Lawyers’ Blindspots Make them Bad Managers — They Need Supervision from (Non-Lawyer) Executives

When I left the practice of law to accept a corporate client’s invitation to run a division, what I had to un-learn as a (then former) lawyer was even more important than the new skills I acquired as a general manager.  

None of this is meant to criticize the legal profession. It’s meant to help business owners and executives to identify who’s good at doing what roles — and then assign duties accordingly.

Early in my transition from lawyer in corporate practice to general manager I was supervising the closing on a large transaction. A combination of lawyers, my company’s commercial officers, and our customer’s finance people were busily reviewing a borrower’s most recent financials, finalizing lending documents, and arguing about whether or not all conditions precedent to final execution were in place.

Our chief operating officer — my new boss — motioned me out of the conference room.

COO: “Knock it off!”

Me: “Knock what off?”

COO: “You’re acting like a machine operator — stop it!”

Me: “Machine operator? I don’t understand.”

COO: “You’re running around, checking everyone’s work, getting in their face, and trying to do their jobs for them.

“I don’t want you to do the work of every machine operator in this operation. I need you to help me run the whole machine shop!”

Lawyers are solo acts — not team players. They’re figure skaters — not hockey players. Golfers — not members of a football team.

As Professor William Henderson of the University of Indiana Law School puts it:

” … In-house and law firm lawyers are the same people, they have the same go-to move — stand back and let me lawyer.”

To “manage” a business process — under the lawyers’ approach — means to second-guess and look over the shoulders of those individuals doing their jobs. “Help me run the whole machine shop” is a foreign concept.

During the past year I learned about the “management” method of the general counsel of a Fortune 500 company.

This chief legal officer took it upon himself to review — line-by-line — the briefs filed in court by outside law firms he’d hired to represent the company in litigation.

Few in-house lawyers would look askance at this. It’s commonly accepted among lawyers in law departments that they need to “supervise” the work of law firm lawyers who represent their companies in court.

But from where I sat I heard my former COO’s voice: “You’re acting like a machine operator.”

So what’s my point?

That lawyers are bad at their jobs?

No.

My point is that lawyers are good at lawyering but that someone else — not a lawyer — needs to “run the machine shop”.

The fact that it’s almost always lawyers who are managing other lawyers is why the legal industry is so dysfunctional.

For those hours in a day that they “act like a machine operator”, these in-house counsel are not helping general management to “run the whole machine shop”.

They’re not focusing on liability prevention by reviewing problem situations to avoid repeat occurrences. They’re not creating efficient business processes to substitute for the sort of ad hoc efforts that invite rookie mistakes.