Updated: Jan 19, 2022
Whether you have worked a year or decades in law, you have likely heard or said things like:
That’s not the way we do things around here.
You either need a ‘thick skin’ or a suit of armor to survive in law.
I can’t bring that [idea, question, concern, or mistake] up; I’d be putting my job or any hope of advancement at risk.
These statements likely feel rather soul draining.
Working in a system that is characterized by conflict, competition, and judgment can take a toll on people and can show up as lack of empathy and vulnerability, poor communication, and strained relationships with clients, colleagues on both sides of a file, and others.
The intensity has amplified with an increasing pressure to “be on” and to communicate with speed, and a volume based reward system. Layer on the pandemic-induced decreased opportunities to drop into a colleague’s office for a chat or to blow off steam, and we are facing a particularly sticky professional challenge.
This reality can be particularly hard on people who chose law as their profession because they value fairness, respect, truth, or contribution to society.
Over the past 25 years I have worked with and have come to know personally many caring, empathetic, and compassionate lawyers and legal professionals. I am particularly impressed by, and grateful for, their humility which kept me in the profession even when I thought I was done. I know that there are many more radically human lawyers out there, and I trust in the capability of anyone who chooses to care for and contribute to the growth of all of those around us.
The good news is that you do not need to be a highly experienced or skilled people-person or relationship-builder; lawyers and legal professionals at all levels and in all types of practice can refine communication skills, strengthen emotional intelligence, and embed new ways of interacting, all through everyday conversations and interactions.
Whether you take a quiet or boisterous approach to a radically human revolution in law, you can help to re-write the above statements or ‘old stories of law’ as I like to refer to them and improve individual workplace and profession-wide culture.
Margie Sills-Maerov writes in The Missing "Something" that building culture includes these essential elements:
We invest in the skills of communication so that everyone can listen, respond, and ask questions in a way that creates psychologically safe environments and surfaces people’s thinking
We focus on how we lead our teams and design our meetings so that people will share perspectives
We work with others to get to “what is right”, not who is right, which means leading ourselves without ego
What will make this worth the investment of your time and energy? The answer to this question lies within each individual and organization. For some, supporting a colleague or client through a challenging situation and leaving them feeling cared for will be a grand reward. For others, retaining talented associates and seeing a positive impact to the bottom line will make their efforts worthwhile. And for others, feeling the renewed energy and positivity that comes with creation of community and human connection would be an outstanding result.
To re-write those soul draining statements and change what we and others think, feel, and say about our workplaces and culture, we need to do some self-work first. This involves shifting from lawyerly patterns of listening to fix, solve, respond, or judge, to listening to understand. This may sound simple, but it can be a challenge when emotions and egos get in the way. Strengthening our ability to manage our own emotions so that we can listen loudly and respond in ways that are characteristic of radically human lawyers, particularly when we are under pressure or in conflict, will be key.
Once we start listening with the intention to understand, we can then ask: “What could be behind these old stories?”. It is here that we will often discover the limiting beliefs, assumptions, and fears that drive old stories and keep us feeling stuck.
This leads to the question, “How can we overcome these blocks?”. To answer, we can inquire to explore rather than to seek explanation or to judge. Here are some examples of how we can shift our thinking, and help others to do the same:
Instead of…I/You either need a ‘thick skin’ or a suit of armor to survive in law.
Try this…How can I/we best support you in feeling authentic in your practice?
Instead of….I can’t bring up that [idea, question, concern, or mistake]; I’d be putting my job or any hope of advancement at risk.
Try this….What do I risk by not speaking up? How could speaking up benefit my organization?
Instead of…That’s not the way we do things around here.
Try this…Tell me more about your question/concern/idea, etc.
Instead of…[An error is discovered] Have you thought about what the client/judge/other lawyer is going to say about this?
Try this…We’ve got your back. What do you think needs to be done to solve the problem?
Instead of....It sounds like you are drowning in your work. Have you tried…?
Try this....What do you need to feel like you can breathe again?
Instead of...[Person is crying] Getting emotional is not going to help anything.
Try this...Take your time. I’m here with you.
What About Client Work?
Of course, there is also the matter of what do clients want from their lawyers. Once again, by honing our communication skills and learning and embedding new ways of interacting, statements such as “My lawyer is so arrogant; I feel like they don’t care about me” can become: “My lawyer listens and asks great questions; they care about me.”
While it would be much easier to say that managers or regulators need to do something to improve workplaces and culture in law, the reality is that it is a shared responsibility.
It begins with each of us having the courage to embrace humanity and act like a pebble that can ripple through workplaces and communities to create a culture that we all want to be part of.
Fortunately, you don’t need a title or a certain number of years of experience to be a radically human lawyer. You do however need to want to grow and develop yourself, and “build the cognitive capital of others” (Costa & Garmston, 2016).
Are you ready to be a pebble, or a big boulder? Please join us on March 11, 2022 for our first campfire-style chat for lawyers and legal professionals - The Radically Human Legal Hour by registering here or connect with me.