What Law Firms Can Learn From Plagues

You might have heard of the online game, World of Warcraft. It has 8 million players in any given month. On September 13, 2005, the game became infected with a blood plague. It was started intentionally by the game designers and was to have been restricted to a particular area of the game. But somehow, it got out and in no time, was killing off everything in site, including characters that players might have spent years building up.

The game developers and members of the community attempted to slow the spread by warning other players to avoid certain areas of the game, or to simply stay away from each other for a while (i.e., self-isolate). Many tried to comply, but some refused and instead, headed into infected cities or from those cities into clean areas of the game, where they infected everyone else. The plague raged throughout the game until the only solution was a reboot.

When Covid hit, some health experts considered what could be learned from the World of Warcraft experience. But ultimately, it was determined that the best way to stop the growth of a pandemic is selfless action by individuals for the greater good, and at least one civilization (albeit online) had already proven incapable of taking action for that common good.

Why did so many players act in ways that would feed the online plague instead of stop it? And in real life, why were there Covid parties –throw to see how many people could be infected? What causes us to react in such selfish ways when the result of doing so could be illness or death?

Our tendency might in part be explained in the concept of the “Tragedy of the Commons”. This speaks to a situation in which individuals will act in their own short-term self-interests instead of for the good of the whole. In fact, they are capable of keeping this up until they’ve destroyed resources to the point of creating their own extinction.

I don’t think selfish behaviours are quite that obvious or rampant in law firms; but many firms do create ideal conditions for inspiring selfishness. Take the compensation system. Most firms would insist that compensation decisions are made on a range of criteria including things like leadership, business generation for others, work delegation, mentorship, marketing, etc. But in my experience, it is truly rare for a law firm, once having looked at those items, to legitimately create a compensation allocation that is not, in fact, solely or primarily based on production. This causes lawyers to act in their own self-interest. Senior lawyers are hesitant to give work away – even work that should be done by a lower level – for fear that their hours won’t be as high. Many Associates these days are refusing to do any non-billable work as they feel there is no compensation for doing so. Senior Associates are assuming their readiness for Partnership based solely on their billings. Increasingly, I’m brought into firms consisting of individual law practices sharing a roof. These firms want me to show them how to be more profitable when they’ve spent years carefully building up the least profitable model possible.

The problem with fixing such firms is that the change of behaviours needed to turn things around take time, and inevitably, things become worse before they become better. If only we could do a reboot. In fact, some lawyers attempt to do a reboot by leaving the firm and joining another. Spreading the infection, perhaps?

I’ve seen environments where Associates are very much encouraged to compete – for hours, type of work, client access, etc. In such firms, the Associates that ultimately ascend into Partnership are a bit cut-throat. In this way, they have been encouraged and rewarded for operating in ways that are in opposition to many of the traits that should be required in a good Partner.

The fact is that the lawyer personality is competitive by nature. Firms need to find a way to harness this determination while inspiring a commitment to the team, to the common good. How?

  1. Start by adopting a set of values for the firm, then show that you live by them. You can’t honestly have a “no jerks” policy and then allow the existence of Partner or Associate jerks in your firm. Your firm might want to stand behind legal excellence, mutual respect, and everyone operating at the best level of themselves. Or whatever. Pick some values, announce them, show how the leadership of the firm is backing them up. Set the stage for the kind of firm you want to be.
  2. Next, establish what the expectations of a Partner are. The culture of the firm is defined by the daily practices of its leaders. Create a detailed list of expected Partners behaviours, then circulate this to current Partners and ensure they are living up to these traits. Give the document to Associates to show them what it takes to be a Partner at your firm, and encourage them to learn these skills and practice these traits. Be REALLY clear with your expectations in this way.
  3. Understand that when you are changing behaviours in a firm, it might get a bit worse before it gets much better. Keep people focussed on the longer-term goal. Naturalize the reality that in a team-based environment, a lawyer may have to turn away a potential client due to an existing or potential conflict in another area of the firm. And lawyers sending work down to the appropriate level instead of doing it themselves might have to go out and market to get more business in the door. These actions may create short-term pain for the lawyer involved. But they are ultimately for the good of the firm as a whole. But in due course, lawyers will see the personal benefits of these activities as well. Afterall, delegation and BD are required skills of a future Partner. And most Partners realize the benefits of ensuring everyone is productive because all boats lift in a rising tide.
  4. Encourage team work. Set up and rely more heavily on practice groups to define their goals, educate their members, determine their hiring needs, and do their marketing. Ask each practice group to include cross-sell targets (in and out of their practice) in their annual business plan.
  5. Do planning. Plans ensure everyone is on the same page. Properly activated plans direct our behaviour by focussing it on those activities that will take us to our goals in the long run. Even if they aren’t very fun to deal with in the short term. Think of every health and fitness goal you ever pursued. It sucks to hit that treadmill but it’s sure nice to get into shape. Coupled with having a plan, the firm should enforce a regular reporting process to keep plan owners accountable. Otherwise, it’s just another useless, meaningless document.

The competitive nature of lawyers can be part of what makes them a great lawyer. But when this tendency isn’t harnessed behind a series of common beliefs and goals for the firm, you’ll likely end up with a group of lawyers with competing interests, fighting over existing resources. And in my mind, that’s certainly not a Partnership.

The reason we were able to make it through the pandemic as well as we did (it could have been a lot worse) is that many of us did the right thing for society and ultimately, for ourselves. We also developed a vaccine in record time. Many experts call it a series of miracle that enabled the creation of a vaccine in one year when it should have taken at least ten. It was only by working together; giving the genetic code of the decease to every researcher worldwide, sharing information about existing RNA testing, scientists staying in constant contact with those who were normally their competitors, all working together against the clock to ultimately save as many lives as possible.

There is no reboot for the world, or for your firm. All we can do is to plan for a better future, decide on a series of transformational actions that will take us there, and then work together to implement that plan. And hope that we’re in an environment where people can put aside their competitive tendencies and work together for the greater good, until they can see that it is for their good, as well.


  1. The aim of all is but to nurse the life
    With honour, wealth, and ease, in waning age;
    And in this aim there is such thwarting strife,
    That one for all, or all for one we gage;
    As life for honour in fell battle’s rage;
    Honour for wealth; and oft that wealth doth cost
    The death of all, and all together lost. (W. Shakespeare, 1594, The Rape of Lucrece)

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