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Law firm culture 201: how to fix a toxic or negative culture

How to fix a toxic law firm culture

If you have to sit and think about whether you’ve ever worked in a toxic or negative legal environment, then I assure you, you have not. They are unmistakable in their misery.

They are also unmistakable in their impact.

Did you know that Stanford University concluded that toxic work environments are the fifth-leading cause of death in this country?

Obviously, it’s time for a change.

Traditionally, a toxic law firm looks something like this:

Employees, from the managing partner down, have a sour disposition. The rumors about who is quitting or getting fired next are constant and abundant. All employees are overworked. The firm’s recruiting promise of a “work-life balance” has become a running joke among associates and paralegals.

The list goes on, but we’ll deal with that below.

Ultimately, it sounds miserable, doesn’t it?

It is.

Yet, things don’t have to be this way.

In this second part of our 2-part series on law firm culture (read part 1 here), we’re discussing how your firm can overcome a toxic environment.

It won’t be easy. It may require some tough decisions about personnel. But ultimately, your practice and your people will be better off for it.

Let’s get started.

What signals toxic culture to law firm employees?

Fortunately, toxic law firm cultures have been examined rather extensively.

In fact, a recent study of 2,000 law firm associates resulted in a concise list of the negative attributes of a toxic culture. They include:

  • Unyielding stress
  • Unrealistic expectations about billable hours
  • Confusing and incomplete communication from partners about assignments
  • Lack of training
  • Lack of feedback or praise
  • Inattention to diversity
  • Forced socialization

 

These are not things that only impact lawyers. When associates are reporting these sorts of negative influences in the workplace, those influences are almost certainly impacting paralegals and other non-attorney professionals as well.

But enough about that. Let’s talk about how to end toxic law firm cultures.

Step #1: Honestly diagnose the problem

Before any workplace culture can be changed, it has to take a hard look at itself.

Consider things like anonymous employee surveys (or even anonymous client surveys) to give leadership a realistic view of the prevailing perceptions of the law firm culture and what might be wrong with it.

Your personal observations may be a little skewed because your employees naturally want to avoid complaining in front of the boss. In other words, you may notice that people seem stressed, but you can still miss the rampant rumors and snide remarks about work-life balance.

Still, your honest observation can tell you a lot.

Do people work late when deadlines loom? That’s probably a sign that workloads are unrealistic. Poor turnout for optional social events is an indicator that interpersonal relationships need some work.

It’s tempting to blame employees for bad attitudes or self-serving behavior.

Maybe you do have some people on staff that impact your culture, but it’s far more likely that any negative behaviors are a response to the workplace culture instead of the other way around. People who work in a toxic environment will behave in defensive ways.

Step #2: Consider a leadership change

There’s a saying as old as time that goes something like this: “The fish rots from the head.” What that means is that if the leader of an organization is bad, the whole organization will go bad.

It is a saying that has perhaps never been truer than today.

The reality is that the pandemic changed everything about professional workplaces, including law offices.

Employees are simply less willing to show up to toxic work environments than they were previously. Accordingly, law firms need to identify leaders who can negotiate this new landscape and who will foster positivity and camaraderie with employees who are working productively in multiple locations.

They also need to be willing and able to listen to (and respond to) worker demands.

Law firms no longer get to be autocracies. The good of the masses must be heard and acted upon.

What if you’re the leader and you’re not ready to hand over the reins to someone new?

It’s time to do some soul searching, then. What is it about your leadership that has allowed (or even created) these cultural issues? You can learn, grow, and change, too.

Step #3: Give more than lip-service to work-life balance

When I began practicing law nearly 25 years ago, the notion of “work-life balance” was a relatively new recruiting mantra.

In my experience, the more a firm touted a “work-life balance,” the less likely it was to actually foster one. I am not alone in this perception.

Today’s law firm associates, however, really mean it when they say they want to be able to have a career that enhances (rather than destroys) their home lives.

They achieve this balance by, among other things, “shifting a firm’s culture away from prestige and towards productivity and engagement.”

Think about that for a moment.

By focusing less on image and more on worker satisfaction, firms are actually producing better work and happier employees.

Yet the question remains: how do you tip the scales in favor of work-life balance?

The answer, according to some sources, is found in a balance between implementing new technologies and actually focusing on wellness of employees. That’s certainly a solution worth considering.

Step #4: Hire and fire with an eye on positive work culture

As noted in part 1 of this series, it is important for law firms to recruit and retain employees who will foster a positive culture.

In addition to recruitment and retention, however, a law firm must consider letting go of employees who do not enhance the new culture of positivity.

We all know what negative employees look like and the impact they have on those around them. And while firms may choose to try to fix their negativity before letting them go, they have to be prepared to identify and part ways with employees who drag others down.

You might be surprised how impactful a few such personnel decisions can make within your firm.

Remember the warning from step 1: don’t assume that every negative behavior is an indicator that someone is a toxic employee. Give people a chance to thrive in a more positive environment.

If they’re too set in their negative ways, though, it might be best for everyone involved to go your own ways.

Step #5: Don’t forget the importance of individual attention

As you’re setting about to fix the overall negative culture of your firm, don’t forget that individual opinions still matter.

In fact, holding one-on-one meetings may be critical to employee satisfaction.

In that vein, be sure management is prepared to hold one-on-one meetings that are actually meaningful to employees. This means that your managers will do things like actively listen, allow employees to run the meeting, and perhaps even escape from the workplace to talk about the issues at hand.

You may need to build up some trust within your team to make these meetings work. It’s hard for employees to be honest with the boss, especially when they already feel like the work environment is an us-versus-them situation.

Keep at it, even if your first meetings are awkward and less productive than you’d like. Change is gradual. Consistent, long-term effort will pay off.

Fixing your negative culture

The truth is, fixing a toxic or negative law firm culture will not be quick or easy.

If the partnership agrees on a course of action, that will make things easier.

Allowing employees to express their opinions without risk will make the process even easier.

And, at the end of the day, all the work it takes to change a negative culture to a positive one will be worth it for partners, employees, and clients alike.

Author

  • Jennifer Anderson

    Jennifer Anderson practiced business litigation in California from 1999 to 2016. When she’s not writing from her floating cabin on the Columbia River, she can be found hiking or kayaking around the Pacific Northwest.

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