Legal Law

The truth of a comic book

Do other lawyers read Dilbert?

Browse the site online for some current ones. They are funny and knowledgeable about the whims of corporate business. Did anyone know a Catbert, the evil HR manager? What about the pointy boss? Have you ever known someone like that? What about Wally carrying a cup of coffee and avoiding work? Did you know him? I knew them all.

Whether you’re a Dilbert fan or not (and you should be), Scott Adams, who writes Dilbert and worked at PacBell years ago, has to overhear every single conversation and act in the corporate world. His stripes hit near home.

I think we practice law in a Dilbert world. Whether you’re in Biglaw, in the house, or in any size company, Dilbert characters abound and not in a good way. Dilbert comics are mini textbooks on how not to treat people at work. A recent strip about the lack of positive reinforcement (self-promotion versus leadership) sparked this abuse.

When I was in-house, I was always amazed at the total lack of management training the client gave to employees when they were “promoted,” and I use that word as an art term. Far too often, the “promoted” employee was rewarded with more work, managerial responsibility and a pay rise that was so small that after taxes and other withdrawals, bupkis remained that the employee could celebrate beyond a trip to a fast food restaurant (Dutch enjoyment Naturally).

The problem was that the new “manager” didn’t know how to manage her employees in any way, shape, or form, and lack of management knowledge usually led to Catbert’s involvement, a threatening sign.

For those attorneys who believe Shangri-La is an internal position, I’m going to share a not-so-secret secret: Internal jobs are not what you think they are. Yes, some corporate law departments don’t need timesheets (hooray for them) and that’s definitely a plus.

There is little upward mobility, however, and colleagues with such aspirations bump into a ceiling made of concrete instead of glass and compete with others in the department with a similar mindset. Occasionally an in-house breaks through, but it doesn’t happen that often as the in-house advertising isn’t often. (The CEO knows someone who knows someone who is just perfect for the position which consists of herding cats and doing routine daily legal work and shoveling trash leftover from bad decisions.)

A big, ugly job for managers is writing and giving performance reviews. Whether you’re the reviewer or the reviewer, it’s no fun. The employee believes that they are fine, that they are doing their job well, that they are either making money for the company, or have saved money for the company, or both, and that they are performing well. Catbert, the evil HR director, accompanies the manager to the evaluation meeting (for confirmation purposes, among other things), and the two of them wait to pounce on the unsuspecting employee who expects an above-average evaluation, a reasonable raise, and a good bonus.

On the contrary, the employee receives a written performance evaluation once in the meeting, which is not only not outstanding, but only meets expectations, also known as “meh”. Talk about an interruption.

The “meh” rating can take several forms:

The supervisor is new and has just settled in her new position. She doesn’t know enough about what the employee did over the past year. Did she talk to one of the customers about how the employee is doing? Has she done anything to find out about work products and other things she might be asking? Of course not. The employee does his job and of course fulfills the expectations, because if he wasn’t, he would be rated lower. Stack ranking someone? Evaluation on the curve? Rank and jerk? Whose Expectations? The manager? The Head of Department? Have expectations ever been put in writing? What expectations must be met to get a rating that exceeds expectations? Or a review on “Walks on the Water”? Employees want to know how to be successful.

The problem of “sandbagging” – not the way of preventing flooding – is the one that is the source of the most complaints of employee injustice at review time. The complaint is that no one ever told the employee that the work was not what the manager wanted and that those expectations were not communicated. This representation should be a “sitdown” between manager and employee and not just an exchange of e-mails. This is especially true if there is a new manager and the employee has previously received ratings for “walks on the water” or “almost on the water” and is now receiving a rating for “meh” for the first time. Lawyers are not used to being told that their work is less than outstanding. Our ego squeezes easily.

The manager’s job is to keep employees informed of how they are continuously, and not just at the scheduled review time, when there are salary increases and possibly bonuses. So, if you are looking for attorneys who want to reach executive positions wherever they are or wherever they want, regardless of their attitude, you need to understand that your responsibility is not just making sure that the job is to care for and feed the clients is done. It is also the care and nutrition of the legal staff, paralegal assistants, paralegals, and everyone else that gets the legal world moving. Read Dilbert for management advice on what not to do and how not to behave. Knowledge can come from the most unlikely sources.

Jill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers working as a lawyer in a friendlier time. She had a varied legal career, including as a deputy public prosecutor, as a solo practice and as leading in-house gigs. She now teaches all day what gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and the people in between – it’s not always bourgeois. You can reach them by email at [email protected].

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