Law firm leaders today are like circus jugglers flipping balls into the air so fast you can hardly see them. Yet most leaders primarily focus on putting out fires to keep themselves afloat. Issues of the moment include:
- Addressing the Great Resignation: what do employees want?
- Managing the return to office
- Implementing guidelines and processes for a hybrid office
- Reimagining the physicality of the office
- Rethinking safety for humans and cyber-safety for work product
It’s a beginning. Futurists might hope that leaders would think more strategically to address the impact of the tech-driven world we are moving into. But most law firms are not receptive to dramatic change. The typical law firm organization is paramilitary. Lawyers work their way up to equity partner and, once there, set the rules for everyone else without asking for anyone else’s input. It’s top-down decision-making with little regard for input from others.
Law firm leaders will be more comfortable addressing issues as they arise rather than tackling a comprehensive cultural overhaul.
This article looks at the importance of inclusive communication practices as an essential underpinning for any change. The assumption is that the more inclusive, receptive kind of communication required to make any changes “stick” will necessarily chip away at the dictator-leader model. A new kind of communication will foster worker buy-in to small changes that will, over time, lead to more democratic, decentralized, inclusive firm communications.
“Communicating means establishing good relationships and reaching the right persons with the right messages at the right messages at the right time, usually for the purposes of getting something done.” Good communication requires preparation and knowledge. “Right persons,” “right messages” and “right timing” presume that the communicator knows the organization, the players, the leaders and the culture—their jargon, their values, their biases, the way they have always done things.
Workplace communications almost always involve an element of persuasion, where the speaker is looking for buy-in. To persuade requires the persuader to:
- Be trusted by those in the audience.
- Be sincere about personal beliefs and use appropriate body language to reinforce that sincerity.
- Use stories to emphasize points that resonate with the audience.
- Use their language and communicate the main “ask” clearly.
Audiences never hear exactly what the speaker says because they process words through their own life experiences, beliefs, and preferences. Workplace leaders create greater alignment with their audience when they seek their involvement. To increase the likelihood that they will hear “real” answers from those lower down on the office ladder, the leader has to create a safe environment for the dialogue.
To achieve audience rapport, the leader should be empathetic, open-minded, non-judgmental, and willing to adjust the original idea to incorporate some of their input. To see how these generalities play out in the law firm environment, let’s look at two of today’s issues: 1) what employees want; and 2) the return to the office.
What Employees Want
The assumption that work could only be done in an office died after two years of productive remote work. The ability to work elsewhere enabled professionals to carry out work assignments as just one among many daily activities. Women tasked with childcare responsibilities could interweave the two activities. For many, it worked.
Of course, while some flourished, others felt isolated, burned out, lonely, and depressed. They found it difficult to separate work and home activities either physically or mentally. Without something as arbitrary as a commute to separate work and life, they overworked. This tendency was made worse by bosses who called innumerable videoconference meetings to compensate for the lack of in-office collaboration.
Employees had time to think about preferable work environments. Especially for younger lawyers and new hires, the absence of in-person mentors and colleagues creates a feeling of isolation—and often depression. Despite a multitude of team meetings, it is difficult to become friends with online colleagues; to understand firm culture; and to behave according to informal office norms.
2021 saw approximately four million workers a month disappear from the workforce either through firing and attrition or worker resignations. As worker shortages grow, employees are in the catbird seat.
They want more than more money. They would like their law firms to accept work as one part of a balanced life rather than the focus of their waking hours. They are asking for:
- An understanding that flexibility includes both scheduling and location plus the ability to decide for themselves how to get their work done
- Clarity as to career paths and development of pathways to personal growth
- Leaders willing to include their input when making decisions about their work lives
- Firm values aligned with theirs regarding issues such as climate change, Black Lives Matter, and DEI
Leaders used to docile followers were surprised and disoriented. They were focused on confusing health mandates, client demands, and technology disruptions. Instead, they have to deal with demands for new workplace relationships and opportunities.
The Return to Work
Important concerns complicate any return to office-based work. Firm leaders are faced with the need to:
- Assuage health worries focused on COVID upticks and returning to elevators, shared lunchrooms, and cubicle offices.
- Change firm cultures to meet new worker definitions of an acceptable workplace.
- Reconsider partner-associate and lawyer-staff relationships.
- Deal with the impact of 20th-century thinking about the role of in-office participation in career success versus the new reality that people want to work asynchronously.
Firms’ knee-jerk response was to offer a hybrid work model that would include the option to work remotely. Less thought was given to details like scheduling and meeting employees’ emotional demands for participation, career success, and well-being.
Culture-changing questions include:
- What needs to be done in the office and what is better done alone?
- For knowledge workers, does the nine-to-five workday still make sense?
- Does everyone in a law firm need to be in the office together all the time?
- How does the autonomy to decide when and where to work coexist with the reality of teams or set work schedules?
- Does choosing remote work need to negatively impact careers, especially for women lawyers?
Law firm leaders have begun to respond to these pressures. Successful responses begin with those good communication skills, that is, the willingness to be authentic; open to others’ ideas; empathetic; and ready to change. Rather than lay down an arbitrary rule, modern leaders will move toward more inclusive decision-making that shows respect, support, and interest in what other people in their firm think.
Questions that guide this kind of conversation include:
- What do you think?
- How can I help?
- Why is that important to you?
- What do you suggest to resolve the issue?
- What can we as a firm do to meet your expectations?
An example of a brief but positive conversation with a complaining employee:
Leader: I hear you and I understand. I have some thoughts about the issue but I am more interested in how you would resolve the problem. I’d love to hear your ideas. Let’s get together next Wednesday to find a solution. I will send you a calendar invite.
The leader has in four sentences expressed understanding of where the employee is coming from; said she wants to hear their solution; given them time to craft a workable result; and shown respect for the employee’s issue by setting a specific time to resolve the issue.
All the pandemic-induced changes of the past two years have created an opportunity to alter the dynamic between law firm leaders and employees—non-equity partners, associates, and staff. As firms try various solutions in 2022, there is an opportunity to make the best ones permanent: To address a future where lawyers will be paid for their knowledge rather than the process of creating specific products.
In subsequent issues I will discuss specific solutions to the problems raised here.
 George de Mare, “Communicating: The key to establishing good working relationships,” Price Waterhouse Review, 1989, p. 32.