Does Your Law Firm Have A Case Of The Blues?

Almost exactly six months ago, Dewey & LeBoeuf earned a place in the nightly news after a mass exodus of its law firm partners provoked media attention.

According to a Dewey spokesperson, the firm earned a mere $250 million in 2011—substantially less than their reported earnings in the (already circulated) publication, American Lawyer. Not only did outside sources seek an explanation, but insiders also looked to place blame.

Bloomberg calls it “Law Firms’ White-Shoe Blues,” where corporate mismanagement and outdated business practices are to blame. While the author is waiting for the other white-shoe to drop for Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, and Sullivan & Cromwell, it’s important to address a second key issue of mismanagement: morale.

The financial crisis is just one of the reasons law firms fail today.

Why else? Inefficiencies in hourly wage, partnership practices, and lack of modernization.

However, a more normative assessment of law firms would likely include negative attitudes, internal conflict, even associate despair.

In sum, law firms have a case of the blues.

In 2007, a survey found only four of 10 lawyers would recommend the career. And, lawyers are notorious for having high rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide.

Not all law firms, of course, are dominated by desolation. But, all firms are, at least, prone to minor negativity—complaints about long hours, difficult colleagues, or hard-to-handle cases.

So, how can law firm managers dispel bouts of negativity?

For Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done and contributor to the Harvard Business Review Blog, there are three simple steps:

1. Understand how they feel and validate it. It’s natural to complain. There’s a reason for the phrase, “misery loves company.”

It’s equally possible, however, that the phrase could be, “misery loves aggression and argumentative retorts,” if it (quite accurately) reflected the real-world reaction of managers.

When faced with complaints in the workplace, it’s easy to respond in the opposite—with positivity For example, “Yes, the hours are tiring and long, but we’re well compensated for it,” or “No, I don’t think this task is unfair.”

For leaders, it seems especially important to refute and rebut negative comments.

But the opposite, in fact, is true. Employees who complain want commiseration and validation for their point of view. That’s step one in neutralizing negativity: understand how others feel, and validate it.

2. Find a place to agree with them. Next, even if you don’t agree with the entirety of the complaint at hand, at least try to find an aspect of the comment with which you can relate.

As soon as a second person justifies and validates a complaint, the negative Nancy will also feel a sense of solidarity with her colleague. Sharing and communication is what forms the foundation of a cooperative team.

And, as backward as it may seem to leaders, solidarity (whether negative or positive) can actually bring about positive outcomes. The last step shows you how.

3. Find out what they are positive about and reinforce it. After commiserating with Mr. Scrooge, Esquire, try to find a point that he is positive about.

“This doesn’t mean trying to convince them to be positive. It means giving attention to whatever positive feelings they do show—and chances are they will have shown some because it’s unusual to find people who are purely negative,” writes Bregman.

Seize any opportunity to praise positivity, even when it’s minor. After ten complaints, was there just one productive comment? Reward it! Did employees hate, for instance, all the long hours of last night’s casework, but loved the free delivery dinner? Invite the company to cater again (and quickly).

Don’t underestimate the reinforcement of good and reasonable comments, or the importance of downplaying the more emotional ones.

Eventually, the attention you give positivity will eliminate the norm of negativity around the office.

“The truth is, it’s often easier to teach this stuff than it is to do it. In the heat of the moment, I can still get frustrated with other people’s frustrations,” admits Bregman.

“But following these three steps has helped tremendously. And having a partner who reminds me of them? That helps even more.”

So, next time your officemate is about to send a rash email, say something he might regret, or grovel in his general grouchiness, remind him to take three deep breaths (and follow these three steps).

-WB

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