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Law Firm Office Culture Series: Clients Over Office Politics

Noel Peel

Written by

Noel Peel


November 27, 2019

Law firms that want to thrive in a competitive job market where the most talented attorneys are highly sought after, need to build strong office cultures with minimum office politics. When law firms allow office politics to grow and become all encompassing, it can interfere with associate productivity and the service of clients. In this second part of “Build A Strong Law Office Office Culture,” we will explore the toxicity of office politics and what you should do to ensure that client well-being is put first.

Keeping High Performers

There are a lot of drawbacks to office politics—low morale, low productivity, and even hostile work environment lawsuits if conflicts escalate into harassment or worse. But one thing that many law firms suffer when toxic office politics take over is the loss of high performing employees. And those employees don’t always leave due to disgust, they’re often pushed out, ignored, and go unnoticed by people in power who may also be the main instigators of office politics shenanigans. Here are a few ways that office politics pushes out high performers:

  • Bias mistaken for intuition. Leaders in your organization may make decisions based on gut decisions instead of measured facts. Maybe they listen to the rumor mill that Lawyer #1 isn’t working that hard and decide to recommend Lawyer #2 for the promotion. But the law firm leader may not look at any data because if he/she did, they would notice that the billable hours of Lawyer #1 and Lawyer #2 are almost identical and that they should both be given a fair shot at the chance of promotion. When office politics have a heavy influence on your law firm, you may never notice that a gut or intuitive decision is really based on the political dynamics of the firm. Over the long-term this could harm your organization by pushing our or under-rewarding hard workers who aren’t favored by the “in-crowd.”
  • Avoidance as strategy. When office politics go fully toxic, everyone can pretty much point out the main trouble makers. But when the political machine runs your firm, those charged with leading your team may decide to ignore the problem people. They may even decide to take more passive-aggressive approaches such as making the problem people uncomfortable using unethical and even illegal means or they might simply give them work they know they hate. This type of indirect or avoidant strategy of dealing with troublemakers can worsen the politics of the office, breed resent and fear, and open the law firm up for legal action. It can also send high performers running for hills as they witness the “dirty tricks” being used and don’t want to become the next victim.
  • Machiavellian tendencies. Everyone wants to advance their individual interests but it shouldn’t be at the expense of your law firm, your employees or your clients. Unfortunately, office politics tends to create a dog-eat-dog environment where everyone puts their interests before the interests of the firm. And when that happens, it is unlikely that these “power players” are willing to highlight high performers. To the contrary, employees who participate in toxic office politics may work to undermine the high performers even if it harms client interests.

If you have enough biased Machiavellian avoiders in your organization, you could be headed for serious financial trouble as they will be more concerned with advancing their own interests and undermining their “enemies” than taking care of clients and advancing the interests of your law firm.

So how do you avoid these toxic office politics so that you can attract and keep the best attorneys?  Let’s take a look at a few best practices.

Track Productivity

If your law firm doesn’t really know what your associates are doing on a day-to-day basis, you’re steering the ship blind. If you don’t have any data, there’s no other way to make decisions about promotions and raises other than “intuition” and that’s an open door where bias creeps in.  Work smart by leveraging law firm management tools like Smokeball to measure exactly how many minutes and hours an associate spent on a case and what they did, and then automatically compare the productivity of each employee and practice area. No more steering blindly and no more making decisions based on a hunch. You also prevent the toxic “politicians” in your organization from using their “intuition” to advance their buddies and hinder people who are good workers but who aren’t in favor with the office politics of the day or week.

Communicate Openly

Don’t let the rumor mill fill in the details about your law firm. You should communicate as openly as possible about the issues that matter—opportunities for career advancement, changes in pay structure, the closing or opening of offices, layoffs, or anything that is making its way through the rumor mill. Remember, rumor mills will often add salacious and untrue details to just about any story and if you haven’t communicated openly and honestly with your employees they may go ahead and believe the rumors. You can save yourself a lot of headaches by offering freely the information that employees want and need to feel secure at your law firm.

Offer Employees Goals

Everyone in your law firm should have some kind of goal that they’re aiming for. Your expectations about their performance should be clear. Maybe you want them to bill at least a certain amount of hours each week or maybe you want them to build a certain kind of book of business. Whatever the goal, you need to make it clear to them and give them an opportunity to achieve it. You should also have ongoing check-ins with your employees about how they are achieving their goals and offer assistance if you can. When you have a clear goal for your employees, it stops toxic individuals from inserting office politics between the employee and the law firm. Toxic employees will find it difficult to undermine any employee who is meeting very clear goals.

Reward High Achievers

If you’re tracking productivity and setting goals for your employees, it should be easier to identify your law firm’s high achievers without relying on “intuition.” But once you identify who is delivering the highest quality work, you should reward them and recognize them publically.

While it’s difficult to shut down all the toxic individuals in your organization, it is possible to use objective tools such law firm productivity tracking to identify who is billing the most and who is getting important things done in your law firm. With the right tools, office politics will take a back seat so you keep the right employees and serve your clients professionally.

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