Taking Ownership Starts At The Top


AuthorityEd. note: Please welcome D.W. Randolph, author of Biglaw Confidential (affiliate link), to our pages. They will be writing about Biglaw firms and life, all from a partner’s perspective.

Attorneys in Biglaw firms love to use phrases like “taking ownership.”  Taking ownership is generally understood to mean taking responsibility for an idea or problem.  In my extensive experience working in Biglaw firms, including as a partner and practice leader at an Am Law 100 law firm, “taking ownership” in the Biglaw context means that: you understand how a document or piece of a project fits into the bigger picture, and that once you’re involved, you do your best to understand that document or piece as well as the bigger picture, progress the work and see it through to successful completion (even if a colleague fails to do their part), and accept whatever consequences follow.

Recently, one Am Law top-20 law firm received some negative publicity for a senior associate’s presentation to junior associates on job performance expectations.  A copy of the presentation’s slide entitled “Non-Negotiable Expectations” went viral.  The list of expectations included, among others: “You are ‘online’ 24/7.  No exceptions, no excuses.”; “Timelines/Quality: clients expect everything to be done perfectly and delivered yesterday.”; and “Take ownership of everything you do.  Once you touch a documentation/work stream, you own every mistake in it–fair or not.”  After the presentation went viral, the firm officially disavowed it, stating that it didn’t express the views of the firm or its partners.

Numerous current and former Biglaw attorneys have contacted me to say things like “Wow, have you seen the slide?  It’s really something!” And numerous attorneys outside of Biglaw have reached out to ask me, “Is Biglaw really like that?”  Yes and yes.  The majority of attorneys that I know who have worked at Am Law 100 Biglaw firms (including me) would confirm that the job performance expectations listed on that slide are pretty accurate and applicable to the majority of Biglaw practices, offices, and firms.  At some firms the expectations may be conveyed with a slightly softer tone, or the clients and/or partners that you work with may be more willing to grant exceptions and flexibility here and there, but by and large, the slide accurately depicts job performance expectations in many Biglaw practices, offices, and firms.

I’ve read a few recent articles on the incident, from articles blaming the senior associate for “lacking proper tone,” to articles saying that the list “really shouldn’t surprise anyone.”  I haven’t read any articles yet that criticize the partners or leaders of that firm for their roles with the incident.

This incident reflects a failure of leadership at one or more levels in that law firm.  Firm leadership should “take ownership,” rather than disavowing the presentation and blaming the senior associate for it.  As Jocko Willink, the famous leader of NAVY SEAL Team 3, and the author of an entire book on taking ownership has stated, “leaders must own everything in their world.  There is no one else to blame.”  The fact is that this presentation reflected the performance expectations as that senior associate understood them, for at least their practice group and office (and likely, the firm).  So it seems likely that either:

(a) the firm’s job performance expectations are materially different from those stated in the presentation, and the partners and leaders in that senior associate’s practice group, office, and/or the firm failed to correctly communicate the performance expectations to the senior associate (perhaps for years), or at a minimum, failed to review the training presentation for accuracy (or tone) before it was shared with junior associates; or

(b) the firm’s job performance expectations are accurately reflected in the presentation, but that the firm is disavowing it, perhaps because it presents an inconvenient and unattractive truth — truth that would make it more difficult to recruit talented law students and lateral attorneys to join the firm if they knew that’s what the firm expects from its attorneys and what the reality of their work lives would be like there.

In either case, at least some of the firm’s partners and leaders are failing to “take ownership, and have failed as leaders in at least some respect.  It’s ironic that the firm’s partners and leaders have apparently relayed the importance of taking ownership to the senior associate (who made the presentation advising junior associates to take ownership of their work), while simultaneously failing to take ownership, themselves.

Good leaders don’t “pass the buck” in order to make a buck.  And great leaders give their team the credit when things go well, and take ownership when they don’t.

D.W. Randolph is a pseudonym for an attorney who is or was a partner, “rainmaker,” and practice leader at an Am Law 100 firm, who has practiced law at multiple Am Law / Vault top law firms in New York City and another large U.S. city, over the span of many years, and the author of the acclaimed “tell-all” book and resource guide to all things Biglaw, entitled Biglaw Confidential (affiliate link). D.W. has served in firmwide and office-level leadership positions within their Biglaw firms and led or been involved in nearly all aspects of Biglaw firm operations, from summer associate and attorney hiring, compensation, performance evaluation and promotion, to firm governance and initiatives focused on diversity and inclusion, and more.  D.W. graduated with honors from a law school that has historically been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top 10 law schools in the U.S. and has taught at a law school that has historically been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top 14 law schools in the U.S.


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