Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Professional Services - Values, Culture and Depression 2: case study - Free at Last

In Professional Services - Values, Culture and Depression 1 I compared IT and law to draw out some of the reasons why the incidence of depression in law is the highest among professional groups. This post extends the argument using as a case study one of several examples on the Junior Lawyers Union blog.

And, I don't regret it (leaving) one bit. When I made the decision to leave the firm, I was taking 100mg of Zoloft a day and spent much of my office time wondering whether my desk chair was heavy enough to smash the window of my 18th floor office. Free at Last

Free at Last has obviously had a depression problem for some time. Free at Last goes on:

Prior to my departure, I disclosed my depression to the firm, thinking that since things had spiralled so far, perhaps, somewhere, there might be someone with a glimmer of humanity lurking around the firm who could help me out.

Instead, the firm demanded a medical certificate to confirm my depression. Once that was produced, two of the partners sat me down and advised me that I was being formally 'performance managed'. They told me that they expected me to get in earlier and leave later, be more 'enthusiastic' about the work I was being given and to increase my output. They then demanded that I say the words 'I want to be a commercial lawyer'.

What can I say?

I suppose the first point is that I find it very hard to believe that Free at Last's problems were not visible to others. Indeed, the response from the two partners indicates that they were aware of performance problems.

Now here the firm is already in beach of one of the key principles I laid down in my two posts on Common Management Problems - dealing with poor performers (post one here, post two here), the need to catch problems early before they grow into major issues. Nothing was done until Free at Last raised the issue.

The second principle I laid down was the need to define the problem, to get the facts. This needed to be done in advance of any corrective action. Then, I suggested, you should take a deep breath, take time to think the problem through. Too often, people go into see problem, fix problem mode. I noted that this could be disastrous.

In this case the firm demanded a medical certificate, an action that may have been necessary, but one that also clearly indicates that Free at Last's problems had in some way been put in the malingerer class. From this point, things go badly awry.

In supplying the certificate, Free at Last established a prima facie case that she (I think that Free at Last is a she) had a medical problem, an illness. So the problem to be addressed changed from poor performance to an illness resulting in poor performance. A very different set of issues.

There is no evidence that the firm gathered any information on depression to guide thinking about responses, nor do they appear to have made any attempt to find out from Free at Last what she had done to seek help. Instead of treating the problem as a medical one that was affecting work, the partners attempted to address the work related results of the problem independent of the cause.

This was bound to fail. Anybody who has suffered from depression or who has seen people suffering from depression will know that a reduced ability to cope is one of the key features of the illness.

Needless to say, a couple of days I tendered my resignation. The sad thing is that one of them seemed genuinely surprised by my decision.

This outcome may in fact have been the best result for Free at Last. In her words: When I finally walked out the door of the top tier firm that I worked for, I had no job to go. It was a leap into the great unknown - terrifying but ultimately liberating.

The outcome may even have been the best result for the firm in that it removed the need to deal with the problem. However, it is likely that the way in the matter was handled had at least some adverse effects within the firm on the attitudes of other staff to the firm.

But to the degree that it was the best result for either party, it was so by accident. The outcome could have been very different.

I am not surprised at the suggestion that one partner seemed genuinely surprised at the resignation decision.

My experience has been that many partners are actually concerned about their people, but lack the time, sensitivity and management skills required to handle people management issues properly. Sadly, some seem doomed to repeat the same mistakes with the same surprise each time that things did not work out.

Posts in this Series

Precursor posts:

The Depression series:

No comments: