Russell Long (1918—2003) was a US Senator from Louisiana for nearly 40 years (1948—1987) and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee for nearly half that period. As such, he was an expert on the US tax code and, legend has it, observed that the realities of politics meant any effort to enact “tax reform” could be summarized as, “Don’t tax thee, don’t tax me, tax that guy behind the tree.”

This brings us to the issue of accountability in law firms.

Lawyers seem to love accountability in theory—the plaintiffs’ bar would cease to exist without the principle—but hate it in practice, certainly when applied to them. There are many reasons for this peculiar to lawyers, above and beyond the intrinsic human aversion to being called to account on general principles, but two of the most salient seem to me to be:

  • Lawyers’ all-consuming desire to be their own autonomous beings, masters of all they survey, including their matters, practices, their clients, and their role within the firm; and
  • Our profoundly disagreeable, but uncanny, knack for hair-splitting distinctions which, when invoked in self-defense, attempt to deflect blame aimed at us on the flimsiest of pretexts.

If you believe that all’s right with the world under this state of affairs, you may stop reading now. But if you work in a firm of any size whatsoever—I’m tempted to say anything larger than a solo practice without an associate or paralegal—this is not the optimal way to behave.

Before going any further, let me stipulate that I’m talking about accountability for the business and economic performance of the firm: Not about trial strategy, deal structure, or creative exercises in interpreting the Internal Revenue Code. As one of our favorite managing partners says, “You’re entitled to your own witness list and theory of damages; you are not entitled to your own time-keeping or client billing habits.”

Now, I read a lot of management literature, and the frequency of strong articles on accountability appearing can be measured on a quarterly or semiannual basis, but I have a nominee: A “ten best of the year” column from PwC Strategy& Inc.’s strategy + business,The Accountability Equation.”

It begins with an all too familiar scenario: Something has gone systemically wrong in a high-visibility context, public or private, and the question is who’s to blame? The person at the top? The person who did, or omitted to do, the act at issue? Someone who made a flawed risk/reward calculation? The “system?” And almost invariably, of course, the CEO or other top dog is brought into it: The CEO must[/should] have known! The CEO couldn’t possibly have known! Regardless, the CEO can set things straight!

Then we can descend into second-order issues: Were red flags ignored? (By whom?) If there was a bad actor, who we can identify with hindsight, why couldn’t they have been identified with foresight? Was the bad guy ID’d ahead of time and warned without effect? Not warned? (Which is worse?) Did “the system” invite people to behave badly? Who designed the system that way? And on and on…

At that point, of course, the only reality that matters is that it’s too late. The purpose of “accountability” in a living, breathing organization should be to help you avoid this tar pit to begin with.

Coincidentally or otherwise, the article starts by referencing the now 15-year-old Trusted Advisor, by David Maister, Charles Green, and Robert Galford, which lays out a framework of: [Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy (the ability to build open, positive relationships)] ÷ Self-Orientation = Trustworthiness.

As an arithmetic tautology, high scores on the three elements in the numerator and a low score on the element in the denominator will yield a high trustworthiness quotient (and vice versa—it is a tautology, after all).

Our author updates this equation to produce his own:

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