Redesigning the Law Firm Before Redesigning the Culture

There are a number of ways to make the workplace safer in occupational health and safety theory, using the hierarchy of hazard controls.

The first approach is to introduce engineering controls and administrative changes. These systemic modifications are usually more cost-effective and have a bigger impact, because they will remove the harm in the workplace to begin with. The next approach is the use of personal protective equipment. With the right equipment, workers can minimize the impact of harms to them in the workplace. Finally, occupational health and safety will look to training, which can help foster better awareness of hazards, and encourage workers to keep an eye out at all times.

A simple example would be the rise of carpal-tunnel syndrome in the workplace, a common occupational health condition found in a variety of workplaces. It may be present, for example in the office setting, due to workers spending long hours sitting at keyboards.

The best approach would be to redesign work stations to change awkward wrist positions and minimize repetitive motions. Redesigning work methods might be introduced. If those do not work, an ergonomic keyboard may help for the office worker. And finally, training workers how to hold their wrists when typing, for example, might be attempted once these other measures have been introduced.

Could a similar paradigm help change the law firm? Before doing so, we’d have to identify what the workplace hazard we are attempting to address is. For most lawyers, it’s stress, isolation, and lack of internal supports.

So what would be the appropriate response to these hazards? We’d essentially have to redesign the law firm, literally and operationally. The appropriate protective equipment, the introduction of technological tools, would also face significant resistance to change due to the same institutional factors that create the hazards.

We explored what a new type of collaborative approach within law might look like this past week at Osgoode Hall, during the Tech Transformation and the Law course this past week. Although we discussed changing the physical work space in a law firm, we also explored the social work space. Resistance to technology is usually premised in social structures of highly hierarchical and high power distance institutions like most law firms.

I discussed group dynamics in law firms, how they need to change, and what a self-directed work team in law might look like. We used my article in BC Legal Management Association’s Spring 2017 newsletter to discuss how organizational behaviour could be used to boost employee engagement in a firm.

I also introduced Anne Brafford’s 2014 thesis, Building the Positive Law Firm: The Legal Profession at Its Best, where she provides a blueprint for a new law firm. By implementing a framework that looks to the needs of internal stakeholders (read lawyers, including junior associates), law firms can create greater meaning and significance to members of the profession. Instead of simply looking to financial success of the firm, the partners would look at the well-being of its lawyers.

These principles are not strictly theory. Heidi Gardner has demonstrated in several places how law firms who employ greater collaboration can actually be more successful on all indicators.

The designs exist. What we seem to be missing are the architects of these new social structures in the landscape of Canadian law firms.



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