Jathan Janove is the Director of Employment Engagement Solutions and Managing Shareholder of the Portland, Oregon office of Ogletree Deakins. When I asked Jathan about accountability among lawyers in law firms, he mentioned the “Quiet Herd Cutter” problem. Intrigued, I asked him about it. Although the context is a law firm, there is little doubt that you will relate to his description of The “Quiet Herd Cutter.”

Wildebeest jumping in the Mara river while crossing the river.LINDA GALINDO:  What do you mean by “Quiet Herd Cutter”?

JATHAN JANOVE:  It’s a form of negative performance feedback.  Senior attorney gives junior attorney an assignment and doesn’t like the result.  Rather than inform the junior attorney, point out the deficiencies, and explain what needs to change, the senior attorney simply doesn’t use that attorney again.

It’s like a herd of wildebeests moving across the African savannah.  The perceived weak ones quietly get shunted to the side and left to their fate with the jackals and hyenas.

LG:  What are the consequences of Quiet Herd Cutter management?

JJ:  First, there’s a good chance the senior attorney has made an erroneous snap judgment that the junior attorney can’t cut it and thus will miss out on what would have been a long-term beneficial relationship.  In this blog post, I share a personal story where a senior attorney cut me from the herd; yet by a subsequent fluke, I got a second chance, which led to my becoming his No. 1 “go to” attorney.  Instead, the senior partner should think, “This lawyer graduated law school, passed the bar, and was hired by a committee of my partners.  So what’s a more likely explanation for my disappointment – a failure to communicate, one of us having a bad day, or the junior lawyer lacking what it takes?”

Second, it’s cruel.  The junior attorney may have a sense that things didn’t go right, but doesn’t know exactly what, much less how to fix the problem.  As a result, his or her confidence erodes, which leads to similar herd-cutting with other senior attorneys.  The pain increases as the junior attorney can’t get enough work to stay busy and can’t make his or her required hours.  Instead, the attorney worries, speculates and feels victimized.

Third, it’s highly inefficient.  If the junior attorney is truly unable to meet expectations, it’s in everyone’s best interests to find out sooner versus later and transition him or her from the firm.  This minimizes three costs: (1) emotional cost to both the junior attorney and others in continuing a relationship doomed for failure; (2) out-of-pocket cost in salary, benefits and overhead spent on someone who isn’t producing value; and (3) opportunity cost in being prevented from hiring a replacement who would add value.

Fourth, if the senior attorney is an equity stakeholder in the firm, it shirks that senior lawyer’s responsibility to conserve and increase the firm’s intellectual capital.

LG:  Is the Quiet Herd Cutter prevalent and, if so, why?

JJ:  It’s very prevalent.  Since I began speaking and giving presentations about this phenomenon, I’ve had numerous senior attorneys say, “Jathan, I thought you were talking about me!”

As for why, I think it is a combination of two things.  The first is the reluctance people have to confront an employee directly on a performance issue.  You might think that given the amount of conflict they deal with in their professional practices, attorneys are different.  However, when it comes to internal problems, they’re as conflict-adverse as anyone else.

The second is time pressure.  Senior attorneys are under daily pressure to meet their client needs, hit their numerical targets, and grow their book of business.  These pressures leave little time or inclination to invest in junior attorneys who need mentoring.  It seems much easier to move on to someone else.

LG:  What do you recommend to eliminate the Quiet Herd Cutter problem?

JJ:  I encourage attorneys to “DIS” employees, meaning provide feedback that is direct (normally face-to-face), immediate (address the issue at the earliest possible opportunity), and specific (eschew labels and focus specifically on what happened, the results, why they matter, and what needs to be done to fix the problem and prevent its recurrence).

In addition, I recommend that senior attorneys make a modest upfront investment with what I call a “Star Profile” from my book The Star Profile – A Management Tool To Unleash Employee Potential.  A Star Profile captures the core behavioral characteristics that distinguish a successful working relationship from an unsuccessful one.  For example, I have shared this profile with junior attorneys: A star

  • Produces first-rate work;
  • Responds promptly and reliably to client and senior attorney needs; and
  • Treats everyone with courtesy, respect and professionalism at all times.

Accompanying the profile is a brief discussion of what each bullet point means, including examples of first-rate work, true responsiveness, and courtesy toward “everyone” “at all times.”

LG:  Those sound like great steps, but how do you persuade senior attorneys to adopt them?

JJ:  By first getting them to recognize the limitations of the Quiet Herd Cutter approach – the amount of time and energy they expend in having to fix problems, their own frustration with not having their needs or expectations met, their challenges in finding the right attorney who has availability, and their understanding of the costs I described earlier.  I encourage them to consider these steps a modest upfront investment with a high likelihood of a positive return.

Jathan Janove is Director of Employee Engagement Solutions at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.  He blogs on workplace leadership and employee engagement here, and can be reached at[email protected].

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4 Comments

  1. I love the DIS approach and think that it would be helpful in all situations to handle things in the moment, with skill and to minimize the snap judgments. Thanks – very insightful.

  2. This can also happen to paralegals or staff. As a senior administrator at a larger firm I stuck my nose into 3 such situations, a paralegal, an administrative colleague, and a young lawyer, alerting them that they were heading for trouble and needed to be proactive. Advised them to go to lawyers who were no longer giving them assignments and find out why and offered to help them in any way I could. Yes, that is being a butinsky and if they said “mind your own business” I would have backed off. But they didn’t. I felt I would be letting my colleagues and firm down if I didn’t get involved.

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