Culture of communication can help avoid tense situations
By Grant Cameron
April 25 2014 issue
Lawyers have the reputation of being rational, cool-headed professionals who think before they act. But that can sometimes go out the window in today’s fast-paced workplace.
These days, lawyers working at law firms are under pressure to bring in business and handle multiple files. To make partner, they’ve also got to impress the boss. It’s not unusual, then, for lawyers in a firm to butt heads occasionally. But if emotions run too high and the situation is left unchecked, it has the potential to become a powder keg.
So how can a lawyer or firm avoid those breaking points and maintain a healthy work environment?
Nathalie Boutet, a family law lawyer who has her own practice in Toronto, says lawyers are good at their profession because they can think fast and multi-task, but that can also get them into trouble with other lawyers in the office if they react before thinking.
To avoid conflicts, Boutet, who is also co-founder of NEXT Ltd. — a company that teaches people how to rewire their brains and eliminate counterproductive patterns of behaviour — says lawyers should prepare themselves physically and emotionally for problems.
“Our jobs are really demanding and we have client demands and we have firm demands and we have our own personal family demands, and a lot of people need our time and energy and we can be very easily depleted and if we don’t eat enough, if we don’t sleep enough, and if we carry too much stress, we’re going to be more prone to being triggered.”
Boutet says it’s natural for the body to release adrenalin and cortisol during stressful times, which diminishes a person’s cognitive ability to respond appropriately, and lawyers should learn techniques to calm their minds.
One technique, she says, is to take a break from the situation.
“Taking a break allows the chemicals that have been released in your body to dissipate and you can come back refreshed and not so upset at the circumstances.”
Another technique is to begin writing down what’s going on, rather than responding verbally.
“When you start thinking and writing something down it moves you into your pre-frontal cortex which is your centre of intelligence and decision-making. It makes you bypass the emotional reaction.”
Gary Mitchell, principal business coach at On Trac Coach in Vancouver, says communication is the key to preventing conflicts between lawyers at a law firm.
“If there’s one point I couldn’t stress enough, it’s communication,” he says. “Everyone’s busy in their own practice and serving their own clients and so when lawyers are working with each other and they’re not communicating properly this is where assumptions can build and conflict can arise.”
To avoid conflicts, he says, law firms need to create a culture of communication and collaboration among lawyers and employees.
“In most normal day-to-day circumstances, I think it’s really about having respect for the fellow people and the firm and communicating effectively and setting up realistic expectations.”
Mitchell says the most common complaint he hears from associates at law firms is that they don’t get enough feedback.
“A lot of times the associates are intimidated to ask for help or feedback or communicate with the partners and I don’t know if it’s anyone’s fault — they just feel the partner is busy and they don’t want to bother the partner. But they should be going and contacting the partner and getting feedback. Don’t be afraid of asking for help or for input.”
Mark MacNeill, a partner at Brauti Thorning Zibarras in Toronto, says lawyers should learn to apologize quickly if they quarrel with another lawyer in a firm and they’re in the wrong.
“Let’s say I lose my noodle and I yell at my associate and I’m not smart enough later to go back and apologize. That person would be within their right to go to the office manager and say, ‘You know, I think he was being unfair with me,’ and the office manager would say, ‘Hey, you were a little rough on her, she might have screwed up but we can’t have yelling.’”
MacNeill says nobody wants to work at a law firm that has people screaming at each other.
“It’s no different than in your personal relationships or any other relationship. You have to treat people with respect and give them an opportunity to try to come up with solutions.”
To mitigate problems, MacNeill says a firm should ensure that lawyers, especially a new recruit, have a mentor they can turn to for guidance.
“If I come in and someone is really demanding and I’m a young lawyer and I’m scared to go into a partner’s office, but a senior associate says, ‘That’s just the way he is, you do this, this and this and everything will be just fine,’ that’s helpful.
“Having a mentor is important. Otherwise the lawyer is just going to pick up and leave or they’re going to be fired because they can’t cope.”
MacNeill also recommends that law firms have social events on a regular basis to build a sense of camaraderie.
“As you understand people better, you can understand how they tick,” he says.
So what happens if lawyers at a firm just can’t get along, no matter what?
Mitchell says he’s witnessed situations where lawyers in a firm just couldn’t see eye to eye.
“I’ve certainly given advice and worked with a number of lawyers over the years on internal issues, some of them worked through them and others did not,” he says. “Often, in those cases where they could not work through them, it was just due to personality clashes.”
When that happens, there’s not much the partners of a firm can do about it, he says, other than to insist that the lawyers are respectful of each other.
“With human beings, there are always going to be cases where some people just don’t get along and there’s nothing the firm can do.
“In those cases, they have to at least learn to be respectful of each other. You might not like each other and that’s okay, not everybody likes everybody, but at least be respectful.”