The Best Things in Life are Free… but Not if You are Detained

Burns’ theory of leadership describes the difference between leaders and people who simply have power. When one exercises power over someone, they have the ability to reward and punish them. This is more along the lines of transactional leadership, in which an exchange occurs between the person in power and the follower. In contrast, a leader understands the motivations of their followers and tries to elevate them. This is interaction is morality-based and is known as transformational leadership.

I had the expectation that the environment at Jezic & Moyse, a law firm, would be morality-based, and that interactions between attorneys and employees would fit with the definition of transformational leadership more so than transactional leadership. After all, I am working in immigration law, and the majority of the cases are asylum applicants who are facing and fearing deportation.

My expectations, overall, were not met. It would be unfair to say that the people at the law firm don’t care for the wellbeing of their clients, because that is certainly not true. And it would also be unfair to say that my boss and the other attorneys are simply power-wielders ordering around their employees without a care for their motivations, because that is also untrue. However, the incentive structure is much less morality-based than I had anticipated.

The attorneys, by and large, and paid by the hour. This is not true in every situation—for example, the initial consult that an attorney has with a potential client to discuss their case and their path going forward, is a flat fee. But once they have been retained, the attorneys get an hourly rate for the work they put in to each case.

I was able to sit in on a phone call between a potential future client and my boss one day. The woman on the phone spoke about her non-U.S. citizen husband, who was currently sitting in an ICE facility (essentially, jail). She didn’t know when he was going to be released, and what his chances were to remain in the United States with his family. One of the first things my boss told her was the rate charged by the law firm to work on this case. This was before he talked her through the immigration court process or told her what her husband’s chances were to stay in the country. It was jarring, frankly, to be asking about the fee in light of the situation, especially given that the woman clearly couldn’t afford it.

Burns relates the leadership theory to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: a person in power may fulfill basic needs, but a transactional leader reaches for the top needs of their followers. In this case, I believe the immigration section of the law firm operates on a lower level of the hierarchy of needs than I had expected. A want of money—an incentive structure based primarily on earning a living—signifies a lower level on Maslow’s hierarchy than I was expecting from an immigration law office. The higher level that I was expecting was for people to be motivated on a morality basis, pushed by the plight of their clients.

Having a primary motivation to earn money is not a bad thing. Especially given that they work at a law firm, which is a for-profit business created to earn money (while, hopefully, helping people). My observations of the incentive structure and the leadership style of the attorneys does not mean I work at a bad, or uncaring place. They still help a lot of immigrants who fear returning to their native countries. I was just surprised to find that their motivation structure was different than I had anticipated.

One thought on “The Best Things in Life are Free… but Not if You are Detained

  • July 11, 2019 at 10:27 am

    I can understand why – particularly when working with a firm that deals with immigration issues – you might expect a more compassionate, morality-based approach. I’m sorry that you’ve discovered this is not the case. I wonder if – perhaps – being more transactional with clients is a strategy employed so that attorneys do not get too wound up with a client, they don’t get too personally invested? So perhaps it is a self-care strategy? I don’t know. For the paper you will write in the fall, you need to do a deep dive into a particular leadership theory. So as you continue, you may want to observe and make note of behaviors that illustrate elements of transactional leadership (if you think that is a possible theory you might explore further in the fall), or consider other theories (and specific examples that illustrate those theories) that you see play out. On another note – in the second to last paragraph (first sentence) you say “but a transactional leader reaches for the top needs of their followers” – do you mean a transformational leader?

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