Working with lawyers
when you aren’t one is a tricky business. I did it for four years and I now feel as if I could do anything. It’s not that I didn’t like any of them, many were actually good company and I even socialised with some. And it’s not that I didn’t think they did a good job – quite a few did, even though I sat opposite the client care manager so I also heard about their dirty laundry. No, what makes working with lawyers such a challenge is they think theirs is the only job that matters.
I have no idea whether this superiority complex comes from their legal training or whether it’s just that people with a strong sense of their own importance become lawyers, but it manifests itself in that objectionable habit of calling every non-lawyer in a firm ‘support staff’. So nefarious is this practice I have even seen the ‘them’ and ‘us’ divide referred to as ‘fee earner’ and ‘fee burner’. A nice way of making your staff feel valued and motivated.
So I was very pleased to see that Stephen Mayson had taken issue with the distinction, describing it as ‘horrendous’ and ‘insulting’ as well as a barrier to recruiting the best people. Having been on the receiving end of it I can attest that it is pretty demoralising knowing you will always be a second-class citizen in an organisation no matter how much work you put in. As Mayson went on ‘unless we can get to a point where everybody in the business is treated as equivalent and as being of equal value to the business, we actually have not a leg to stand on when it comes to recruiting and retaining the best people right across the board’.
Exactly. It’s not about my ego, it just doesn’t make business sense. Modern day law firms aren’t only made up of lawyer partners who delegate a bit of admin to secretaries. Highly skilled management, finance, communications, facilities and admin staff have just as great a role in keeping firms competitive. Without them, there wouldn’t be any profits for the partners to share around, so it’s nonsense to suggest they are a drain on resources.
For a while I did wonder if it was just me, so I asked a few other non-lawyers who have somehow ended up working in the legal sector. One told me that her job was sales, marketing and psychotherapy, such were the egos and tantrums she had to deal with. Another said that barristers in particular were arrogant and didn’t trust people, which made me rather glad I’d just been working with regular solicitors.
However, the oddest thing is that while lawyers, on the whole, don’t get too involved in recruitment policies or management accounts, they can’t keep their hands off marketing and PR. Doing communications in a law firm means constantly justifying your own existence. I’ve heard lawyers say they don’t need marketing staff because they do their own marketing: presumably their reputation is so great clients just flock to them.
Even more unfortunately, most lawyers think no-one can write or speak quite as well as they can. They have a high regard for their understanding of the English language, when in fact what they really have is a fantastic grasp of legal jargon and a fondness for unnecessarily long words and complex sentence structures. I’ve never met a press release or article by a lawyer that didn’t need some serious red pen treatment, sometimes just to make it comprehensible.
Someone who worked for three years with a group of lawyers as their media adviser and communications specialist said his translations of their legal tomes into journalist-friendly material were met with ‘howls of outrage at how their perfect document had been butchered and wouldn’t stand up in court’. Perhaps even more telling was that once he’d managed to persuade them that their ‘pearls of wisdom’ needed to be simplified for a non-legal audience they decided they could do it themselves, with fairly predictable results.
Amusingly, quite a few people think I hate lawyers. I don’t, not at all. I have a lot of admiration for their commitment, attention to detail and ability to get excited about qualified one-way cost shifting. While some are a necessary evil, some are, despite what Ken Clarke might say, clearly passionate about access to justice. But what I hate is the way they fail to recognise the skills and expertise of other professionals. I wouldn’t dream of representing myself in court, so why on earth do lawyers think they can manage their own media campaign?
This isn’t just sour grapes, although it is certainly very annoying. If traditional law firms want to stay in business they are going to have to compete with the new entrants to the legal market. It is highly likely that these firms won’t just be better at giving consumers want they want, they are probably going to be better at looking after their non-lawyers, meaning they will get the best staff.
To be honest, I don’t think they’ll have to do much to attract the best in the business. For four years I worked with no career structure, no personal development and not much in the way of objectives and goal setting. There was also no chance I would ever become a partner, which didn’t really bother me, but as it’s the way law firms grant recognition it meant I was never going to feel my contribution was recognised.
So why do it? Well, the law is endlessly fascinating, even the bits I initially thought were quite dull. As a news and politics junkie, there is hardly a story that doesn’t have some legal angle to it, whether it’s Libya, Dale Farm, Hackgate, the riots, the Occupy movement or celeb divorces (not that I’m into the last one). This means I can pretend I’m working when I’m reading the paper. It’s also very important, because we are all governed by the rule of law and it's what defines our rights and responsibilities as citizens. Which means it’s far too important to be left to the lawyers.