The High Cost of Heroics

I started my law practice in 1970, as an attorney at Community Legal Services (CLS) in Philadelphia.  I represented public housing tenants and victims of police brutality.  It was a violent and repressive era in Philadelphia, with Frank Rizzo as Police Commissioner and then Mayor.

As we began our public service, we CLS attorneys were told to give all we had to our work and to spend ourselves lavishly for the benefit of our clients.  Self-care was never mentioned.  What mattered most was being heroic.

In our orientation, we were told that most of us would only last two years, and that proved true.  As I reflect on this now, I think it was unfortunate that we were encouraged to waste ourselves as we served our clients and championed their causes.  Our clients were not well served with the high turnover of the attorneys.  Furthermore, the attorneys often left burned-out and demoralized.

Today, in my role as a coach and consultant to law firms, I’ve learned that it is common for law firms to praise heroics and to give great weight to stories of heroic client service.  Sometimes, eligibility for partnership is measured by the number of heroic stories attributed to an associate.  The more heroic the associate appears to be, the more eligible the associate is for partnership.

Certainly, there are unexpected and exigent circumstances that require lawyers to make extraordinary efforts to serve the needs of their clients.  I did so from time to time in the years of my law practice.  Yet, a law firm that expects and rewards lawyers to be heroic every day creates its own problems, some of which can prove to be very costly.

  1. Heroics discourage teamwork.

If being heroic is the prize, a lawyer will tend to act alone.  Asking someone to help is being collaborative, not heroic.  In this go-it-alone approach, being on a team is of no importance nor benefit.  The hero does not need a team.  The hero acts alone.

  1. Heroics can compromise effective representation.

Collaboration with the client and other attorneys promotes insight, creativity and originality.  People bring their points of view to the fact pattern at hand, spot issues and pitfalls and make alternative arguments.  With lawyers collaborating, the representation of the client is enhanced.  The lawyer acting alone cannot bring the breadth of experience and perspective that only collaboration can provide.

The work product of the go-it-alone attorney may also be compromised because of fatigue and stress.  Simple mistakes are made and important points may be overlooked.  Stress does not promote the best work.  Creativity, for example, is one of the first casualties of stress.

  1. Being heroic promotes burnout and attrition.

Routinely working nights, week-ends and holidays inevitably leads to burnout.  Even young attorneys grow resentful of having no life of their own.  In the long run, with no better life in view, many lawyers look for alternative venues where every day heroics are not expected, encouraged or rewarded.  Such a lawyer is often drawn to the possibility of being on a high functioning team that together shoulders the inevitable challenges of the workplace.  The promise of such teamwork elsewhere can incentivize a lawyer to leave.

From where I stand, each of us will sometimes need to do the exceptional and be something of a hero as we serve the needs of a client.  The problem arises when heroics are routinely expected, even rewarded.  In such an environment, lawyers tend to be insular, operating separate and apart from others in their own firm or legal department.  It’s as though each practices law in his or her own silo.

In my experience, private law firms often speak of teamwork but the financial incentives of the firm discourage teamwork.  I’ve often found more teamwork in public service than private practice.  It doesn’t need to be so.  In fact, it is the cultivation of high functioning teams in private practice that is one of the most rewarding aspects of the work my clients and I do.