July/August 2019

Taking the Lead

Getting a Handle on Rule Beating

Linda Klein and John Hinton IV

Last year our home state of Georgia passed a new law prohibiting people from using their cellphones while driving unless they are using a hands-free method. We have yet to meet a person who does not support the law. People understand the safety risks associated with distracted driving and welcome the prospect of having fewer distracted drivers on the road. (“Fewer” because the law does not prohibit eating or applying makeup while driving.) That being said, most Georgia drivers would, if they were being honest, admit that they can think of circumstances when they believe that it would be okay for them to ignore the law. And so they skirt the law. On occasion. In secret.

Humans understand the need for rules, particularly when they’re applied to others. However, we don’t love rules as much when they’re applied to us. This disconnect gives rise to the concept of rule beating, which is the tendency of people to fulfill the letter of a rule but not its intent. Rule beating is pervasive. And it starts early in life. A mom tells her son to make up his bed each morning. The son, not wanting to suffer the consequences of disobedience, decides to obey his mom. Some days he pulls his comforter over his bed while leaving everything underneath in disarray. Other days he somewhat straightens the comforter and sheets but leaves his pillows on the floor. Every so often he pulls the sheets over the bed but does not remove the open bag of crackers that he had in his bed from the night before. Does this boy follow his mom’s rule? The son will tell his mother that he made his bed. His mother will have a different opinion. The boy may have followed the letter of the rule, but he clearly did not follow its spirit. The purposes for making the bed were not achieved. The boy was beating the rule.

Rule beating does not end with making up your bed. Employees meet deliverable deadlines knowing that what they delivered will need additional work. Departments needlessly spend money at the end of a fiscal year to avoid having their budget cut the following year. Rule beating gives the false impression that people are following the rules. It distorts information that you are receiving, leads to waste and inefficiency and may even give rise to counterproductive behavior.

Beating Law Firm Rules

Rule beating occurs in law firms as well. For example, your firm likely has a deadline for recording billable time. There is likely also a penalty for not meeting the deadline, such as a fine. (At our predecessor law firm, no partners got paid until all timekeepers entered their time.) After your firm’s rule was implemented, you probably saw behaviors change, particularly once lawyers learned that the fines would be enforced. However, what percentage of those timely entries are precise entries?

We all should know that it’s easier to create accurate and properly descriptive time entries at or around the time that we perform the work. However, how often do lawyers do enough with their time entries to meet the deadline only to have to clean up their entries at a later date when their memories are not as fresh? The time entries may meet the deadline and the rule followed, but one of the major purposes for the rule—accurate and descriptive time entries—is not being achieved.

Aligning Firm Goals and Rules

For now, we assume that your underlying goals are beneficial to the firm. However, your rules may not facilitate your goals and may actually be counterproductive, leading to people finding ways to beat your rules. Sometimes that disconnect does not become apparent until after the rule is implemented. That was arguably the case with Prohibition. It did not cause many people to refrain from drinking. When a disconnect between the rule and the result occurs, good leadership admits the mistake and corrects course. Those who you are leading will appreciate your candor, and your action can turn a negative situation into one that strengthens relationships and office culture.

Other times the rule is aligned with the goal, but your colleagues may not fully understand the rule’s importance. Your colleagues may be more concerned with avoiding the penalty for violating the rule than they are about achieving the rule’s underlying goal. Communication is key to everyone appreciating a rule’s importance. Don’t assume that after you have explained its importance, everyone will remember your explanation or that your explanation was clear.

Take some time to take an inventory of the rules and procedures in your firm by asking the following questions.

  • Where is rule beating occurring in your firm, and how is it adversely affecting your plans and goals?
  • What rules and policies need to be tweaked, substantially revised or eliminated altogether?
  • What education and cultural changes are needed to ensure understanding of what is needed and the importance of committing to following the rules as intended?

Answering these simple questions may lead to changes that both improve your firm’s culture and its bottom line. 

Linda Klein

Linda Klein is a past president of the ABA and senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson. She is a frequent speaker on law practice, construction and higher education law. lklein@bakerdonelson.com.

John Hinton IV

John Hinton IV is a shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Atlanta office. His practice focuses on commercial litigation and construction law. jhinton@bakerdonelson.com