I was driving this past weekend and sitting in traffic when the TED Radio Hour started on Chicago Public Radio.  The first segment was fascinating and is very enlightening when considering law firm culture, or any business for that matter, and firm growth through lateral hiring of “stars”.  I have included the link to the show at the bottom of this post, and it is definitely worth your time.  Although I’m highlighting the first link, Margaret Heffernan – Is The Professional Pecking Order Doing More Harm Than Good, the entire hour is useful for anyone who runs a business or recruits and develops top talent.

A quick spoiler alert – I am going to give away the results of the study referenced in the first segment, so go listen at the link below if you want to hear the set-up first.  So here’s the study in a nutshell.  William Muir, a professor of Animal Sciences at Purdue University studied the productivity of chickens.  Although that may sound odd, productivity is easy to measure in chickens since you just need to count eggs.  Muir wanted to know what could make chickens more productive, so he devised an experiment. Chickens live in groups, so he first selected an average flock, and he let progress as it normally would for six generations. That was the control group.  He also created a second group comprised of the most productive chickens he could find (our superchickens) and he then assembled them in a superflock.  For each subsequent generation he selected only the most productive chickens for breeding.

Heffernan explained the results:  

After six generations had passed, what did he find? Well, the first group, the average group, was doing just fine. They were all plump and fully feathered and egg production had increased dramatically. What about the second group? Well, all but three were dead. They’d pecked the rest to death. The individually productive chickens had only achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of the rest.

Heffernan continued “people have seen the relevance almost instantly, and they come up and they say things to me like, That superflock, that’s my company. Or, That’s my country. Or, That’s my life.”   

Law firms tend to be superflocks.  Regardless of what tier school they attended, every attorney competed for his or her spot in law school and for his or her spot at the firm.   Our slots came at the expense of someone else that did not get there.  Grades at most schools are on a curve, with only a certain number receiving top scores.  Further, firms are obsessed with graduates from “the best schools” and attorneys that work with “the best clients.”

So, what’s the problem?  Much like the superflock in Muir’s experiment, most law firm cultures will kill themselves without some intervention.  Firm’s struggle with cross-selling services and collaboration in general because each attorney at the firm has lived a life where his or her individual gain, or productivity, has come at the expense of someone else in the system.  Each rung of the ladder, from high school through graduation of law school and each year of progressing from associate to partner meant proving worth beyond that of one’s colleagues and the less productive were disappeared from the flock.

How does this play out in everyday law firm life?  Let me give you an example from one of my past firms.  Despite a general downturn for many other groups, one of the practice groups was extremely busy and needed to hire another attorney to help with the work load.  After an exhaustive search and hundreds of hours of interviewing candidates, the group hired a new associate with a great pedigree – a top school, great experience at big name firms, enthusiasm to join the firm and a personality that seemed to fit in.  So here’s where it all fell apart: I spoke to the practice group leader a couple of weeks after the new hire started and asked how things were working out.  The response baffled me.  “She’s great, but I don’t want her working with any of my clients.”  The head of the group was concerned that the new attorney might steal away his clients.  When I asked what he expected the new associate to do, his comment was simple – “others will probably send her work, but I won’t.”  I just looked at the firm’s website and that seemingly productive, highly pedigreed associate is no longer at the firm.  Those hundreds of hours spent recruiting and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent getting that attorney in the firm and onboard in the group were wiped out with a few pecks from the rest of the flock.

So how do we combat the Superchicken issue in our firms?  I’m saving that for the next post.  Here’s a hint though – it involves intentional opportunities to build social capital, trust and teamwork.  We will start there.  

Here’s the link for the show: