Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Professional Services - Value, Culture and Depression 5: Jan's case

This post in my series on depression and professional services firm takes a second case study drawn from the Junior Lawyers Union blog. For the sake of discussion, let's call her Jan.

Again, I am not in a position to talk about the facts. My focus is on the firm management issues taking the story as a given.

Jan's story starts well:

I spent two years in legal practice, after being 'head hunted' from my previous job. The first 18 months or so were fine - I exceeded my budget, enjoyed the work, and got along well with everyone. One of the partners told my husband I was the best graduate they had recruited in years.

Then things started to go wrong:

I suffered a sporting injury and had to have some time off work. This was right at the start of the financial year, so I started behind the eight-ball. At first, the partners seemed understanding. After a while, however, it became clear that I was expected to make up the billable hours I had missed. I worked my backside off, and started to catch up.

This short quote raises a number of interesting management issues.

Many firms set their billable hours targets without making any allowance for sick days. This may be fair enough. However, problems can arise where the time targets are sufficiently aggressive that the individual in question cannot easily make up the lost time, leading to stress. The firm is better off in these cases adjusting the time target.

The quote also suggests that that there may be a communication and management problem within the firm in that the billable hours expectation only became clear "after a while."

Jan, already under stress, now experiences a personality conflict.

Then my supervising partner began to have some personal problems, and she took out her anger on everyone who worked for her. I became increasingly stressed and felt like I couldn't do anything right. I became very depressed and began to lose interest in my work. My billable hours dropped even further

Regardless of the actual facts of the case, both Jan and the firm clearly have major problems. All firms face difficulties in handling partner level management problems. However, it is the responsibility of the managing partner to sort them. At staff level, the fact that Jan was in trouble must have been clearly evident, but was still not being dealt with.

Jan goes on:

I confided in another partner. He seemed to be sympathetic, and told me 'everyone knows' Partner X is a bully. He said if he had his way, he would sack her. Behind my back, however, he (later) told a Workcover investigator that he didn't want anyone who was depressed working at his firm, and that everyone likes Partner X, and that I must have misunderstood him.

I am sure that Jan's confidence made the other partner uncomfortable. That partner may also, giving him/her the benefit of the doubt, have been trying to be sympathetic. But the partner's response and subsequent failure to act would cost the firm.

Things continued to deteriorate.

Eventually, I was 'counselled' a couple of times about my steadily decreasing billable hours. The managing partner told me he didn't think the targets were that hard to meet, and that they had made a lot of allowances for me. I started to envy people with 'simple' jobs like the checkout operators at the supermarket. A few weeks later, I made a mistake while nearly at breaking point, and they had the excuse they needed to sack me.

Again we can see continuing management problems within the firm and in particular a continuing failure to properly identify and address Jan's problems. The costs to both Jan and the firm were high:

12 months later, and I am still on 3 different anti-depressants. I see a psychiatrist regularly and I have survived a suicide attempt. I still think about killing myself almost daily. I feel like a complete failure. On the bright side, however, I stood up for myself and put in a Workcover claim, which has recently settled in my favour. I have recently obtained another job which I really enjoy. The pay is crap, but there are no billable units, and I can go home at 4:30 every afternoon.

I said at the outset of this post that I could not comment on the facts. We only have Jan's side of the story. But the evidence does suggest a comprehensive management failure in that the application of standard people management practices would have sorted the problem long before the mutually disastrous end point finally reached.

Posts in this Series

Precursor posts:

The Depression series:

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