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Understanding cultural differences within the law firm setting

One of the most wonderful things about the modern workplace is the cultural diversity we get to experience. The practice of law in particular has become truly global. In fact, there are many U.S.-based law firms with thriving international practices. Moreover, many domestic firms are now striving for greater cultural diversity than ever before.

While these are undoubtedly positive changes, they don’t come without challenges.

For far too long, many employers faced this newfound diversity by burying their heads in the sand. Data proves that ignoring cultural differences doesn’t work. So what should law firms do to foster successful and culturally diverse environments?

Be aware – not afraid – of diversity

Before we go any further, let’s recognize law firms for what they’ve historically been: highly elite institutions filled mostly with white males. The practice of law is traditionally one of the least diverse industries in the nation.

To their credit, law firms recognized this long ago and many firms began intentionally hiring a more diverse workforce.

A truly diverse workplace is about much more than simply hiring people from different backgrounds and expecting them to act like the old guard, however. When that is a firm’s vision for diversity, cultural conflicts are sure to arise.

Instead, firms should encourage employees to observe cultural differences without judging people for having differing behaviors. That non-judgmental awareness can lead people to understand and appreciate one another.

Consider a cultural diversity committee

In light of the fact that law firms have traditionally been non-diverse environments, firms that are seeking to change the status quo should consider empaneling a cultural diversity committee.

This group can not only set policies regarding cultural awareness initiatives (see below); they can also give those who are feeling misunderstood or discriminated against a safe place to air their grievances. Moreover, they can make those who have been disenfranchised a part of the solution to any problems that do exist within the firm.

Understand how cultural differences impact employees

It’s one thing to open your law firm up to different cultures. It’s another thing entirely to take the time to understand how differences in dress, communication, and feedback response may impact how individuals get along in a workplace environment.

Studies have shown that people from different cultures can have very different expectations and responses to things like eye contact, critical feedback, physical gestures, touch, and interpersonal space.

If leadership at your law firm doesn’t take the time to understand these differences, serious misunderstandings can arise.

Establish rules regarding acceptable behavior

Unfortunately, once you introduce the idea of cultural observation, some people take it as permission to ask questions and/or behave in a manner that is inappropriate or insensitive.

Consequently, it is a good idea to have policies and procedures in place that foster cultural awareness without compromising anyone’s comfort.

While this may seem heavy-handed, it is a good idea for law firms that have traditionally lacked diversity.

Celebrate diversity

Sometimes, the people who are outside of the majority within a workplace are actually very interested in sharing their cultural differences with others. Why not give everyone a chance to talk about their culture during a firm-sponsored Cultural Awareness Day?

These types of events can foster understanding and also help people express the pride they feel in their cultural traditions and beliefs.

Offer team-building exercises that enhance understanding

When members of a team (for instance, a real estate department within a large law firm) don’t understand each other, work performance can suffer.

Although almost every member of a law firm will claim they’re too busy for such things, team-building exercises that foster cultural awareness can really help to solidify team spirit.

If necessary, make these exercises a fun part of other events like firm retreats or happy hours so that people don’t feel like they’re being forced to give up work time.

Break bread together

Believe it or not, sharing a meal is a tried-and-true way of getting people to feel kinship with one another.

If you think about it, this makes sense. Most people spend their early childhood sharing meals with family and friends. It’s only natural that the more people eat together, the greater a sense of familiarity they will have with one another.

Law firms have traditionally used all sorts of meals as business expenses — from client dinners to networking lunches. Why not use some of that budget to help your diverse workforce understand and like each other? Weekly lunches may be just the thing your firm needs to get employees trusting one another and working well together.

We are all so fortunate to live in a time when people from different backgrounds can come together in one workplace and operate as a successful team. If you find that your law firm’s diverse teams are struggling, however, consider some of the above tips to make everyone’s experience healthier, happier, and more productive.

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