Dealing with hedgehogs in the legal environment

How to work with legal personnel who do not vary their management or contribution styles

I’ve never had the opportunity to benefit from good management, sales or other corporate training programs.

Fifteen years of law firm life didn’t help; it’s not that hard to manage highly educated and highly intelligent people who have already signed up for a hierarchical culture with high pay. The large companies I worked for had good training programs, but I was too busy working to attend.

And while some of the smaller company programs I’ve participated in have been great, the overall depth and breadth has been weak.

In my current role, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with colleagues who have been through good programs. And one of the things they’ve taught me about is hedgehogs.

These are not Jim Collins’ corporate hedgehogs of “Good to Great” fame (nor is Jim a known relative). As my well-trained colleagues have pointed out, while being a corporate hedgehog is virtuous, having one as a colleague is a pain in the neck.

A hedgehog is a person who knows one thing and sticks to it. The hedgehog can sense that there is activity around him, but does his best to avoid being drawn into action other than the rote activity of his primary domain. When provoked, hedgehogs (of all types) effectively curl up into a little ball of spikes.

However, not all hedgehogs simply trundle from cube to cube. Some of the more problematic ones manifest themselves as cheery and happy meeting attendees. If they arrive with slides, said material usually has been prepared by others (though perhaps without attribution). In the event that new work modes and methods are discussed at the meeting, you will not find hedgehogs taking notes (they often assume the legal department will do that). And when you get into the who, what and when of effecting the grand plans, you’ll find the hedgehogs never end up with any deliverables—at least none that they can’t delegate by the next meeting.

What can you do with a hedgehog? Coming from a law firm culture, my first instinct was to deny they existed. Like black swans, while it was arguably true that someone who was incurious about the world around them could exist (or knew but would not pitch in), I’d never seen one in action in the boardrooms and conference rooms I had been in.

Once I moved in-house, however, at times I’ve felt surrounded by them. So my next instinct was to beat on the hedgehog to get it to unroll from its tiny ball.

I would point out to the hedgehog all the things we could collectively achieve if they could just do a bit more. Alas, as someone once told me in another context: Never attempt to teach a pig to sing; you will most certainly fail, and you will likely also annoy the pig.

What is the moral of this essay?

Don’t be a hedgehog. Legal personnel are often at risk of not varying their management or contribution styles. They tend to be most comfortable in one or more primary domains. It can be easy to curl up into little spiky balls of “No,” “That seems risky,” “We haven’t done it that way before,” etc.

And if you encounter a hedgehog (say the sales department trying to fob off its work on the contracting department), it’s OK to try to get the hedgehog to change its spikes—form a working group, do some training.

But if that doesn’t work, don’t beat the hedgehog. Instead, in a sense, take what the hedgehog is giving you and do that which the hedgehog can’t or won’t. It’s likely the organization as a whole will see that necessary work is getting done, and the personnel requisitions, budget and corporate commendation that would otherwise go to the hedgehog will head your way.

And, in any event, it is the right and professional thing to do. Even if it is a pain in the neck.

Martin Collins

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