Law Firm Managers Need Training in Organizational Behaviour

We often hear that lawyers are trained in the law, not in how to operate a business. One of the most basic management skill lacking though can be found in the field of organizational behaviour (OB).

Dr. Larry Richard recently gave a talk at the CBA conference in Ottawa, where he presented “breakthrough ideas to boost your engagement.” The need for employee engagement is even more important during turbulent economic times, when law firms are facing considerably more instability than in the past. Much of what he had to offer corresponded with the OB skills deficit.

Dr. Richard noted that generally only about 30% of the workplace is engaged. The rest of the workers are usually not-engaged (55%) or actively disengaged (15%). He presented the SCARF model to highlight the main reasons in the cognitive neuroscience research as to why employees are disengaged:

Status: The relative importance of the employee to others.
In high power distance organization like law firms, the lowest associate has the lowest status, and feels it.

Certainty: The ability to predict the future.
With high lawyer turnover, and turbulent markets, certainty is nearly non-existent for many law firm employees.

Autonomy: A sense of control over events.
If there is no clear workflow for delegation, or the practice is a high pressure environment with tight deadlines, feelings of autonomy may be impossible without adequate supports.

Relatedness: A sense of safety with others, treating co-workers as friends rather than foes.
Most firms are not structured in a team-based or cooperative model, meaning that the people you interact with every day do not provide a sense of safety.

Fairness: A perception of a fair exchange between people.
Does the associate who happens to be the child of a judge or the senior partner get treated differently in the firm? If so, you can expect a much higher sense of disengagement.

Although this stuff may just sound like management fluff, the SCARF model has actually been validated using fMRI through studies by Naomi Eisenberger of UCLA ,

This reaction could be traced directly to the brain’s responses. “When people felt excluded,” says Eisenberger, “we saw activity in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex — the neural region involved in the distressing component of pain, or what is sometimes referred to as the ‘suffering’ component of pain. Those people who felt the most rejected had the highest levels of activity in this region.” In other words, the feeling of being excluded provoked the same sort of reaction in the brain that physical pain might cause.

Law firms can improve on this engagement by avoiding belittling associates, giving vague assignments or set ambiguous expectations, micromanage their associates, prohibit or inhibit internal fraternization, and by treating all associates the same way.

What does create employee engagement, according to Barry Schwartz in Why We Work is:

  1. Meaning & Purpose
  2. Autonomy
  3. Social Connection
  4. The work itself

Here the law firms actually have an advantage over other industries.

There is a potential in many public-facing practice areas to actually make a difference in the world by helping others or doing something that matters, especially in public interest litigation. Even if this work does not early a lot of money for a firm, it can be instrumental in providing meaning to those involved.

Providing greater autonomy helps foster a feeling of being in charge of their own practice, but also is better at producing better lawyers. Autonomy leads to better learning, greater mastery, higher competence and greater achievements. Ultimately every lawyer is responsible for their name, their reputation, and ultimately their insurance premiums (even if it is covered by the firm). Using that as a driver for autonomy, rather than the fear of reprisal, is a far better driver of engagement.

Social connection is something law firms still struggle with. Bonding over a bottle of scotch is not a real opportunity for deep interaction and creating camaraderie. In most cases it’s actually harmful.

The work itself can be more engaging if it is challenging, fun, immersive, intellectually stimulating, and allows learning. I’m not sure many lawyers call their work “fun,” but the challenging nature can provide some sense of satisfaction if the stress is properly managed.

Dr. Richard illustrated how all of these principles actually had a far broader impact on employees and the law firm as a whole. They had the ability to reduce stress, depression, turnover, absenteeism, dissatisfaction, and cynicism. It had the ability to increase commitment, effort, engagement, empowerment, happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment.

All of those have a direct relationship to employee productivity, billable hours, and the bottom line.

Perhaps instead of just focusing on developing better work-life balance in the law, or to see how technology can make our lives easier, we should instead reintroduce basic business principles from organizational behaviour into the management and operations of law firms.


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