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Loyalty to legal profession at odds with loyalty to the company that employs them

An article in the Academy of Mgt. J., Vol. 52, 2009 No. 3 at 506, describes a study of physicians in a large HMO and their so-called reciprocity dynamic in reaction to beneficial or detrimental treatment. The three authors discuss loyalty of a professional – and I read into it in-house lawyers – for the company that employees them compared to the profession that they belong to.

A tension exists. The authors observe that “organizations tend to be concerned with efficiency and profitability, whereas professionals care mainly about providing the highest-quality service (as defined by the professionals), almost regardless of cost or revenue considerations.” They cite for this statement E. Friedson, Professionalism: The third logic (Univ. of Chicago 2001). This is a tension for in-house lawyers also. They want to do their legal work as well as possible, but the company that employs them may well be satisfied with getting by and getting on with business.

More, a lawyer’s connection to the law, to being a lawyer, may over-ride a lawyer’s affiliation with his or her employer, or at least interact with that affiliation. The study of physician employees analyzed how those doctors responded in terms of productivity and adherence to policies when the HMO treated them positively and treated them negatively. The researchers compared those reactions of reciprocity in light of individual measurements on scales of professional identification and company identification.

The study’s conclusion might apply as much to lawyer employees: “When professional employees had high levels of organizational identification and low levels of professional identification, they adhered more strongly to the norm of positive reciprocity and appeared to behave counter to the norm of negative reciprocity.” The opposite finding held true: strong identification to the medical profession and weak identification with the company meant the physicians reacted worse to perceived wrongs by the company and reacted less positively even to favorable actions by the company. I suspect lawyers view themselves as lawyers first and employees second, so they have high levels of professional identification. As such, they may be more cynical about their company’s treatment of them than other employees.

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