7 min read

The Best Lawyers Are More Plumbers Than Professors

The lawyers who go on to great service realize that learning more theory is not the hard part. The hard part is solving problems in the real world
Water pouring briskly from silver faucet into overflowing glass
Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

Greetings friends!

Every manager knows the feeling.

It’s been a productive week. You deftly handled all the random problems that popped up and kept each incipient crisis at bay. It looks like you’re heading into the weekend with a clean schedule.

Then one of your best employees sends you a meeting request that reads “Hey boss, can we meet for a few minutes? I want to talk to you about something.”

The Dreaded No-Subject Meeting Request

There goes your quiet weekend. Why is that? It’s because we all know what the no-subject meeting request means and it’s never good news.

No, it’s always one of the following two things:

  • The employee is quitting, or
  • The employee is not quitting but wants something

I’ll tell you something surprising. Over more than 20 years as a General Counsel, I came to view an employee quitting as the easier situation of the two.

Keyboard with post-it reading “I quit!”
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

An employee quitting at least provides certainty

Sure, the company suffers an immediate disruption when a team member quits. But we also can start dealing with it immediately. Assuming the employee’s mind is made up, we know what to do. At times, I’ve had the job description updated and posted the same day.

In contrast, when a high-performing employee tells you they want something, it signals a desire or an unmet need. And when your employee voices that desire or need, it becomes a source of dissatisfaction for them.

You may ultimately satisfy the employee, and you may not. But your job as a manager has just become more difficult for the foreseeable future.

Because what is it your employee wants? It is always one or more of these three things: a promotion, more pay, or a development opportunity. Ultimately, all three lead us to the topic of continuing education.

That’s because the employee thinks, not unreasonably in their mind, “If only I had another degree or qualification, I would increase my market value. I would stand out compared to my peers, and so be next in line for a promotion, which comes with more pay.”

What Managers Think As Opposed to Employees

Here’s what’s running through the manager’s head in this conversation about the employee’s request.

“Ugh, we just got our budget approved. I don’t have any money to give John an unscheduled raise. And we benchmarked the team’s salaries this year! How can I justify paying John above market and more than his peers?”

“The legal department is relatively flat and we’re fully staffed. I can’t create a new hierarchy just to give Jane additional responsibility on paper. And if I do create a new role to promote Jane, I’m just going to annoy the rest of the team.”

“How does it help the company to pay for Sam’s continuing education? She’ll have to spend time away from work. I doubt she’ll learn anything relevant to her job.”

“What’s worse, she’ll be meeting people from other companies that look good on the surface because the grass is always greener. If history is any guide, though, she’s still not going to be satisfied with her development and will quit in a few years anyway.”

“Doesn’t Phil understand that his formal qualifications are the least important factor contributing to his advance? We care about how well he can do the job, not what courses he takes and what degrees he accumulates.”

Photo by Julien L on Unsplash

The Problem is Selfishness; That’s Also the Solution

Is the employee selfish to consider only their own needs, ignoring the concerns of their colleagues or the company? Perhaps, but that’s human nature and I don’t blame employees for looking out for themselves.

Is the boss selfish to focus on the company’s needs, giving a higher weight to team dynamics, financial concerns, and job performance? From one sense yes, but that’s their job: to consider costs and benefits in light of overall company priorities.

The answer lies in embracing that people will always act according to their perceived interests. Rather than railing against them, we must acknowledge those interests and target areas where they overlap.

This is akin to what makes for a successful negotiation. The best deals lie in identifying overlapping interests as sources of compromise. Can I find something that helps you and does not hurt me, or something you want that I am happy to give?

The employee wants development, pay, and promotion. The company wants team stability and job performance for fair pay. Continuing education offers us rich opportunities to achieve both. Let me describe how.

Continuing Education Can Satisfy the Interests of Both Employer and Employee

This requires us to first view continuing education with the correct perspective and then undertake it responsibly.

What’s the correct perspective to hold on continuing education?

Here’s how I looked at it with respect to in-house lawyers. I expect analogous principles will apply to other jobs.

  • In-house lawyers are professionals who serve an essential role in companies. Without question, they must maintain their licensing by completing all mandatory continuing education requirements.
  • The company wants its lawyers to stick around because long-tenured lawyers learn the company’s business and become adept at focusing on the right risks. A lawyer who sees they are developing has no need to look elsewhere.
  • In-house lawyers must be sufficient subject matter experts in their areas of responsibility to efficiently handle the needs of the business. We want them to handle as much as possible, saving expensive outside counsel for rare occasions.
  • Lawyers who stay up-to-date on developments while putting their experience to use in helping the company pragmatically address new laws and regulations are a great value proposition. It is both necessary and appropriate to pay them competitive salaries.
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

What’s a responsible way to undertake continuing education?

Here’s what I like to see as a manager:

  • Meet mandatory requirements efficiently. Rather than attending dozens of hourlong sessions that actually each consume half a day all-in, get all your needs met in one three-day conference.
  • Choose topics and formats that are relevant to current business needs and deliver practical skills and tools, not theoretical knowledge. Interpreting the law is typically not as hard as implementing it in a business-appropriate way.

What opportunities help both the individual and the company?

Looking at continuing education this way makes it easier to identify those opportunities that will help both the individual and the company.

— A two-year master's program in International law? Hard pass. Too expensive, too long, and mostly for the employee’s benefit, not the company's. We’re just paying to pad your resume.

— The two-day annual conference of the Association of Corporate Counsel that both satisfies your annual CLE needs and has a varied program of practice-oriented sessions on numerous topics the company cares about? Sign me up, this year and every year.

— The Certificate of Advanced Studies over 14 weeks of Friday-Saturday half-day sessions on topics the company cares about? Let’s talk. I like that it requires you to make an investment of your weekends. Although it costs me more than the ACC conference, it’s still affordable. You’ll learn more, which benefits the company. Plus you’ll get a certificate that counts towards an LL.M degree, which benefits you. I’ll do it if you’re one of my A players.

Ultimately, the choice of alternatives comes down to weighing costs and benefits in light of the legitimate needs and interests of both the company and the employee.

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

What’s This About Plumbers and Professors?

When your toilet is clogged, you don’t want a lecture about fluid dynamics or a presentation on why it’s important to put the drain flange on the tailpiece before the escutcheon. You want that mess cleared up right now.

Or to explain it another way, here’s a quote from the New York State Bar Association Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession:

“We used to think that being a good lawyer simply meant knowing the law. Today, we are more likely to think that good lawyers know how to do useful things with the law to help solve client problems.” — NYSBA Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession

Just like the best plumbers, the best lawyers learn basic theory before entering practice. The ones who go on to great service, however, realize that learning more theory is not the hard part. The hard part is solving client problems in the real world.

In the real world, we solve unexpected problems, under time pressure, and subject to severe constraints from the business. A theoretically perfect answer is almost never appropriate because it’s not achievable in practice.

Your task thus becomes identifying “What works that we can actually do?

The more a continuing education program helps my lawyers work like plumbers, in the sense that they can quickly and efficiently solve real-world problems, the more likely I am to support it.

Be well.

Hit reply to tell me what's on your mind or write a comment directly on Klugne. If you received this mail from a friend and would like to subscribe to my free weekly newsletter, click here.

A version of this article appeared originally on Medium in the publication Better Humans.