I have to say, having worked in both law firms and corporate environments, I find the politics in law firms particularly more precarious. I was hoping to avoid the politics and just get on with things, but alas I received an early induction.
It all started when I referred a friend to the firm. At the suggestion of my team’s managing partner, I referred this friend to a partner within my team, let’s call him Partner X. Partner X spoke to my friend and it turned out that my friend was more suited to receiving advice from a different team within the firm. Therefore, Partner X on-referred my friend to Partner Y. At this stage, I was pretty pleased that as a junior lawyer, I had been able to refer to the firm using my professional network. I didn’t hear anything further on the matter until a few weeks later when my friend contacted me, extremely disappointed with the level of service he had been receiving from Partner Y’s team.
From my friend’s summary of the events to me and from reading the email correspondence myself, it appeared that Partner Y’s team had been promising to review some documentation by certain dates however had not been meeting the deadlines, constantly pushing them out. The kicker was that a lawyer in Partner Y’s team had arranged a time to call my friend, however, 2 hours later my friend was still waiting for a call. When my friend complained, the lawyer in Partner Y’s team said that there had been some “internal drama” and in any event the documents hadn’t been reviewed, pushing out the deadline again. Further, from reviewing the file I noticed that Partner X had put himself down as the referrer, not me (referrals are tracked against lawyers and form part of our key performance indicators).
I was a little bit taken aback by my friend’s feedback because I felt personally responsible for introducing my friend to the firm. With the spiel about the firm’s values of being open, honest and having the courage to have frank discussions in the back of my mind, I emailed Partner Y and his team, advising that I would be calling them shortly to discuss some feedback that my friend had passed on to me about how the matter was being handled. Partner X had also been copied into the email. Partner X promptly emailed me back warning me that “things could get be very bad for us” if I contacted Partner Y and suggested that I speak to him first.
My discussions with Partner X
The next day I met with Partner X who proceeded to tell me that Partner Y was very influential because he brought in millions for the firm, that he could make or break my career if I got on his wrong side and that the only reason he agreed to take on the work for my friend was because Partner Y and Partner X had rapport with one another. Therefore, if I voiced my concerns about how the matter was being handled to Partner Y’s team, I would be jeopardising my career and could be seen to be causing trouble, particularly when Partner Y had very little regard for the type of work being referred.
Partner X also said that he had misunderstood the situation, believing that I wanted him to be recognised as the referrer. He said he didn’t really care who was noted as the referrer but he didn’t want to change the referrer to me on this occasion because he didn’t want to rock the boat with Partner Y. I’m not really sure what to think of this, since a change in the system is not likely to be noticed by Partner Y. As a side note, all lawyers are required to complete a report containing their recent achievements, which are then circulated to all team members. Partner X had written in his report that he had referred a new client to the firm…my friend! There was no mention of my involvement. In contrast, I had written that I had referred my friend to Partner X who had on-referred to Partner Y.
At this point I felt extremely conflicted. I had always felt comfortable to speak my mind and challenge others when I felt that it was the right thing to do. After my discussion with Partner X, I was hesitant about calling Partner Y. I was also hesitant to challenge Partner X about taking full credit for my referral. Partner X suggested that I call someone more junior within Partner Y’s team instead, which is what I proceeded to do.
My discussion with Partner Y’s team
I can’t say that they were particularly receptive to the feedback. They instead responded to me with complaints about how my friend’s expectations were unreasonable, how they were really busy, how the documents were very complex, etc. I responded that I understood all of those factors, however at the end of the day it’s up to the lawyer to manage a client’s expectations and deliver when they say they’re going to deliver.
In the end, everything worked out for my friend who received his advice without much further delay. I never challenged Partner X about the referral because I wasn’t sure how to go about it and because I wasn’t sure if his behavior had been reasonable or unreasonable as far as ‘how things are done’. I also didn’t want to kick up a fuss because at the end of the day, if I’m up for a promotion, all partners in my team must endorse me – this is probably another reason why I find firm politics much more precarious than corporate politics.
This experience has definitely made me a little wary about navigating my legal career and about blindly (and I guess naively) referring contacts to my firm. As an aside, when I confided in a mentor about this predicament, they responded with “Don’t ever start believing that your ability to refer clients in any way is reflective of your ability as lawyer“. It was something that I really needed to hear. So many pressures lawyers face in a law firm have nothing to do with practising law, but I suppose that’s the reality with any profession.
That Career Girl