A “them and us”‘ tradition can lead to grapevines, rumour-mongering, suspicion, cynicism and muddled goals
There are some significant structural and emotional barriers to good communication in law firms. Teams, practice groups and offices can easily lapse into functional silos, with poor communications even between people on different floors in the same building. In addition, the concentration on maximising the billable hour and the drive to prioritise time generally, combine to reduce interaction between staff. The use (or misuse) of email and stilted discussion at formal team meetings become a poor substitute for the easy interchange of ideas which can often take place in a semi-social setting. What is more, many firms have grown to the extent that fewer employees know each other. Whilst communication between friends is often difficult, communication between strangers can be fraught with problems.
The truth is that the traditional structure and hierarchies of law firms do not lend themselves to a culture of easy communication. A “them and us”‘ tradition — even in the partnership sub-hierarchy — can lead to grapevines, rumour-mongering, suspicion, cynicism and muddled goals. In such an environment, many partners have difficulty in perceiving what their tasks and roles are, and how they are expected to contribute to decision-making.
The leadership team and the partners can also often find themselves singing from different song sheets, and the fragmented results almost always have an adverse effect on morale. In response, there is a temptation to increase the number and length of meetings, memos, papers and e-mails, with less likelihood that the offerings will be read and understood. Conversely, some law firm leaders continue to act on the premise that knowledge is power, and purposely under-communicate within the firm so as to protect vital information and data from slipping out of their controlled grasp.
There are other distractions in the modern law firm. Today’s partners tend to be sceptical of spin and cynical about what is increasingly seen as manipulative leadership attempts to inspire and motivate better performance. They are in equal proportions both rebellious and more demanding. They do not snap to attention or automatically do the bidding of their leaders. They tend constantly to question or criticise the motives of managers; they frequently suspect political agendas for even the simplest of communications initiatives.
Conceptually, most partners understand the need for better communications at the same time as complaining that the leaders of their firm are not communicating with them. Furthermore, the majority of law firm partners truly comprehend that the modern firm can no longer be managed by consensus arrangements by which all partners are fully aware of every single management issue. Consensus needs, however, to be replaced by timely consultation and appropriate communication on the things which matter. Complaints about poor communication can also act as code for a general gripe about lack of involvement. One law firm leader recently told me that in his firm, decisions which had formerly taken place by consensus had recently started to be taken by the board; partners were then complaining about lack of communication when in truth they were dissatisfied about their perceived loss of control.
The dynamics of any people business are both complex and fragile. Law firms, more than most, can be hotbeds of insecurity, paranoia and mutual distrust. Part of the reason for this stems from the lawyers’ training — analytical, suspicious, testy, sceptical and cautious.
It follows therefore that law firm leaders and all partners should contribute towards “making the firm a better place,” where people are valued and there is a true spirit of collegiality and shared identity. A firm with high mutual levels of trust can be both creative and effective, and good communications can help to build this.
This opinion piece first appeared in Edge International Communique for October 2014