“What do you feel your employer values most about you?” This question was posed to nearly 2,000 lawyers in a new study, and their responses were categorized into three different groups as follows:
Lawyers who answered the question with statements like, “My overall talent and skill as a lawyer” and “My inherent worth as a human being” were assigned to Group 1 called Professionalism/Individual. Lawyers who answered the question with statements like, “My productivity or the hours I bill” and “My responsiveness, availability, and ability to generate business” were assigned to Group 2 called Financial Worth/Availability. Lawyers who answered the question with statements like, “I don’t know—I get very little feedback” and “Not much—my employer does not make me feel valued” were assigned to Group 3 called No Value/No Feedback.
Each lawyer was then asked to answer questions about their levels of perceived stress, mental and physical health, and work overcommitment. The results showed a clear health hierarchy. The lawyers in Group 1 reported much better mental health, followed by Group 2, and then Group 3. In addition, lawyers in Groups 2 and 3 were much more likely to answer “yes” to the question, “Are you considering leaving, or have you left the profession due to mental health, burnout, or stress?” with 26.7% of Group 2 and 37.4% of Group 3 saying yes, compared to 15.4% of lawyers in Group 1.
While law is a service industry and lawyers need to accommodate, the pandemic and the emergence of hybrid work offer legal teams and organizations a unique opportunity – the chance to balance profit-centric and money-focused messages with designing the future of the profession in a way that promotes valuing lawyers as human beings first.
A Shift is Beginning
Lawyers are talking about kindness, empathy, respect, and trust in ways that I have not previously heard in my work. I recently asked two groups of lawyers—a team of in-house counsel and a group of mid-level associates—what made their teams resilient, and their responses included, “respecting my humanity,” “kindness” and “treating each other with respect.”
Last year, I had the privilege of interviewing four very accomplished lawyers about their military service and the leadership lessons they learned and continue to apply in their law practices today. Each lawyer spoke in detail about how they earned the trust and respect of their troops and what they most admired about the leaders with whom they served. All of them cited humility, curiosity, realness, caring and authenticity as critical components of successful leadership.
Law firms and corporate legal departments are also thinking systemically about how to team with an emphasis toward creating a more human-centric culture. People who report that they feel part of a team are more likely to be engaged at work, three times as likely to be highly resilient, and twice as likely to report a strong sense of belonging to their organization. One large organization’s legal department is developing a comprehensive and innovative team model that operationalizes trust, respect and cohesion across the department, with legal professionals at all levels contributing to this vision. I’ve included a number of their suggested TNT’s (tiny noticeable things) in my list below. In addition, law firms are using design thinking workshops to collect ideas, workshop series and trainings to educate lawyers and legal leaders about the specific ways to design human-centric cultures, and creating their own leadership training programs to emphasize these important skills.
Ideas to Help
Given the positive association between being valued for your humanity and well-being, here are some TNT’s (tiny noticeable things) that may help facilitate that connection:
- Treat each other like your most important client
- Say a thank you “plus”—the plus part is detailing the behaviors you observed that led to the good outcome (e.g., say something like, “The way you structured the first page of that brief was excellent—I could see our position clearly and it helped me have a better conversation with our client” instead of just “thank you”)
- Assume positive intent when discussing issues and educate in the spirit of collegiality
- Hold meetings that are efficient and intentionally thought out, including agendas and easy to understand supporting materials; consider whether a meeting is even necessary to gather the information you need
- Clearly communicate expectations and timelines to thoughtfully manage people’s expectations
- Proactively share information
- Provide role clarity and keep people informed of changes
- Acknowledge that people have different learning styles and knowledge levels
- Provide a rationale or more in-depth explanation for projects, goals, and vision
- Clarify confusing or missing information related to goals and tasks
- Provide opportunities for lawyers and professional staff to represent the firm or legal or legal organization by authoring articles, speaking or create new training or affinity groups
- Ask people how they are doing; ask about their families, hobbies and interests
- Be consistent in your words and actions
- Work as a team—cover for each other on days off and vacations and have each other’s back
- Lead with “humble curiosity”—use these sentence starters to promote a listen to learn approach in your interactions with each other and with your clients:
- Tell me more about/say more about that
- Help me understand
- Walk me through that
- I’m wondering
Lawyers have a unique opportunity to change the narrative around what matters in law. Focusing on internal dynamics and aspects of teaming is always a good approach; yet, humanity is, at its essence, caring for and about one another. I received the following email from a partner at a large law firm recently supporting this notion: “It seems to me that one of the main obstacles to happier teams at law firms is the prevailing culture of our profession. We’re expected to behave like cool and rational professionals all the time. On some level that clinical detachment is what our clients need from us, but I would argue (1) it’s not what they most want from us and (2) focusing on it causes us to de-emphasize and de-value some of the things that matter most to us. It’s skills like listening [and] empathy that differentiate the most successful lawyers from everyone else. Those aren’t the analytical or technical skills we learn in school and develop throughout our careers; they’re the skills that make clients feel we care about their problems.”
And make us feel like we care about each other.
Please click here to order my new book, Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being and Resilience