Everyone knows that attorneys and other legal professionals are notoriously competitive individuals. In many ways, this enhances their careers. Trial lawyers, for example, absolutely need to have a deep desire to win in order to do their jobs effectively. Law firms know this and they hire people accordingly. Simply put, it’s good for business.
When that business model turns difficult, however, is when you try to get these highly-competitive individuals to get along and work as a team. It’s not impossible to do so, but it can feel a little bit like herding cats.
Whether you’re an attorney with a real desire to collaborate or an administrator who knows that more should be done to foster growth and camaraderie, here are our top tips for building relationships between the attorneys in your firm.
#1: Lean into, not away from, lawyers’ competitive nature
If you’ve ever worked in a law firm environment, you know that a large percentage of lawyers either are or were competitive athletes. Among other things, that means that they’ve been conditioned to strive for winning at all costs. It also means that they’ve spent a good portion of their lives operating within teams.
Thus, the first thing law firms can do to foster relationship-building among lawyers is to foster a team-like mentality within the firm. Rather than promoting the idea that individual contributions are the key to success, remind employees that it is the success of the collective firm that matters most. No matter how competitive your staff is, they’ll tend to understand the importance of putting team goals ahead of individual goals.
#2: Revive the firm retreat
The pandemic changed a lot of things about the modern workplace. One of the things that went by the wayside for many firms was the annual firm retreat. Historically, these events involved an entire firm or individual departments going away on a sort of “work vacation” so they could eat together, play together, and (hopefully) bond together.
While retreats are undoubtedly important in many industries, the importance of a law firm retreat cannot be overstated. The opportunity to escape the day-to-day stressors in favor of things like deepening relationships and identifying hidden talents is priceless. This tip is therefore critically important if you’ve noticed that inter-team relationships have really suffered since the pandemic began.
#3: Seek out opportunities to bond
Speaking from personal experience, I know that many attorneys have perfected the quintessential eye roll in response to the mere notion of having to participate in canned team-building events. Nonetheless, managing partners and administrators would be wise to research and implement authentic team-building exercises for the firm.
These can include things like karaoke, talent shows, or bowling. Basically, anything that takes people out of their comfort zone and makes them vulnerable in front of their co-workers will go a long way toward building relationships.
#4: Encourage an environment of inclusion
Historically, law firms have been places where certain types of people flourished while certain others were left behind. Back when I was practicing law, for example, many female attorneys who took time off to have children were automatically placed outside of the partnership track. We were also just starting to really pay attention to things like cultural diversity. Often, people outside of the “norm” felt alienated from their peers.
Modern law firms, however, are doing a much better job of emphasizing inclusion over traditional partnership models. As a result, there is less resentment and more opportunity for building true relationships.
#5: Emphasize mentoring opportunities
Many decades ago, long before anyone reading this article was ever born, great lawyers were built more from sitting at the feet of other, older, wiser lawyers than they were from getting good grades in law school and passing a standardized exam. These days, however, the idea of mentorship has largely been left behind.
This is a mistake. The concept of lawyers mentoring other lawyers remains a key strategy for not only making more proficient professionals but for fostering relationships between those professionals as well. If you look around your firm and notice an appreciable lack of mentoring going on, it might be time to formalize a mentorship program. Importantly, this sort of program may build strong relationships between the oldest and youngest members of the firm — two groups that probably need the most encouragement to come together.
#6: Don’t discourage actual friendships
As lawyers, our workplace can be one of our most vulnerable places. We’re away from our families. We’re under a ton of stress. We may feel overworked and underappreciated. And, worst of all, the people in our “regular” lives may have no idea how we’re feeling because they’re simply not “in it” with us.
In light of all that, it’s not surprising that workplace friends can become some of the most important people in our lives. This isn’t a bad thing. And even though many people are cautious about these sorts of friendships, they actually make a whole lot of sense. Thus, if your administration observes strong friendships building between employees, it might be best to just step out of the way and let them grow.
Law firms, like any workplace environment, run best when people get along. If your firm is feeling fractured, try implementing the above tips to see if things don’t start to get better.