Column

The Importance of Being Nice

After speaking at the Legal Marketing Association Annual Conference in Orlando earlier this month, but before flying home, I managed to catch the event’s keynote presentation. It was delivered by Jeff Williford, a facilitator with the Disney Institute, which manages the Disney Corporation’s professional development and corporate culture. He described Disney’s disciplined approach to creating a business culture and applying it throughout the company’s 60,000-strong workforce. Law firms could stand to adopt a few of Disney’s philosophies in this regard (though maybe not the company’s custom of referring to its employees as “cast members”).

One of Jeff’s observations stood out for me: the importance of personality and demeanour in Disney’s hiring decisions. Simply put, it matters to Disney whether people are nice: are they pleasant? Do they smile during interviews? Will they relieve or contribute to tension for colleagues and customers? For a company that lives and dies by its brand and customer experience, niceness is crucial: if Disney has two equally qualified potential employees, they’ll hire the nice one.

Try to imagine that philosophy adopted in your average law firm; it’s not easy. Lawyers are recruited and hired for many reasons, but niceness is not usually high on the list. It sometimes seems, in fact, that some law firms go out of their way to de-emphasize demeanour in their personnel decisions. The most important people in many law firms of all sizes, in terms of income, influence, and business development, are often the most unpleasant, difficult and cantankerous ones.

It beats me why this is so often the case. Maybe power corrupts, or maybe the same personality traits that make an outstanding rainmaker, deal-closer or litigator also tend to produce obstinate, selfish or arrogant personalities. But it’s not a trivial matter. The rest of the firm notices when behaviour that would get a clerk fired on the spot is overlooked if exhibited by a rainmaker. The lesson is clear: the more influence you have, the more you can be an utter pill, with impunity. Law firms worldwide send that message through their ranks every day.

There’s really no reason for niceness to have so little currency in law firms. Just as much as Disney, we’re in the relationship business: the real value we deliver resides not in the quality of the documents we produce or even the advice we render as in the impact we have on others. Clients remember whether dealing with their lawyer was a pleasant experience or a harrowing one. Very few client recommendations mention quality of legal work, but quite a few mention thoughtful behaviour and personal interaction.

Perhaps more importantly, niceness also has an internal cultural value. How much talent has walked out law firm doors because of the poisonous atmosphere clouding the office of a powerhouse partner? How many training dollars are wasted replacing people who simply don’t want to put up with nastiness every day? And how often does the firm’s most difficult personality end up setting both the firm’s tone and its agenda? Conversely, think of the fervent tributes paid to retiring partners who were as pleasant and thoughtful to others as they were skilled and respected by their peers.

I would go farther than Jeff. I would say that if one law firm candidate were superior to another, but was noticeably less nice and less pleasant, I would favour the nicer one. I would actively seek to penalize difficult personalities in the recruiting and retention process. If you’ll forgive the terminology, I would adopt the “No Assholes” rule and I would apply it even to the best corner-office rainmaker ever to walk the earth.

Patience and kindness, remarkably enough, seem to be a source of market inefficiency in the legal sphere: they are undervalued relative to their contribution to the firm’s overall success. Take advantage of that market inefficiency by making demeanour a real and substantial factor in recruitment and retention. Lawyers often talk about the massive morale benefits of firing their worst clients; think of the benefits of firing your nastiest lawyer. It might just leave everyone feeling like they’d gone to Disneyworld.

Comments

  1. Lets look at this a different way. If nasty and unpleasant behaviour is overlooked that’s because those are not seen as the contributing factors affecting a firm’s bottom line. It’s all about the bottom line. So bear with me.

    The cantankerous individual is after all a rainmaker who is supposedly contributing to growing the bottom line. On the other hand, the clerk is seen as eating away at the bottom line. The associates and partners who may leave — well, they are not rainmakers; that’s why the LPO business is so lucrative. In other words, if the bottom line is growing sluggishly or heaven forbid not growing it’s because the librarian is paying too much for print and databases; new associates and articling students are too costly; the clerk, well the clerk what does he or she do anyway?; and if a client complains about a rainmaker’s unpleasantness, well that client’s a troublemaker not worth retaining.

    I guess it’s all about how you look at things. If the bottom line continues to dwindle and clients go elsewhere; make some more cuts and don’t forget — outsource. Or, it’s all the economy’s fault.

    Time for a change in perspective, it might just grow the bottom line.

  2. I couldn’t agree more Jordan, though I do question your assumption that the average firm does not factor “niceness” into hiring decisions. You’ve well-described an implicit part of our student hiring criteria for years. Maybe that’s why I love where I work!

    Of course, we are careful to also screen for a demonstrated ability to participate in adversarial conflict resolution. I’ve watched some great advocates who do not aim to be nice, but are very effective because they can carry their positions with a naturally appealing demeanor.

    Thanks as always!

    Dan

  3. Peter Friedman

    I couldn’t agree more. An unfortunate truth, however, is that there is a considerable portion of the non-lawyer population who believes that the bigger the jerk, the better the lawyer.

    Those clients are ripe for exploitation by lawyers whose personality traits in fact make their representations more expensive, not more effective.

  4. Great article and I absolutely agree with Dan and Verna’s comments.

    I always appreciated the fact that my old firm valued the comments of the current articling students when it came time to hire the ones for the next year. It’s easy for a candidate to make nice with HR and the more senior associates. But I was often astonished to see that niceness evaporate when the same candidate met the current crop of students, who they apparently didn’t think they needed to impress.