Law Practice Today | September 2013 | The Staffing/HR Issue
September 2013 | The Staffing/HR Issue
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Ending Hierarchical Thinking

By Michael Maslanka

Let's eradicate the most toxic poison in the legal field. What is it? Hierarchy. The false idol we worship that tells us we are just boxes on an org chart. Ditch org chart authority, embrace moral authority. Here are modest suggestions to do just that.

No. 1:  Change a Word, Change a Belief

How do you introduce an associate in the firm? How would an associate like to be introduced?  Behind Door No. 1: "This is my associate." Or behind Door No. 2: "This is my colleague." Those entrenched in hierarchal thinking pick No. 1.

Don't. New lawyers are not slaves; they have the same license as any other lawyer. Try saying “colleagues.”  Go ahead – say it out loud. Sounds so much better, doesn’t it? And as Aristotle taught us, we ultimately conform our thinking to our words.  (Oh by the way, this idea goes both ways; a colleague needs to nuke the phrase "Well, it's your client," in discussing how to handle a matter. Talk about passive/aggressive. Stop it.)

No. 2: Take a New Colleague on a Road Trip

Here is an experiment involving some pathologists. Groups One and Two get the identical file. Except for one thing: Group Two has a photo of the patient attached to the cover of the file . And that one difference made all the difference. The "picture" group produced longer reports that were more accurate and thoughtful. So, take newer colleagues to visit a flesh-and-blood client. Don’t charge for it. Watch how they come alive with better ideas, clearer work product, focused arguments.

No. 3:  Show, Don't Tell

We can talk all we want to a new colleague about moral authority v. org chart authority. And doing so is noble, but oh so ineffective. So, do what all great communicators do:  show, don't tell.  Create an image. When I work with a new lawyer, I say. "When you work with me, there is just one thing you need to know, and it's in the form of a question." I often see the skepticism in their eyes. "And here it is: “Why do airplanes crash?" They wiggle around in their chair; make wild guesses.  "Let me tell you. The co-pilot sees a blinking red light on the console before take-off and thinks, “Gee,  the pilot has been doing this for 30 years, surely if something was wrong he would know, and I am not going to ruin my career by saying something.” So she says nothing, and that's why airplanes crash.”  The punch line is that they will never be yelled at by telling me about the red light. And this story provides a handy line when working with the lawyer: "See any blinking red lights?”

No 4:  Everything You Need to Know About Professionalism

My apologies to all the books and CLEs and wonderful speakers on this topic. But here it is. In ancient Rome advocates and physicians would go to the town square and profess (professus in Latin) that the need of those in the assemblage came ahead of their own needs. From this comes the word professional. Client first, lawyer second. Experienced lawyers need to remind themselves of this, and pass this on to new lawyers.

No. 5:  Karma: Believe it

The transcendent goal of a teacher should be that the pupil exceed her accomplishments. Senior lawyers should invest in newer ones, and newer ones should embrace that investment. Doing so is karmic. A mentee asked me what I wanted in return for mentoring her (and mentoring is really no more than listening, offering options, illuminating the way). My response: that you take time 20 years from now to help someone else who is deserving of a hand. 

A hierarchy-free world?  We can only hope.


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About the Author

Michael Maslanka is a Partner with Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP in Dallas, Texas. He blogs for The Texas Lawyer and can be reached at

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