Taking Aim At A Shared Goal

  • A law firm which prides itself for its positive culture and support of pro bono work is stung by accusations by some of its associates that it maintains a stress filled, hostile work environment. Anger and resentments emerge over alleged autocratic attitudes and behavior of the firm’s leadership, which is perceived as contributing to burnout and demoralization among legal staff.
  • A medium-sized firm experiences mounting problems regarding staff relationships, both among the lawyers and between the legal and support staff. Charges arise about a lack of cohesion and community within the firm. “We should have pride in our firm and be able to relate well with each other,” says the managing partner. “We shouldn’t be having these kinds of problems.”
  • Another firm is faced with the apparent emotional disturbance of a partner. The firm waivers over how to deal with the partner’s declining performance, absenteeism, and erratic behavior. These problems create stress for other members of the practice group, as well as for support staff. Indecision mounts over what steps to take. One senior partner asks, “How do we balance compassion with the needs of our firm, in situations like these? It feels like our hands are tied.”

Sound familiar? Law firms of all sizes today exist within a workplace and cultural environment which gives rise to problems like these, an increasingly common mixture of personal and organizational conflicts. Knowing what helps — and what doesn’t — is critical to maintaining long-run internal and external success. Yet many law firms remain unaware of the personal, cultural, and economic shifts that have produced a “new generation” of conflicts, and which demand new solutions. Awakening to these shifts is particularly crucial today, when nearly 83% of lawyers report that law practice has changed for the worse, according to a recent survey by The National Law Journal. According to that same survey, nearly 73% of men and 83% of women say that their workload prevents them from spending enough time with family and friends. Such perceptions of negativity and entrapment impact performance and commitment at all levels.

Several circumstances contribute to this new blend of personal and organizational conflicts. First, law firms exist within a world of ever-increasing competition for business. They are increasingly pressured to utilize management and fiscal practices from the corporate world, and be more bottom-line oriented. Such strategies are helpful and necessary, but they also generate new, confusing conflicts for law firms as they struggle to remain true to professional values and maintain a positive, attractive culture. For example, many law firm members report serious conflict trying to serve both professional standards and business realities. They also report conflicts between career demands and personal values or ideals — the well-known “work/life balance” dilemma that major corporations have already been developing programs to deal with. They recognize that failing to do so impacts the bottom line.

But many law firms continue to be fueled by an illusion which impedes successful dealing with these conflicts: Because their members are selected by criteria which reflect high standards of professional practice and compatibility with the firm’s culture, firms often assume they should be immune to staff or management conflicts, conflicts about career values, or emotional disturbance on the job.

They are wrong.

No law firm today is immune to changing forces within the larger society, of which every workplace is a part. They show up in variety of ways, some overt, some hidden. For example:

  • Associates want to be treated equitably and respectfully by their superiors, or they may respond in negative or passively undermining ways. Or they may leave the firm.
  • On the partner level, members of the baby boomer and 60s generation now at midlife want more meaning and purpose, and seek greater integration between their work and nonwork lives. When stymied about how to achieve it, malaise and dysfunction result.
  • Women and minorities of both genders look for equality and respect to be actually practiced in the firm, not just talked about as abstract principles.
  • Men and women at all levels are conflicted about the increasingly workaholic culture. At the same time, they are frightened of jeopardizing their financial and professional future.

All of these are interwoven blends of conflicts. Partly personal issues, ranging from value conflicts to acute disturbance; and partly organizational. That is, they result from an interplay between structural, management, communication, and career issues, on the one hand; and individual psychological and value conflicts, on the other.

Some erupt in the context of change and transition, such as partnership decisions and career redirection. Some are rooted in staff and management behavior affecting roles and position within the firm. Others reflect career and value conflicts which only arise at midcareer, and which affect performance, commitment, and relationships at all levels. Still others may originate in ongoing staff relationship conflicts, or in conflicts about the money-obsession that many partners say has come to rule practice.

When the firm fails to deal with these conflicts, acute and disruptive behavior results. It ranges in severity from malaise; to work-related stress and burnout; to oppositional or passive-aggressive behavior; to career-threatening value and ethical conflicts; to incapacitating anxiety, depression, or other overt psychiatric symptoms; as well as physical illness.

Not a pretty picture.

Unfortunately, law firms have been indifferent to recognizing or dealing with these issues. The hierarchical structure of most firms makes it all the more difficult to admit to their existence. And the culture of law practice has generated a side-effect of bringing out the worst in its people — and they burying the consequences through intimidation, denial, or massive rationalizations. All of this is ironic, because these conflicts, whether they impact the person’s mental health, relationships, creative energy, or attitude, directly affect the internal functioning and economic success of the firm. A classic vicious circle.

So how can law firms deal with this? First, recognize that this new breed of conflicts is increasingly common within all complex, high-pressured corporations and other organizations. Law firms are not alone, but they will remain handicapped when dealing with these problems if they remain blind to the need for cultivating the “human capital” of their legal staff.

That is, building long-term business success for the firm goes hand-in-hand with supporting positive human development. This means constructing management systems, decision systems, and an overall firm culture which embodies fairness, respect, teamwork, a positive sense of community, and a shared sense of purpose. — a tall order for many law firms. In corporations, this is known as “walking the talk.” But as managing partner of a large law firm once said, “The problem for many firms is that we don’t even have a ‘talk’ to ‘walk’!”

Law firms, then, are faced with identifying and then cultivating specific, concrete practices which help alleviate these problems at their source: the vise-like business and career pressures and conflicts; the fragmentation of work relationships; and the autocratic decision-making which remains all too common. Failing to do so only fertilizes the soil for increased emotional and organizational conflict. In contrast, actions that support enhanced collegiality, cohesion, attractiveness, and continued economic success requires knowing, first, where the dead-ends lie.

What Doesn’t Help

One action guaranteed to fail is calling in a traditional organizational consultant, or simply referring a troubled person to a mental health practitioner (most lawyers will not consult the firm’s EAP program). Such actions fail for two reasons. First, a partial solution is always ineffective because it is incomplete. What it leaves unaddressed can actually compound the problem. Secondly, most organizational consultants and mental health practitioners alike lack the expertise and experience for simultaneous dealing with interwoven organizational and individual conflicts. Most have one expertise and set of perspectives, but lack the other. Moreover, some are naive and uninformed about the realities of law practice and the business world in general. And unfortunately, their work is not always grounded in state-of-the-art, research-based knowledge about human development and organizational health.

Conventional management and organizational consultants lack the clinical knowledge and skill to deal with personal and emotional conflicts — how and why people develop emotional and value conflicts in relation to professional and career issues. In addition, many lack sufficient experience with the culture and professional business realities of law firms today. They apply a kind of template consultation process, which fails to solve the core conflicts.

As for mental health practitioners, most don’t understand the link between careerism and emotional conflict. Also, most therapists do not distinguish well between conflicts which are a situational response to the workplace and those originating within the person, independent of the workplace. And most lack experience in recognizing or dealing with the conflicts which are a mixture of both. These blind spots limit the effectiveness of treatment.

When I first began researching and writing about the link between careers and emotional conflict 20 years ago, this lack of understanding of the link between work and emotional conflict was the norm. Today, the situation is only marginally better. Most therapists continue to lack sufficient training and experience-based knowledge about how the workplace culture, careerist values, and gender attitudes interact with and affect a person’s emotional issues — exacerbating old conflicts, masking others, or creating new ones.

The bottom line, then, is that neither traditional “OD” consultants nor most psychotherapists possess the blended expertise and experience necessary for dealing with this mixture of organizational and personal conflicts. They cannot provide an integrated program that helps deal with both sides of the problem.

But the picture is not bleak. There are several things that can help shift course, some of which a law firm can undertake on its own.

What Does Help

The first step is the most obvious but the most important: become aware that these conflicts are real and that they do not reflect weakness, naivet, or insufficient hormone levels. As in most realms of life, awareness of the source of problems can stimulate new ideas and effective actions.

Start building a “talk” to “walk.” Articulate the ideals and values which embody the best qualities and strengths of the firm. Then, work to close the gap between these ideals and actual management practices, conduct, and decisions. Failure to do so feeds organizational dysfunction and exacerbates individual conflict. Firms that create a “talk” they try to “walk” are perceived more positively, inside and outside the firm. This benefits both the bottom line and the recruitment / retention of talented legal staff.

Confront the reality that lawyers, like other career-oriented men and women today, seek more integration and connection in their lives, especially between their work and non-work lives. Research shows that the desire for greater meaning, purpose, and human connection becomes paramount at midlife and midcareer. It is a key challenge of healthy adulthood Within law firms, this challenge underlies the push for respect and recognition; for teamwork, and creativity. It also underlies the growing repudiation of arrogance, authoritarianism, and insensitivity on the part of superiors.

This struggle is especially intense for lawyers. Legal careers place tremendous demands upon time and personal life. Moreover, the culture of many firms makes posturing and self-aggrandizement adaptive to success. All of this undermines health. We see this in the many horror stories about law firms whose values and culture are shaped by the autocratic and tyrannical behavior of their senior staff and decision makers, many of whom would easily qualify for Fortune magazine’s list of “Worst Bosses in America.” For a growing number of associates and partners, the financial compensation is insufficient compensation for this way of life. It causes people to question the worth of it all.

If your firm decides it wants outside help, look for someone who combines knowledge and expertise about the interwoven personal and organizational problems that your firm is likely to be dealing with. Don’t be reluctant to inquire about the consultant’s perspectives, experience, and savvy about this linkage. Reject those whose interventions reflect the old-style, piecemeal way, or a template approach.

Become proactive in the pursuit of innovative, creative solutions. Begin by realizing that long-term success requires management and organizational practices that are both humanly and organizationally effective. Some firms have begun specific programs of staff development and support to help limit the potential for dysfunction and conflict. Such programs can be both direct and indirect. Two examples:

  • Lunchtime staff development seminars. Subjects include “mind/body stress management;” “literature and life;” “midlife renewal;” “the link between career success and emotional conflict,” and so on. These seminars achieve two things: they provide new stimulation and new knowledge which nourish and renew the mind, spirit, and body; and they build a greater sense of community and connection within the firm. The latter is particularly important in view of current knowledge that emotional health is undermined by disconnection and isolation, whether at work or in personal lives.
  • Support groups for associates and for partners. These provide a forum for lawyers to address, with peers, such issues as career conflicts, work-life balance, volunteer activity, and ethical issues. Through sharing of experiences, guided discussion, and group problem-solving, support groups generate greater well-being, group cohesion, and sense of “self authorship.”

Overall, smart law firms link managerial decisions and behavior with actions which support the needs and strengths of its members. This is what brings out the best, both in an organization and its members. Long-term success in our era of business uncertainty and conflicting career and personal goals requires that law firm management and organizational practices serve both business and human goals. Practices must be consistent with the values and image the firm presents to the public, and conducted within a socially responsible and ethical context, as well. In short, the firm must work towards making its external image and internal realities consistent with each other.