When a prominent attorney walked into the reception area of a major law firm for an in-person interview, he was certain his lucrative practice and experience at a top-tier law school would ensure him a position as a partner in the firm.
Impatient with his 10-minute wait, he began pestering the receptionist, insulting her and even calling her names under his breath.
The partners in charge of hiring at the firm arrived and proceeded with the interview. It seemed likely that the attorney would be offered a position at the firm, until the receptionist detailed her encounter with him to the hiring partners.
Despite everything he had to offer the firm, the candidate didn't receive an offer.
Many people have their own stories to tell when it comes to negative incidents in their workplace, whether as a victim or an observer. After these encounters, they've likely felt belittled, upset and unenthused about working in an environment where such behavior is tolerated. Indeed, in March 2007, a study for the Employment Law Alliance revealed that approximately 44 percent of U.S. workers say that they have worked for an abusive boss.
A more recent study by the Workplace Bullying Institute published last month found that 37 percent of American workers considered themselves to be the victim of bullying in the workplace, and nearly 50 percent have witnessed such behavior.
The effects of abuse in the workplace environment can be harmful, even devastating, to a business. Because of this, in greater numbers than ever before, companies are beginning to approach this situation by reforming their hiring and firing policies to follow one simple guiding tenet: no jerks allowed.
Law firms are no different. The emergence of these practices should be of particular interest to those working or hoping to work in the legal industry, where the only thing larger than the significant book of business may be the bearer's ego.
Though the results are intangible and the benefits to a company's bottom line largely immeasurable, especially in the short term, many executives and human resources departments across the United States have already adopted informal "no jerks" hiring and firing policies.
The trend in the legal industry toward "jerks-free" working environments comes when legal work has become more complex and stressful for attorneys, both new and experienced, who increasingly must meet or exceed the expectations created by their compensation.
Law firms must also overcome other obstacles, such as the inherent power differences, both real and perceived, between attorneys, increased competition and the simple fact that aggressiveness in the interest of clients can often wrongly translate to interactions with staff.
In turn, firms are increasingly identifying and addressing concerns involving those attorneys and staff members who, for example, are abusive to co-workers, engage in harmful office politics or act in open and uncompromising self-interest to the detriment of the firm or its employees.
What's more, they're doing so regardless of how many hours the offenders bill or how much business they generate.
No longer content to allow real or potential revenue generation or the sensitivity surrounding such incidents to trump internal harmony and productivity, firms across the country are already reaping the rewards of these informal no-jerks rules.
Several years ago, Seattle-based Perkins Coie began following a widely accepted but unofficial internal policy that called for addressing negative or harmful incidents head-on. The firm's human resources department meets with attorneys or staff at the center of any negative incidents and discusses them in detail, creating plans for avoiding them in the future and often mandating counseling sessions.
Associates who frequently yell at or mistreat secretaries damage their prospects of becoming partners. The efforts have worked, and, in part, as a result of the decision to create and enforce this rule at all levels in the firm, Perkins Coie was named one of the Top 100 Best Places to Work five years in a row by Fortune magazine, a ranking that has no doubt helped to attract talented attorneys in Seattle and its other offices.
Likewise, many firms have made the rule a part of their internal culture since their inceptions. At Duane Morris, which was founded on the Quaker values of egalitarianism and collaboration, the firm has made protecting its culture from jerks a priority.
Partners who have been abusive with co-workers or territorial with clients, both well-established and highly discouraged taboos at the firm, have seen their leadership roles diminished or taken away and in some cases were asked to leave the firm.
In the industry as a whole, managers are becoming more sensitive to how the firm's attorneys and hiring candidates fit into or contribute to their firm's corporate culture and hiring or dismissing them accordingly.
An analysis of the long-term benefits of instituting such a policy makes clear the reasons for the shift in approach at the country's largest law firms. According to Stanford professor Dr. Robert Sutton in his book detailing the no-jerks policy, titled somewhat less delicately "The No Asshole Rule," even small and seemingly insubstantial changes in workplace behaviors can effect significant improvements for the company as a whole, including less absenteeism, less employee complaints, higher morale and higher productivity. The bottom line can also see benefits, in the form of decreased labor-related litigation costs, less overtime hours logged and, of course, higher profits.
Perhaps more convincing for management at many firms, however, is the cost of allowing such behavior to go unchecked. Beyond the obvious productivity and morale effects, the time and monetary costs of managing the problems associated with even a single abusive employee are astounding.
According to Sutton's book, one company estimated the total costs associated with one employee who was widely considered to be a "jerk." They calculated that he had cost the company $160,000 in a single year.
This figure is large, but unsurprising. Managers must spend time counseling or disciplining these employees, as well as settling disputes and easing the concerns of victims. Firms must also spend money on inside and outside counsel, as well as recruiting, interviewing and training replacements for both offenders and victims. Finally, there are the intangible consequences: negative publicity, greater difficulty recruiting highly qualified employees, reduced innovation and creativity from employees at all levels and reduced cooperation among or within different areas of the firm. The severity and scope of these negative effects greatly outweigh any positive income associated with hiring a high-billing or high-revenue-generating but abusive attorney. The firms that will benefit the most from this fact are those that are highly protective of their corporate culture and remain diligent in ensuring a jerks-free workplace.
For these reasons, new lawyers hoping to begin their practices at the country's largest and most prestigious firms should take heed. If it is their goal, they should aspire to be their firm's biggest rainmaker. But they must realize that firms are increasingly taking into account, and showing less tolerance for, any accompanying dark clouds.
Charles C. Papy III and Harvey W. Gurland Jr. are partners in the Miami office of international law firm Duane Morris. Papy practices in the firm's corporate practice group; Harvey is a member of the trial practice group.