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February 05, 2021 Feature

Creating a Healthy Work Environment in a Family Law Practice

Sheila Engelmeier and Heather Tabery

The practice of law can be as rewarding as it is challenging. Family law attorneys navigate unique circumstances very personal to their clients that often become emotionally charged. A healthy work environment allows work colleagues to effectively serve clients without becoming personally depleted. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we work and caused increased stress. Now is the perfect time to assess your practice. Creating, or improving, a healthy work environment takes effort, but it is worth it to maintain a successful, sustainable practice. Some thoughts to consider in your journey follow.

Choose the Right Colleagues

How does the ideal colleague work? What work habits and personal traits best serve clients and gel with the team? What must be avoided? Create a forward-thinking list of what you need in a colleague long term. Importantly, ensure that hiring practices do not violate any antidiscrimination laws. Be creative on outreach. You may find the ideal candidate somewhere you have not looked before. Consistency in interviews is key; make the same inquiries of each candidate in the process. Candidates should not experience material differences when they interview; all candidates should be, and feel that they are, considered fairly. On selection, measure candidates on the same criteria.

Finding the perfect addition during the pandemic requires innovative recruiting. Host a virtual happy hour to meet multiple people at once who are interested in your practice. Be open to folks outside your local area; consider a remote colleague. Consider seeking the assistance of an affinity group in your area. Once you narrow down candidates, have one-on-one conversations and really listen and get to know the person before committing to work together. A solid team with shared objectives, including a commitment to a positive culture, and understanding of desired outcomes for clients helps foster collegiality.

Office Relations

Maintain Personal Connections—Even When the Office Is Virtual. Communication is key, about both successes and lessons learned through mistakes. Personal connections are the foundation of effective work relationships. Simple steps improve personal connections between work colleagues. Greet people regularly and warmly, get something (coffee or a treat) for your assistant, or simply smile more often—it is contagious!

You may be working from home. It is important to maintain personal connections with co-workers even when the office is virtual. Some options are video co-working, virtual lunches, or a weekly group meeting. Ask your colleagues, “How are you?” A little interest goes a long way toward camaraderie.

Celebrate Success—Positivity, Accountability, and Productivity. Work together towards positivity, even during difficult times, both individually and collectively. This requires everyone to stay calm, find the humor, focus on the positive, be grateful, and work together. If something goes awry, stop, breathe, and find solutions. Hold people accountable, but also maintain a supportive team. Accountability is a private matter; productive work should result in loud praise. When great work occurs, celebrate! Say thank you and share the details of success. Brag about your work colleagues’ successes to all, including referral sources and clients. You want your clients to appreciate the whole team, so they need to hear about everyone’s contributions. Support good work and clearly communicate constructive feedback to increase productivity.

We are all human. Mistakes will happen. Create a plan to have work colleagues’ backs when addressing issues with colleagues or clients. Make clear to clients the firm does not tolerate client abuse directed at attorneys or staff. Formally identify the matter’s most senior attorney as the client’s resource for addressing concerns. Gather all the facts before providing responses to client inquiries. Take responsibility when mistakes occur, and promise to do better. In fact, do better without attacking colleagues.

Cultural Sensitivity. Be culturally sensitive to world issues like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, unemployment rates, isolation related to COVID-19, parents’ need to concurrently work and educate or care for their children, and the myriad of other issues that will affect you and your employees. Heavy issues weigh on everyone differently. Be flexible when you can. Maintain a policy specific to cultural sensitivity outlining the firm’s expectations. Cultural sensitivity leads to mutual respect and trust in the firm.

Staff Relations and Maintaining Healthy Boundaries

Staff are an integral part of the practice, assisting in good outcomes and positively interacting with clients. Spend time getting to know one another by actively listening and focus on common interests rather than highlighting differences. Be respectful and sensitive to staff’s preferences; go the extra mile when you can. One co-worker may like playful banter about the local sports team, while another is serious or has no interest in sports. And always be inclusive; e.g., send an open invitation for lunch rather than only inviting your favorite colleague. If a firm leader socializes with colleagues away from work, all should be invited to avoid perceptions of favoritism.

Assess the strengths and weaknesses of each staff member when assigning tasks, and offer support whenever possible. Everyone can learn and grow. Be approachable in handling questions. Maintain healthy boundaries by being considerate of people’s time, workload, and personal capacity to take on new tasks.

Respect. Respect individuals’ needs. If Jane does not work past 6:00, do not expect Jane to email or respond past 6:00, or if Joe coaches a little league team, don’t give him a big project right before a tournament weekend. Some basic “dos and don’ts”: (1) Do have happy hour, but don’t get drunk, especially as a manager. Plan in advance to optimize colleagues’ availability and ensure personal accountability—e.g., I’m going to go for one hour, have one drink, and then go home. (2) Do take colleagues to lunch, but don’t invite them on vacation. While you really may enjoy a work colleague’s company, if you are a manager, your power differential may entice someone to agree to take actions they don’t really want to. Lunch and coffee are the best opportunities to bond. (3) Do discuss causes/charities the firm supports, but don’t discuss politics, which can lead to disagreements that can divide the team.

COVID-19. The pandemic creates the additional need for healthy physical boundaries. A COVID-19 plan may or may not be required by law to keep your physical office location open. Regardless, it is a good idea to create a COVID-19 policy, noting that it is subject to change as the situation develops. Masks may be required while in the office depending on your location—if they are not legally required, consider requiring them in common spaces to protect the health of your employees. Train people on the policy you create so everyone understands the expectations and feels like safety matters.

Self-Care. Regardless of whether the firm is in-office or working remotely, expect that you and your colleagues will need good self-care. Take walks, do yoga, meditate, and encourage your colleagues to as well. Whatever you need to do to be your best helps you serve your clients. It may seem necessary to work 12-hour days 7 days a week, but that can lead to burnout. Take time to refresh yourself and be grateful for your colleagues’ strengths.

Culture Is Learned. Maintaining a positive work culture takes practice. Here are five tips to avoid an unhealthy work environment and encourage positivity:

  1. Accountability. Accountability always starts with oneself. When called on an issue, note, “fair point.” Better yet, “I apologize; I’ll work on that.” Best is to ask, “What would you like to see differently next time?” Lawyers also should let everyone in the firm know accountability (both positive and negative) is the norm and applies to all—including staff holding lawyers to account. If we’ve done something that negatively impacts success for the client or firm culture, we should expect to account and improve. Improving a firm’s culture will be difficult, and that is okay. Repeatedly congratulate colleagues on small steps towards improvement and, over time, you will foster a respectful, healthy, and optimally productive workplace.
  2. Consideration. As lawyers, we are better off if we consider how our requests of work colleagues affect them. To ensure culture stays top of mind organizationally, it should be an agenda item at regular meetings. Consistently ask: “How can we do better—for each other, for the firm, and for clients?” Solicit regular feedback on how employees are impacted by events. We no longer live in a paradigm where a client’s needs or a court’s requests come first without exception. Our colleagues are thinking about their immediate families, their futures, and other outside-of-work obligations.
  3. Gratitude. In work, like life, we are as happy as we are grateful. Share credit generously. Enthusiastically embrace employees’ suggested improvements. Show your gratitude by listening and being open to implementing their ideas. Open doors and minds show employees that they are valued. Employees who feel valued are more productive. Thank every team member for their input and hard work. A little appreciation goes a long way. A change of rhetoric, replacing sarcasm with compliments, for example, is an effective way to positively change culture.
  4. Inclusion. Be aware of micro-inequities. Ask yourself, with whom do I engage in a workday? With whom do I make “small talk”? Do I ensure I’m casting a wide net with my positive energy and collaboration? With whom do I eat lunch or otherwise socialize? Should that network be broader? What is the downside of inviting legal administrative assistants (LAAs) to lunch on days other than Administrative Professionals Day? Also, do I invite everyone? Our favorite custom at our own law firm is the daily email saying, “I’m doing x for lunch; what about you? Do you want to join?” If you are in a big law firm, that can be challenging, but what if you put that invite out to a different set of people each day? The upside is that folks you’ve forgotten about (and who, unbeknownst to you, feel left out) are included.
  5. Integrity. Building blocks for good culture include telling the truth, even when it is not easy. What is one of the hardest things for a lawyer? When they cannot meet a client deadline. From a culture perspective, that challenge is exacerbated internally if not addressed head-on. The senior-most legal professional should reach out to the client and explain the situation, apologize for the delay, own the error, and promise to do better. (Of course, it’s also important to, in fact, do better.) How does an LAA or associate feel when asked to call a client and relay a fabricated excuse for a late project? Not good. Anything short of 100 percent honesty perpetuates insecurity about respect. That LAA/associate who exaggerates to a client about a challenge also may wonder what statements made to them by the legal professionals with whom they work are exaggerated. A key corollary to telling the truth is honoring one’s word. If you say you are doing x on a particular date, make every reasonable effort to do x on that day. Occasionally we can’t meet those commitments, and in those instances we may have been able to plan better or perhaps circumstances changed. Either way, we need to own it. As most of us know, we should under-promise and overdeliver (to clients, courts, colleagues, and opposing counsel). If you do not know what you can offer within a specified time period, be straight about that. Transparency = trust. Now, there are some lawyers whose life’s work has involved being sneaky with opposing counsel. At times that can benefit clients. But to build the trust among our colleagues that will keep us together, we must not be sneaky with our colleagues.

Dealing with Workplace Issues

Educate Employees. Review the firm policies and update any outdated policies. Provide firm-wide training on expectations as to culture, social media use, and compliance with employment laws. Training everyone ensures the whole team has the same base knowledge and an opportunity to ask questions about policies, expectations, and laws. Good training will enhance respect, cultural inclusion, and diversity and will help to avoid instances of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.

Handbook. Make sure the firm has clear policies, including where to report concerns if someone feels discriminated against, retaliated against, or simply treated poorly. If someone has a concern, investigate the concern. At minimum, your firm should have the following policies: at-will employment, benefits, attendance, PTO/sick time, workplace conduct, respect, anti-harassment, nondiscrimination and nonretaliation, meal and break periods, safety and health, including a pandemic policy. If your handbook is missing any of these policies, consult an employment law attorney.

Investigate Problems. Follow through on investigating concerns either using internal HR or, if appropriate, hiring outside employment counsel to investigate. If the “bad actor” in the complaint is a partner, supervisor, or someone in HR, it is a good idea to use a third-party investigator. Their unbiased look into the situation will instill trust in employees and maintain the integrity of firm management.

Discipline. Policies should clearly outline the repercussions for failure to meet expectations, up to and including termination. Discipline needs to be certain and consistent. Violation of rules, misconduct, and bad teamwork need to consistently result in coaching or discipline. Employees (up to the senior-most person) should be given a chance to improve, unless there is serious misconduct, but consistent failures to meet expectations should not be tolerated.

Terminate? Attempt to rehabilitate bad actors with additional training or personal coaching. However, if someone is a repeat offender, it is important to get rid of bad eggs to avoid liability and to improve firm morale.

Knowing When to Outsource HR Issues

To avoid problems, you WANT to hear about them before they get too challenging. Thus, all good policies encourage employees to come forward with concerns/complaints. There should be more than one option for raising issues. Select the right internal leaders for handling employees’ concerns. Choose people with empathy and compassion, who are good listeners and have the skills to assess when they need help from outside the organization. Have those people educated by the firm’s employment lawyer and attend educational CLEs or other programs on HR-related topics so they have the tools they need to effectively communicate with employees and flag issues.

Employment lawyers are your friends. Get tips on avoiding issues. And if you experience something you haven’t dealt with before—a disability, pregnancy, or a request to work from Peru—call your employment lawyer. If there has been a complaint against a partner or manager in the firm, call for help. Almost everything is fixable if you address it head-on and with care.


A healthy work environment requires ongoing attention, nurture, and care. Clients, employees, and the world circumstances may all change. Be open, adapt, and seek innovative solutions by working together. If you commit to maintaining a healthy environment, put in the work, and stay positive, your firm will thrive for years to come.

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Sheila Engelmeier is the founder of Engelmeier & Umanah, P.A. in Minneapolis, Minnesota. With nearly 35 years of employment law experience, she handles the full panoply of employment litigation and counseling matters, including employer training for maintaining a healthy workplace to avoid claims and mediation and arbitration.

Heather Tabery is an employment law attorney at Engelmeier & Umanah, P.A. in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She represents employers and employees in many capacities, including advising employers how to maintain a respectful workplace and avoid situations that can lead to costly litigation.