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Professionalism Within a Law Firm

January 1, 1998, Richard E. Poole

INTRODUCTION

Potter Anderson & Corroon LLP presently is a law firm of fifty-five active practitioners, eight counsel and more than a hundred staff members.  Our interpersonal skills have been sorely tested during the past two years.

On April 2, 1997, a fire on the fourteenth floor of the Delaware Trust Building reportedly required 10,000 gallons of water to extinguish.  Much of that liquid precipitated down to and through our newly-renovated suite of offices on the third and fourth floors.  Even days later, the sights and sounds of a rain forest accompanied our desperate efforts to retrieve files, computers, accounting records, books and personal possessions, while coping with stringent limitations arising from an arson investigation, and restrictions imposed because of possible asbestos contamination and microbial infestation.

After the Wednesday night-Thursday morning fire, the firm was up and running the next Monday morning in "temporary" office space recently vacated by Hercules in its corporate headquarters.  Partners and associates alike resumed practicing law from cubicles, and even senior partners had windowless interior offices.  Undaunted, the firm the very next month committed to spend more than $1 million on a major computer conversion, no doubt appreciative that, in the absence of many of our waterlogged files, the electronic access to documents had allowed us to continue serving our clients with very little interruption.  To the extent that there were some disruptions in the processing of transactions and cases, the Delaware bench and bar were uniformly cooperative in their assistance of the firm under the circumstances.

Believing that the stress of the events during the prior few weeks had caused her back pain, our senior office administrator went to see her physician in May of 1997, only to be diagnosed with incurable cancer.  Lawyers in the firm had to turn inward to survive professionally:  (i) personnel matters had to be dealt with; (ii) technology had to be adapted to a new physical environment; (iii) the Delaware Trust Building landlord needed to be interrogated constantly as to when (it turned out to be never) the firm could return to its permanent offices; (iv) a short-term (and eventually a long-term) lease had to be negotiated with Hercules (and alternative office space around town had to be canvassed); (v) the contents of the firm's offices quarantined in the Delaware Trust Building had to be cleaned thoroughly before removal, and all kinds of environmental regulations satisfied; (vi) the firm's property insurance company had to be cajoled to pay for the covered losses; and (vii) new space in the Hercules Plaza had to be completely renovated to convert it from a corporate to a law firm environment, necessitating even more cramped interim quarters and multiple temporary moves.

Having been through so much together, the firm's partners decided to hold their first retreat shortly before the second anniversary of the Delaware Trust Building fire.  After six months of planning and about two months of intensive preparation of working papers on the topics of firm management, partner compensation, firm culture and mission, and financial structure, including capitalization and pension issues, the week-end retreat proved to be an extremely valuable experience in the professional life of the firm.

Particularly in view of the unusual recent history recounted here, but clearly also in general, the importance of professionalism and civility within a law firm cannot be overstated.  An efficient, but patient and respectful, approach to even the normal challenges of everyday life in private practice will go a long way toward achievement of personal satisfaction in the legal careers of a firm's attorneys.

FOSTERING PROFESSIONALISM WITHIN A LAW FIRM

There are numerous ways to enhance the attributes of decency and civility within the law firm environment.  A blend of encouraging behavior that fosters group success and discouraging undue individual self-centeredness works well, if tempered with a recognition that lawyers by background and training are generally strong-willed, intelligent and assertive.

At the group level, it is important to develop a sense that the sum is greater than the parts.  Potter Anderson & Corroon has adopted a mission statement to create a real sense of ownership in common values and goals leading to a more creative, productive and effective workplace.  Included is the declaration that "[w]e maintain an environment of collegiality and mutual respect for diverse backgrounds and viewpoints, emphasizing the objective of attaining a high level of personal satisfaction and professional fulfillment, while providing the best possible legal services for our clients."  The mission statement concludes with the statement that "we encourage everyone in the firm to excel in both individual and team-oriented contexts to achieve shared goals for our clients and the firm."

At the level of individual management, the philosophy of Potter Anderson & Corroon's chairman is that "[l]eadership by example is the most credible and effective means to accomplish the goals of increased satisfaction and profitability in the professional life of the firm."  Yet, admittedly, other measures are appropriate to reinforce the firm leader's goal of inspiring and maintaining a harmonious approach to the practice of law among all the personnel involved, including not just lawyers but also paralegals, secretaries, accountants, information systems administrators and document clerks. One such means to strengthen collegiality is structural, the other is financial.

As the practice of law becomes ever more complex and specialized, it is important to interact frequently with one's peers in order not to become fragmented and isolated. Potter Anderson & Corroon is adopting a more formal tripartite practice group organization, whereby the key areas of business, corporate and litigation will have a more specific articulation of certain responsibilities, including strategic planning, client development, coordination with other attorneys, recruiting and training.

The power of the purse should not be underestimated. Goals of the partner compensation system at Potter Anderson & Corroon include consensus, a team-oriented approach, and loyalty to the firm.  Among the criteria to accomplish the goal of a fair allocation of the net profits of the partnership is to reward "decency and civility" and, by implication, to penalize behavior that might tend to create an unpleasant or hostile working environment.  The law firm consultants, Altman Weil Pensa, in their American Bar Association publication, Compensation Plans for Law Firms, make the following useful observations in this regard (at p. 12):

Collegiality is adherence to the spirit, as well as the letter, of firm policies, the willingness to "pitch in" when needed, the sense of working and getting along together in a spirit of cooperation, the mutual respect for others' skills, and tolerance for others' weaknesses.  It is important to those firms seeking to foster a team orientation.  Practicing law is stressful enough — the firm does not need the added stress of "Lone Rangers" (i.e., inconsiderate tyrants or abusive egotists).  Creating internal harmony — that is, a sense that the firm will pull together to meet the challenges and demands facing it — is gaining in importance in compensation decisions.

CONCLUSION

A question often asked of Potter Anderson & Corroon is whether it had a disaster plan in place that enabled it to survive the Delaware Trust Building fire and to thrive in its new location in the Hercules Plaza.  The answer is "no," "maybe" and "yes."  "No," the firm did not have a formal plan that it could follow as it coped with the unexpected eviction from its offices and the myriad of issues arising thereafter.  "Maybe," as noted above, in that the firm's computers provided access to data in electronic form to enable the practice of law to continue successfully (with the caveat that the impersonality of e-mail, for example, necessitates greater contacts face-to-face and by telephone in order to compensate for the reduction in personal communications).  But, in the end, the answer is "yes," by having a long tradition of professionalism, civility, decency and mutual respect, Potter Anderson & Corroon through all of its lawyers and staff was well-prepared to overcome the severe strains caused by very difficult external circumstances.