I lived 30 Years at Downton Abbey (aka I was a Law Firm CIO)

Highclere CastleI’m excited that the new season of Downton Abbey is just around the corner! About a year ago, I started watching it in a few marathon sessions. As I was watching, I kept asking myself why I was so caught up in this show. Why was a technology loving gadget girl identifying with people from the early 20th Century? After all, I am certainly not royalty. I don’t live on an estate like Downton Abbey. I don’t even have a cool English accent.

About half way through, it came to me. There was a scene where Mrs. Hughes, head housekeeper, disciplined one of her staff because they had spoken impertinently to someone in the family. I realized at that moment that I had spent thirty years as Mrs. Hughes! Yup, I was in a management level “non-attorney” position in a large law firm.

Just like Downton Abbey, there were the elite characters upstairs (attorneys) and the perceived not so elite characters downstairs (“non-attorneys”). They were literally downstairs, just like the Downton Abbey staff. The attorneys were in the penthouse floors while the staff were on the bottom floors.

The Downton effect is much greater than just physical space. Law firms go to great lengths to institutionalize the caste system of the upstairs folks and the downstairs folks. There are a myriad of both formal and informal rules of conduct to reinforce the idea that the staff are mere commoners. The form varies a bit from firm to firm. As examples, some have separate eating areas, separate holiday parties, and even different HR handbooks.

It’s important to note that this wasn’t just one firm. I have worked at several firms and they all had similar upstairs/downstairs cultures. It’s openly discussed among the staffers of all the firms. I know this because, just like Downton, the staff from the various houses (firms) share their stories. I still remember the ILTA skits that were funny because they played up the dichotomy that we all recognized.

While there are a few attorneys who don’t buy into this and (GASP!) even befriend some of the “non-attorneys”, they are few and far between. The “non-attorneys” treasure such attorneys. Sadly, those few can’t negate the overall culture.

A significant expectation in my manager role was to ensure that those who reported to me understood their place in our hierarchy. Attorneys were to be treated specially. They didn’t have to follow the same rules. Staff had to be very deferential to the JD holders. On the other hand, some attorneys would yell at staff and launch personal attacks at a moment’s notice and often over things the staff did not control. I knew of an attorney who even threw something at a secretary. Mind you, there were no repercussions for the attorney outbursts while the “non-attorneys” would be ushered out the door for the same or lesser transgressions.

The inequity required me to warn newcomers to the legal environment they should expect it to take as long as a year to learn all the nuances of the legal culture – and to step very carefully in the meantime. Most importantly, check your ego at the door. Non-attorneys were not allowed to have an ego. If someone on my team happened to forget, consequences could be significant.

In fact, that culture is still so much ingrained in my personality, that I hesitated for months to publish these thoughts! After all, it might make the attorneys unhappy. I still feel this way even though I don’t work in the legal field anymore. Old habits die hard. I have no doubt that some of my old “non-attorney” colleagues are afraid to be caught reading this article!

Most recently, a group of attorneys reached a new level of caste making. The Texas Bar Association (see here) is going out of its way to further ensure “non-lawyers” know their place. Downton Abbey strikes again! This issue (and my excitement over the upcoming season of Downton Abbey) finally gave me the guts to speak up. I’m hopeful my perspective will shine light on the problem and perhaps help those still toiling away downstairs. Or, maybe they can at least find consolation watching Downton Abbey.

Interestingly, just like Downton Abbey, the reality is that most firms of any size would suffer significantly without the downstairs help. Without the maids, cooks, butlers, gardeners, etc., Downton would fall apart. Do we really think Lady Grantham could whip up a fitting meal for Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of York? Without the help of the accountants, secretaries, mailroom, librarians, records team, marketing team, IT team, paralegals, etc., the lawyers would be challenged to get their work done well, if at all. I’d go so far as to say that a smart client would evaluate the strength of the “non-attorneys” of a law firm as a part of their decision on hiring an attorney. No matter their titles, they play a key part in delivering cost effective services.

So what’s next? As I mentioned, the new season of Downton Abbey is coming up. One plot line is whether Lord Grantham will adapt to changes in the world that are making his traditional role a thing of the past. We’ve already seen Sybil, third daughter of Lord Grantham, boldly defy expectations and marry the chauffeur. Fortunately, Downton Abbey did not fall. Instead, husband Tom is instrumental in helping Lord Grantham try to transition to a modern world. It seems Tom’s expertise is more valuable than having a pedigree.

Which brings us back to law firms and “non-attorneys.” Will the Texas Bar start living in the current century and accept that a “non-lawyer” can actually be a valued and recognized part of delivering legal services? Will law firms understand that they will make their firms stronger by recognizing and respecting the talents and skills of all of the people they hire? It will be interesting to see. Bring on the popcorn!

p.s. You may be wondering why I put “non-attorneys” in quotes. I did so because the term annoys me and demeans the hard working downstairs team. Unfortunately, it’s a common term in law firms. To put every person without a JD into one lump further illustrates the disrespect of the talents and skills they bring to the table. They might as well use the term “the others.” I use it in this context only to drive home my point. My apologies to the English teachers and other grammar lovers out there. I’m sure the quotes were akin to fingernails on a chalkboard.

Picture: By JB + UK_Planet (originally posted to Flickr as Highclere Castle 1) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

(Originally posted on LinkedIn.)

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