Three Takeaways from 'The No Asshole Rule' by Robert Sutton

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In 2007, Robert Sutton, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, wrote a book about organizational culture called The No Asshole Rule. The provocatively titled New York Times bestseller began as a Harvard Business Review item published in February 2004. Sutton had thought HBR would be “too respectable, too distinguished, and quite frankly, too uptight to print that mild obscenity in their pages.” In fact, they used the term eight times. Reader response was so great, and the problem so pervasive and damaging, that Sutton developed the idea into a full-length book. He asks why we put up with inexcusable behavior in the workplace and recommends that we shouldn’t.

I’ve put off writing this article for the same reasons Sutton did, mainly because of the objectionable word for which there is no adequate substitute. Ultimately there is no better word to describe the kind of person we’re talking about, and the topic comes up so frequently in our consulting work that at last I felt compelled to address it in print.

Following are three takeaways from my own reading of the book, combined with our experience consulting to hundreds of small and large law firms in the US and Canada.

1. Not every firm has one.

Some firms will try to excuse the lack of pressure being applied to the difficult partner by rationalizing that every firm has at least one asshole. That’s just not true. We have worked with many firms that strictly adhere to a no asshole policy. At least one firm explicitly refers to the rule in its partnership agreement.

Many firms have boasted to us about their “no jerks” policy. Some go to great lengths to maintain and preserve it through disciplined hiring policies, regular 360-degree reviews, rigorous accountability and financial penalties in the form of compensation adjustments. Many have been completely successful in maintaining the kind of culture they want by keeping troublemakers out and getting rid of problem people when necessary. 

We’ve seen firms remove an offending partner from their ranks, actually watched it happen. My partner Tom Clay was discussing firm culture at a partnership retreat when a partner at the firm abruptly called for a vote to expel their asshole. The vote to remove him was unanimous. According to the firm’s managing partner, some of his partners were in tears because they were so relieved to be rid of the guy.

I facilitated a retreat where, after a morning spent discussing reasonable expectations that the partners ought to have of one another, the rest of the partnership voted the asshole out during the lunch break.

In our experience, like the author’s, every firm that has expelled its problem partner ended up wishing they had done it sooner.

2. TCA is a thing.

Usually problem partners are allowed to continue their misdeeds because they generate substantial revenue for the firm and keep people busy. Clients may be seeing them on their best behavior or may choose to overlook the lawyers’ personal shortcomings in favor of desirable outcomes.

However, it’s fair to take into account the many costs associated with putting up with a chronically difficult person. Add them up and you get a “Total Cost of Asshole,” or TCA. Some of the costs might include the following:

  • Time spent by the Executive Committee on problems caused by the asshole (number of hours x cost per hour or value of time spent)
  • Time spent by practice leader or influential partner
  • Time spent by compensation committee
  • Time spent by HR professionals
  • Time spent by victims and bystanders complaining and commiserating
  • Cost of recruiting and training a new legal assistant to replace the one who left in tears
  • Cost of recruiting and developing a new associate to replace the one who refused an exit interview and went in-house
  • Overtime costs associated with the asshole’s last-minute demands
  • Cost of lost business
  • Cost of absenteeism among affected personnel
  • Cost of harassment defense or settlements with people who quit
  • Money invested in a coach or counselor to try to fix the behaviors
  • Cost of reputational damage as the firm’s brand becomes associated with its biggest jerk

Again, those are just some of the costs, and you’ll tend to underestimate the total organizational cost because not all of the impacts are visible.

It’s not unusual for a raging asshole to have driven a dozen people or more from the firm – associates, paralegals, staff, administrators, even other partners. They are known for demanding the firing of anyone who crosses them or making those people miserable if they stay. This kind of behavior becomes known in the community. Firms with a notoriously difficult partner will often have trouble recruiting in that office or practice group.

Asshole-laden firms are disadvantaged in the merger market. We’ve spoken with firm after firm that told us they’d “never combine with a firm that employs an asshole like that.”

Of course, TCA is not a pure mathematical formula and cannot be quantified with precision, but a rough TCA calculation will help answer the common question of what to do when the asshole is one of your biggest revenue generators. By estimating the dollar costs of employing the person, then factoring in all the additional time, aggravation and collateral damage the person is causing you and others, you’ll be in a better position to decide whether it’s worth it.

3. An asshole-free culture can be a differentiator.

Organizations that are diligent about not tolerating unacceptable behavior are better places to work. Recruiting is easier, retention is better, friction is lower, morale is higher and the glue in such firms is more than just money.

In our client survey and client interview work, some clients tell us that they prefer using a certain law firm because its people are a pleasure to work with. This “ease of use” factor can serve to improve client loyalty, collaboration, margins and referrals.

Conclusion

When discussing standards and expectations of law firm partners, we’ve told firms that they have to decide which word to use – are their standards best described as hard rules or merely guidelines, ideals or platitudes? We tell them that if there aren’t consequences for violating the standards, and if they won’t apply the consequences to their highest earners, then they don’t really have standards.

It’s your firm and you get to choose the culture you want. Some firms realize that certain high performers will have their issues and decide they can live with the fallout. Other firms will decide that’s not the kind of workplace they want. It’s up to you. Either way, we recommend a conversation that acknowledges the problem, quantifies it if helpful, and generates a consensus, rather than allowing bad behavior and ambiguity to fester.

 


 
Eric A. Seeger is a principal with Altman Weil, Inc. He works with law firms on strategy and management projects.  Contact him at 610-886-2000 or eseeger@altmanweil.com.

 

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