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I suspect that if you’ve been in the legal profession long enough, you have a story about another lawyer treating you with disrespect. Perhaps it was an adversary who acted far from professional. Maybe it was a supervisor who called you an offensive name. Perhaps it was a partner who lashed out during a meeting.
There are countless stories of discourtesy between professionals in law firms. Combine that with the effect of hearing the 100th derogatory comment from the general public about your chosen profession and what is the outcome?
Whether the disrespect comes from outside or inside the profession, it has definitely tainted a noble calling that at one time was widely considered to be one of the most prestigious. What does this disrespect for the profession, and those who practice in it, do to the profession as a whole? More importantly, for the managers reading this column, how does it affect the practice of law for you and those you lead? What steps can you take in your firm to counteract it?
Many excellent lawyers have left the profession owing to a pattern of uncivil behavior that has flourished in the past 25 years. Still more are considering leaving. And a number of those who are left behind feel alienated, stressed and even depressed. While we can’t point to ill-mannered behavior as the only reason, it is a significant contributor.
Moreover, what about the effects on your firm? Offensive behavior leads to stress. Increased stress leads to greater occurrences of illness, higher rates of absenteeism, less productivity and more mistakes in the workplace. Discourteous behavior can also be contagious: Once someone has been the brunt of such behavior, it is not unusual for him or her to act in a similar way. All of this is part of a cycle of poor behavior affecting a profession that has diminished respect from the general public. No wonder lawyers are taking to telling the bad lawyer jokes themselves.
While individual members of the profession cannot, by themselves, stop the cycle of disrespect in one fell swoop, they can make tremendous strides toward doing so in their own circle of colleagues and acquaintances. In addition to enhancing perceptions of the profession, there are some practical reasons for doing so, especially on a firm level. The byproducts of halting rude and unprofessional behavior include increased retention of lawyers and staff, higher productivity throughout the workplace, and a greater sense of satisfaction for those involved in the firm and in the practice of law. One firm at a time, starting with your own firm, can bring civility and principles back to the profession. All in all, you’ll feel better about yourself and you’ll sleep better at night.
There are three broad areas in which you and others in your firm can have an effect: within your firm, within the profession and within the community at large. The following are 10 specific suggestions for how you, as a leader in your firm, can make a difference across those areas and inspire others around you to do the same.
The legal profession is an excellent one, filled with terrific people who can and do make a difference. But there are also still some who behave in a rude and unprofessional way. Changing their way of practice can have an impact on the profession as a whole. Consider what you, as a leader in your firm, can do to make the profession a more satisfying one as well as to reestablish the place it deserves in society—one of respect.
We owe it to ourselves as well as those who follow to bring respect back to the profession. I can’t think of a better legacy.