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Politics Not as Usual at the Law Firm
by Chet Oslen
This is not to say that law firms are completely apolitical. You will definitely encounter it in certain, usually isolated, incidents. There are political issues, for example, involved in who is elected partner. At the same time, even this can never be primarily a political decision as the scrutiny is too high. Plus, the nature of the law itself requires that there has to be more involved in such a decision.
Compared with corporations, especially highly structured corporations, law firms are far less political. While it's hard to identify all of the reasons for this, some of them can be identified.
The premium placed on talent
A lawyer's skills, or lack thereof, are generally more noticeable than are those of the typical corporate employee. Except in extreme cases, it's unlikely that a star litigator, for example, is not going to flourish in the law firm environment because he or she is not playing office politics. Not being liked personally by certain colleagues or not positioning oneself correctly within the firm hierarchy is not going to keep someone with real talent down. Similarly, attorneys with substandard skills can only hide so much - no matter how well they play the game.
Law is typically a results-oriented endeavor, which often puts office politics in the back seat. This works in your favor if you like to focus on your work, do a good job and be judged on your performance. It also explains why some people with limited interpersonal skills can nonetheless do very well in a law firm environment. In fact, many people who, because of their lack of personal skills, would have trouble surviving inside a company can do very well practicing law. If you stop and think about it, there are probably a few people you know fit this bill.
The law firm structure
Law firm structure is different from the corporate ladder. While many people don't like the basic associate, partner and sometimes special counsel levels on the law firm totem poll, it's not all bad. In many respects, it's a good thing - especially if you take a look at the complex personnel organizational charts of some companies.
You know what you are going to get a law firm as far as how and when you can advance. Again, you may not like this, but it's often better than the alternative. While firms can sometimes be noncommunicative as to what it actually takes to advance, most associates can get a pretty good understanding based on the law firm structure and how others have successfully made the climb.
Nature of the work
The type of work that many lawyers do does not lend itself to involving office politics. After you have some experience, you will handle many matters on your own and simply report to others what you have done. Alternatively, you will be part of a team that serves a particular client, case or transaction. The next matter you work on may involve an entirely different team of lawyers.
These sorts of situations do not give people much of a chance to concentrate on things other than getting the work done. Sure, everyone will try to score some points for themselves but this will only go so far when there is a filing deadline or a deal to close.
Lawyers, at least good lawyers, focus on serving their clients and are interested in surrounding themselves with people who can deliver the best quality work product. A partner who needs to produce for his or her client is focused on the client's needs and probably doesn't care that you have a nice personality or that you were especially generous in your Christmas present purchases. The bottom line is that lawyers are interested in their own careers. At a law firm, it is their work, more than anything else, which speaks for them.
Lawyers are hip
Ingratiating yourself to someone who can advance your career is not going to take you as far at a law firm as it will elsewhere. This is because lawyers are on the lookout for this sort of thing. When they spot it, it simply does not go over very well with most of them. Plus, lawyers can spot this type of behavior a mile away. That's because they do the same thing with their clients.
If you are someone who would rather not get involved in office politics and instead focus on doing your job and the law itself, remember that law firms do offer this advantage. You can save your political skills for other areas of life.
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