What, You’re Leaving? Lessons in Communication.

For four years, I worked for a mid-sized law firm with approximately 45 attorneys in the local office. My first few years there were fantastic. I was on top of my game and headed in all the right directions. My last eight to ten months there, my work load dwindled . . . and dwindled . . . and dwindled, notwithstanding my responsible, diligent requests for more work. I checked in with partners in their (often empty) offices, left voice messages, and documented my efforts through email. Usually, I got no responses. Not a good sign.

Not surprisingly, I failed to meet my billable hours requirement that year. The firm had a strict rule that no one who failed to meet the billable hour requirement qualified for a bonus, ever. Surprisingly, I got a great review and an unexpected bonus, with just one comment that my hours needed to come up (which I agreed with!). I was told the discretionary bonus was a reflection of how much I was appreciated.

Uh, confused.

As the months progressed into the next year, I continued to ask for more work, and my work continued to dwindle. I could not figure out what was going wrong, despite my efforts to find out. What I did know was that a ton of work was coming into the firm, so this kind of drop in my work load had to be nothing short of a “silent firing” common to law firms. I am not dense and had seen it happen to other associates, so I got the message. I was still confused though, because I had gotten the bonus. Law firms do not give discretionary bonuses to people they want to fire. Ever.

In one last effort to resolve my suspicions and demonstrate my continued diligence, I emailed an equity partner who I had done a lot of work for, and who was always pleased with my work, and who I knew would shoot straight with me. I asked him if I was being sent “a message” with the loss of work (i.e. “Should I be looking for another job?” or “If you don’t send me work, I will be looking for another job whether you want me to or not.”). Equity Partner assured me there was no bad message intended for me, and that he would direct more work my way.

Two more months passed, and Equity Partner had not made good on his promise. I was well on my way to another year of miserably low hours. At this point, there was no way I could catch up on my hours, nor did I want to put in the kind of time it would take to make up that kind of deficit, since nothing and no one indicated to me that the deficit was my fault.

A few weeks later, a recruiter called with an opportunity at a bigger, higher paying firm next door. Refusing to become a victim of poor management, and knowing that my career is my responsibility, I jumped at the opportunity for more work, more growth, and more pay.

I gave my resignation at the mid-size firm. To my utter disbelief, Equity Partner and others I had worked for could not believe I was leaving. I was told that some partners even took my leaving as a personal rejection.

Are you kidding me? What just happened?

Did the partners’ surprise make me regret my decision? Now that I knew where I stood, did I want to make another go of it with my current firm? No, because what just happened was poor management and a systemic lack of basic communication among professionals, which left me in a state of professional chaos.

I cannot believe this has to be said, but if you manage or supervise associates or other employees, or if you have customers or clients, you must communicate with them – often and effectively. If there are conflicts, you must deal with them directly. The test of effectiveness of your communication will be in the resolution of conflicts and accomplishment of goals – your goals, your firm or company’s goals, your client’s goals, and the thresholds required of your employees. We all must take responsibility for the fallout from, and costs of, our own ineffective communications. This is basic stuff.

You may think you are too busy making money or meeting deadlines to listen or respond to certain requests. Wrong. You will be suprised by outcomes if you do not communicate with people. You will lose money, goodwill, reputation, good employees, customers, and clients, if you do not communicate with people. Sure, it is time-consuming to review 100+ incoming emails and twenty or more phone calls each day, and to decide which ones warrant a response. However, busyness is not an excuse for failure to communicate on matters that reasonably call for your attention or could cost you money for failure to respond (and if you get less than 50 or so emails a day, there is no excuse for you).

Granted, some employees, customers, or clients may demand your attention at some inconvenient or inappropriate time or frequency. At other times, it is difficult to discern between reasonable and unreasonable requests because they all run together. This can be mitigated by learning how to respond concisely, delegating, and effectively communicating (and enforcing) your boundaries and requirements with people.

Keep in mind that your silence is a form of communication – passive communication. People around you will act on your passive communication as much as they do your active communication. People act on the information they have and – correctly or incorrectly – will fill in the blanks for themselves on information they do not have. Many will not try more than once or twice to encourage you to active communication, because you are responsible for your part on this two-way street. Do not ignore people unless you have no other viable option, perhaps as in the case of having already made your position clear, and the other person is unconstructively arguing with you. But you must first make your position known!

If you want to have a say in something – like, I don’t know, how much work your employees have – say it. And then act. If someone is trying to tell you something, listen. And then act. Otherwise, don’t be surprised.

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