Do you need to tame a Gerald or Geraldine?

Posted by Sarah Keegan, director of Legal Futures Associate The CS Partnership

I have been in practice/a legal engineer for so long that I can’t even type the number of years, because the keyboard starts laughing. But in all that time, I have never worked in or with a law firm that does not have a Gerald or Geraldine.

Geralds or Geraldines are usually strong, independent personalities, and can certainly hold their own in a discussion, making them difficult to liaise with on subjects they disagree with you about.

They are financially successful billers, or in charge of teams/departments with decent billing (which is a subject of a future blog), and they refuse to change the way that they conduct their legal files. They can be any age and are frequently charming.

We call them Geralds or Geraldines because we are fond of the name and we have never worked with a Gerald or Geraldine – so we know we are not inadvertently offending anyone.

The name reminds us of the classic Not The Nine O’Clock News sketch about Gerald the Gorilla: “When I caught Gerald, he was completely wild” – “Wild? I was absolutely livid!” That still makes us laugh every time we hear it but leaving a Gerald’s behaviour unaddressed causes huge problems and is certainly not funny.

Firms spend thousands of pounds purchasing and implementing software and many hours working on their processes to make sure that they are correct for their teams. Of course, good technology and good processes make teams more productive and increase profit. They also improve communications both internally and externally, allow for greater visibility over all transactions, and a greater ability to report easily.

With those benefits alone, why do firms stop short of insisting that all members of their teams adopt the new software and processes? We have seen many Geralds/Geraldines get away with doing things exactly as they have always done, despite the hard work the firm has put into changing their working methods.

Just because you install a new system does not mean it will begin to work perfectly; it is your people who will make it a success.

What is even worse is allowing Gerald/Geraldine to carry on as before when it comes to adopting the firm’s anti-money laundering, compliance and risk procedures (or actually, any of the firm’s policies).

What does a firm say to their regulators when/if they are inspected about why Gerald/Geraldine does whatever they like on their transactions? What will a firm say if, due to outdated legal practices or non-adoption of new regulations, it has to report an issue to its professional indemnity insurers – or worse, the National Crime Agency and the regulators?

How do firms deal with behaviours in the team members supporting Gerald/Geraldine, who (in our experience) mimic the bad behaviour?

When we raise these questions, here are some of the responses we have heard:

  • Gerald/Geraldine is retiring soon, and we will implement new behaviours when they do.
  • They raise a lot of bills, so nobody wants to upset the applecart.
  • They are self-sufficient in how they work, so it is peaceful to leave them as they are.
  • They practise a different area of law from the rest of the partners, who don’t have the subject knowledge to argue with them about why their behaviours are dangerous.
  • It is their firm.

We understand how difficult it is to address these issues internally, we really do. We appreciate the respect that partners/directors often have for their fellow practitioners, and their genuine dislike of having miserable conversations.

But the behaviour of these strong individuals in refusing to adopt new behaviours is one of the problems that should be keeping partners awake. The pandemic forcing us to work alone and from home exaggerates the issue of bad behaviour more than ever before. Out of sight, out of mind, as the old saying goes.

It is time to decide that you are collectively going to address any internal problems, for the sake of the rest of the firm, and for the sake of all Geralds/Geraldines. I cannot believe that any of them would ever want to cause harm to their firms – I believe that they just didn’t keep up with the changes in the world.

The pandemic actually offers firms the best excuse to start these difficult conversations – since the world is changing, it is time to look at what needs to be done differently. It’s time.

We help law firms who struggle or face internal hurdles to overcome changes. We want to help your law firm overcome your change challenges and rid the world of Geralds /Geraldines.

Please note: no Geralds or Geraldines were harmed in the creation of this article.


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