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December 05, 2010

The Other Rule 11: Big Sally heaves a DC phone book.

Rule 11: Treat Each Co-Worker Like He or She Your Best Client.* Or, Why did Big Sally throw a DC phone book an associate? I still need to get better at this rule. People, of course, are every business's most important asset. So here are three very personal "aspects" of Rule 11, from the 12 Rules. The above is my non-litigation "Rule 11".

And these are, as it were, the "advisory committee notes":

First, in our workplaces, we need great people and we need to treat them with respect--not just buttering up. We need to give them prompt feedback--the good and the bad.

Above all, we need them to grow and be happy. Which frankly is not (like never) your problem unless you let it be. Failure to grow: it's their problem, unless you impede their growth.

(Note to Employers: Please get used to the above. Maybe repeat in over and over again. Get off your knees first. Good. And now say: "Any hire's mediocrity and lack of aspirations is not my fault. It's only my fault if I keep them." Repeat, you big Boomer weenie. Yeah, that's it.)

Second, I have a short fuse. I am focused on what I am doing, and I am not always perfectly nice. To bad guys. To good guys. To people I admire, respect, like and love. And since 1981, I have had approximately 25 secretaries. Okay maybe 35.

Half of the ones who didn't work (about 25) thought I was crazy. The other dozen or so? Well, I learned the hard way.

Big Sally was from the Deep American South. She was an imposing 220 at her fighting weight, had a good 60 pounds on me, and was one of my first assistants in the ASAE building on 15th and Eye Streets, Northwest. She was generally sweet--and a so-so secretary I was stuck with.

One day in the 1980s while I was walking by her desk at a pretty good clip and heading back into my office, she threw a Washington, D.C. yellow pages book (they are large, thick and heavy objects) at me that crashed into the wall a foot from my head. This destroyed several plants, another lawyer's dictaphone, and cracked the black wood frame on my treasured "Hunter Thompson for Sheriff" Aspen wall poster which I hung on the wall outside my office. (None of the partners knew what it was--so why not?)

I can't remember what I said but I recall that I was not happy that she took a long lunch after finishing a partner's project--and leaving me to my own devices while trying to get a short brief done and filed.

Again, I cannot remember what I said. But you get the idea. Driven thirty-two year old lawyers who worked on Capitol Hill for a few years, are hungover much of the time like all good trial lawyers, and have practiced for a grand total of four years can get your attention. They are feisty and creative humans, quite glib, and in the late stages of a reckless youth in the big city.

Both of us were to blame--but repairing the relationship took months.

It should have never happened.

Big Sally was not my first choice as an assistant. A partner hired her and assigned her to me, and I was under enormous pressures to advance a large client's agenda and prove myself and my firm in the DC court systems--but she had her own distractions in life. In my first three years as an associate, I co-authored four Supreme Court briefs, was starting to know my way around the local DC courts, and I needed all the help I could get in our then-small branch office,

I needed Big Sally--and needed her more than she needed me.

Whatever I said to her in those 3 angry seconds about my dissatisfaction with her work or work ethic cost me a lot.

[More recently, I had a huge "disconnect" problem with just about every Generation X or Y hire--a thoughtful and talented part of the U.S. workforce with strong and quite sane ideas about the place of work in their lives--who walked through our doors. Still they seem to me like people with little passion, guts, mojo, gospel and ability to think on their own. But I am getting there. I have made progress.]

Third, "Rule 11" is a client rule, too. Clients love to form partnerships with law, accounting, consulting firms and service providers of all manner with genuinely functional workplaces. They love work communities where the professionals are demanding but love what they do and solve problems together as a team of happy, focused people who stretch--but respect--one another.
It's fun for them to watch, and fun to watch them watch you.

Clients want to be part of that. Watching the "well-oiled" team is an image which sticks in the client mind. At my current firm, we have a GC with a transactional and mergers/acquisition background who regularly pops in on us from his office in another city during our trials for his company--both in the courtroom and conference room. He isn't just checking up on the progress of trial--he thinks it's damn fun to be around us. His eyes light up during strategy sessions. And you even sense he wants to pop up from his seat and take on a few witnesses himself...

If a client can experience your people working together in that kind of focused but loose harmony, it's contagious. They will want more. It's that last string in the major chord of a truly joyous place to work and grow.


*(2006 post from the annoying but accurate 12 Rules of Client Service)

Posted by JD Hull at December 5, 2010 12:00 AM


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