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November/December 2019

The Thriving Lawyer

Leaders Can Help Their Law Firms Thrive

Anne Brafford

Think for a moment about the most effective leaders you’ve encountered in your life. Do you have some people in mind? Great! Now think about what makes these people stand out in your memory. How did they behave? What were their special qualities? How did they make you feel? Did you want to do your best for them? Hopefully, you’re now buzzing with warm vibes as you recall your favorite leaders. Your memories are evidence that effective leadership can truly make a difference in people’s lives—including their ability to thrive professionally.

Shaping Positive Work Cultures

Lawyers are most likely to be able to fulfill their potential and maintain their psychological and physical health when their work cultures align with that goal. A key component of thriving work cultures is effective leaders. They contribute to better physical and psychological health, high-quality motivation, performance, work engagement, job satisfaction and retention of valued people. Toxic leaders do just the opposite. They kill motivation and engagement and also contribute to depression, anxiety and burnout.

While all levels of leaders affect workplace culture, it’s leaders who have the most contact with us (e.g., supervising partners, practice group leaders, etc.) who have the biggest impact on our work experience, driving almost 70 percent of workplace perceptions. All of this means that, as leaders, we have an enormous impact—and therefore responsibility—in shaping positive work cultures. 

Although developing the complex skills required of great leaders is a lifelong process, science points to many doable things that we all can start practicing now to bolster our leader effectiveness and our team’s well-being and engagement. Consider the three following ideas.

1. Pay attention to people.

Are you the kind of leader who believes that your team should interpret your silence as positive feedback—that “no news is good news”? Do you identify problems but otherwise remain rather detached? This hands-off, laissez-faire approach actually is considered an abusive form of nonleadership that fosters interpersonal conflict, psychological distress, health problems, low job satisfaction and intentions to quit. It can be as harmful as harassment because ignoring people conveys that they lack social value. Feeling a sense of belonging, that our work is valued and that we matter is essential to our health and work engagement. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article titled “The Power of Hidden Teams,” about teams in which leaders check in more frequently, engagement levels are dramatically higher. The authors, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, concluded that the most effective leaders capitalize on the value of real, human attention. You can get started on doing so simply by asking your team members two questions each week: (1) What are your priorities this week? (2) How can I help? Such regular check-ins promote people’s well-being and also can benefit the bottom line by boosting engagement.

2. Energize people with positive jolts.

Positive emotions are essential ingredients for psychological health and work engagement. Effective leaders are masters at putting positive emotions to good use by regularly engaging in supportive acts that boost followers’ mood and by sharing their own positive emotions. Even small acts make a difference. For example, a recent study found that when leaders frequently had engaged in simple positive acts over the prior four months, followers felt more positive emotions, job satisfaction, emotional attachment to their jobs and well-being. The leaders’ behaviors included simple acts like:

  • Thanking people.
  • Praising them for their job performance.
  • Cheering them up.
  • Making special efforts to help them.
  • Complimenting them.

None of these behaviors is hard or expensive. We just need to remember to do them regularly.

3. Be all what you want them to be.

Gen. Colin Powell has said, “The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do. You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example they will follow.” What kinds of behaviors are you and your fellow leaders modeling at your law firm? Perhaps a few of the following behaviors look familiar: emailing at all hours, being curt or uncivil, disrespecting others’ time, hogging credit, ignoring exercise and nutrition, not mentoring anyone but complaining about their work and work ethic, being disorganized and unresponsive so that people have no predictability in their lives and proudly announcing, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

If you recognize any of these (only somewhat exaggerated) behaviors in yourself, you might be inclined to shrug it off as no big deal. But partners and other leaders don’t get to opt out of being role models. If you have any amount of power or status in your firm, people are watching you very closely for cues about standards and expectations. And the higher you are in the hierarchy, the more closely you’ll be watched and the bigger impact you’ll have on others.

The upshot is that, before blaming our teams for lacking resilience or not living up to our expectations, we as leaders should ask ourselves how we’ve contributed to the workplace problems by our action or inaction. If we want lawyers to be respectful and collaborative, we need to be good role models. If we want them to take care of themselves, we need to lead the way. If we want lawyers to enable the well-being of others, we need to do so first. If you truly want a thriving law firm, consider taking some time to authentically evaluate your leadership. Where can you grow? What do you need to do better? How is your leadership reflected in your firm?


Law firm leaders who want to build high-performing, healthy teams should take seriously their responsibility for contributing to an environment in which lawyers can thrive. The three items listed above offer practical ways to get started on building cultures filled with lawyers able to be their best. As you begin leading the way to a thriving law firm, keep in mind the advice offered by influential psychologist and philosopher William James: “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”

Anne Brafford

Anne Brafford is a former BigLaw partner and the founder of Aspire, an educational and consultancy firm for the legal profession. She is a doctoral student in positive organizational psychology and is involved in multiple national-level initiatives focused on lawyer well-being. She is the author of Positive Professionals, which provides science-based guidance to aspiring positive law firms. Email her at [email protected]