like "not wasting my time."

And third, they all were willing to break for their employees personal lives. That doesn't mean they allowed a lot of slacking, but if an employee had a personal event--death in the family, marital problems, a child ill--then the manager found a workaround. The best of these bosses put it to me this way: "Look, people spend more time in good times than bad times. Give them the bad times, and you'll get 120% out of them during the good. You make up the slack." I would have walked through fire for that boss. The guy who yelled at me? He got work out of me, and it was good work because I didn't want to get yelled at. But I'd not have spent a lot of time trying to get his fat out of the fire.

When I was a boss, I did my best to follow these precepts, although I'm sure I didn't manage it completely. To my credit, however badly I may have done, I did have low turnover. And to this day, I'll say the most important lesson I learned was that loyalty isn't something that employees come pre-packaged with: it's something you instill in them through good practice and fair dealing. You don't blame poor loyalty on your employees, or your associates: you look square at the boss.

But I'd also suspect that loyalty is more important in working environments where (a) the most important functional group is the team, (b) communications and groupware systems can be leveraged to the advantage of staff who are trained in them, and (c) the whole of a team's work has a value above the sum of its parts. While this is more of a guess than anything else, I wonder how much this applies to the modern law firm?

Law firms are professional associations, and at least at some theoretical level, those who work for them are supposed to be independent professionals, not team workers. And that seems to fit with the obsession for the billable hour. I mean, when you think about it, it's a pretty crude measure of productivity. If Employee A does better work more quickly than Employee B, his billable hours will be lower. If Employee B honestly tells a client that work doesn't need to be done, his billable hours drop. If this eventually leads to a client walking away... well, the individuals still have the hours they've already billed.

There's an entire industry out there developing employee evaluation metrics, and I won't try to step on the toes of my B-School brethren by listing them. But suffice it to say that I haven't ever worked in an industry that places such emphasis on a single figure.

When you focus so much on one number, everything else gets lost. Why do you need to retain staff, when one person's billable hour is the same as any other? If you're not trying to capture the efficiencies that experience brings, if you're not managing your knowledge, then why worry if some of it walks out the door? Think of the stereotype of the partner who is a "real yeller." An organization that cares about loyalty won't reward him if his underlings flee him at their first chance to jump ship; an organization that doesn't capitalize on loyalty will worry about how much he bills. Which sounds more like the stereotype of the law firm?

I'm not saying law firms don't make efforts in this direction (although knowledge management professionals are generally more than mildly scathing of most law practice, see this as one example at random), but they certainly don't seem to emphasize it. Call it a working hypothesis, but my guess is that if there's a loyalty complaint about Gen Y, it should run something like this: law firms don't value loyalty as highly as they might say; this, in turn, means that they don't put structures in place to promote it, or reward it particularly highly; and finally, this results in an overall low level of employee loyalty. This doesn't mean the firm won't be profitable--it can capitalize on different advantages to make sure it makes money--but it shouldn't be shocked that associates don't identify with the firm.

Anyway, that's my hypothesis at this point. Anyone is welcome to comment, but let me emphasize again that I'll delete impolite comments, especially about particular firms.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference A Few Thoughts on Loyalty:

» BigLaw Review, Or Why I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love LittleLaw from ambivalent imbroglio
Now that the GW journal competition is over (it officially ended at 8 p.m. Monday night, actually), I wanted to comment on the comments generated by this post from late last week. To summarize, a GW 1L had written asking for advice on the journal comp... [Read More]

» BigLaw Review, Or Why I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love LittleLaw from ambivalent imbroglio
Now that the GW journal competition is over (it officially ended at 8 p.m. Monday night, actually), I wanted to comment on the comments generated by this post from late last week. To summarize, a GW 1L had written asking for advice on the journal comp... [Read More]


Excellent post. You said what I don't have the experience or knowledge to about billable hours.
Very interesting. I agree with everything you've said about good and bad managers. I had an excellent manager when I first started in the civil service and I still try to think back over how she made it work. Of course, I know very little about law firms, but that looks a pretty believable state of affairs. (And Gen Y? Pah! I'm years off!)
This post was absolutely spot on. Before leaving a Fortune 500 company to go to law school (hint: rhymes with 'shittystank'), I had the opportunity to work for managers that believed that loyalty was a given. It amazed me how little these people were interested in the three things you mention: knowing their directs, efficiency, and pulling together when a team member had a problem. Instead, our managers were more interested in creating chaos and keeping people in the dark. Managment by Busy Work led me to believe that Corporate America is actually the last great bastion of communism -- they somehow find a job for everyone, even those who should be unemployed. And, as a final thought, one of the last things that happened to me at this company exemplifies everything that is wrong with it. After working for a manager for 2 years with little to show for it in terms of advancement, and with several in my organization who at least gave lip service to the idea of giving me more to do, I was finally moved to the best manager I had ever had. AFTER I HAD TOLD THEM I WAS LEAVING TO GO TO LAW SCHOOL!!! It was almost as if they were rewarding me for being a lost cause. Which I guess really isn't that surprising when you look at several (not all) of the lifers in that organization who figured the same thing out, and are content with being useless in order to collect a paycheck. Oh, and there is one business segment that focuses on one metric almost as much as law firms -- telephone customer service departments live and die by handle time...
Sorry -- that last post should read "...managers WHO believed that loyalty was a given." I need my coffee...
Absolutely spot on I would say. If I had to make an educated guess, I'd say that law firms that focus on billable hours as the sole metric of performance end up in the same boat as consulting firms that do the same thing. The focus on billable hours leads the people billing those hours to come to the realization that they don't really matter; after all, if the only thing I am being measured on is how much money I make, what else am I supposed to think?
Good stuff Tony. Having worked with (not for) Mr Rickey I should point out to his readers that he is a fine manager himself - despite insisting on keeping copies of 'The Nobility of Failure' and 'Deathmarch' on his desk should his staff feel the need to read them. The analysis looks pretty good to my business school brain as well. There's an article in Harvard Business Review called 'One more time how do you motivate People' which keeps getting reprinted as a classic that covers much the same ground. The place to look for comparisons would be other professional service firms and particularly consultancies. Bain, BCG, McKinsey and so on do a fantastic job in developing and valuing their talent. True a lot burn out, and some aspects of their management are pretty grim, but they do a good job of building loyalty - chiefly through lots of attention and investment in staff. And the billable hours metric is clearly ludicrous - since it rewards doing unnecessary work slowly and punishes efficiency. One might imagine there's room for a law start up to restructure everything from how it bills it's clients to how it rewards it's staff and make a lot of money very quickly...
Spot on indeed. My worst managers were tone deaf to my needs-- to the point where I was once asked to come in on a sick day. That being said, the reason people my age (technically, I am on the tale end of gen X--being born at the end of 1978) do not come to the office loyal is because a lot of us have been screwed over by bad managers, and are unwilling to ingratiate ourselves only to be awarded by abuse. Personally, I'd lay down my life for a good manager. But that is only theoretical, since I haven't had a good manager. As for the numbers of billable hours--- on the one hand it misses the point; on the other hand more hours=more money for the firm (aka, more money for the partners.)
If you're not already a reader of this blog, I think you'd like it.
This is reminiscent of a documentary (or maybe a movie -- "Pirates of Silicon Valley" or something like that) when Steve Balmer of Microsoft was talking about how IBM, when it was on top in the computer business, measured productivity in "k-locks" (which meant such and such number of bits or bytes or whatever). Whenever someone wrote a program it would be be asked "how many k-locks is it," the implication being the more "k-locks" the better. So Steve and other Microsoft guys were like "if we do the same thing in fewer k-locks, why not just do that?" but this was Greek to the IBM people. Its now obvious who was on the right side of history in this regard.

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