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September/October 2019

The Thriving Lawyer

Culture: The Key to Firm and Individual Wellness

Anne E. Collier
Individuals play the game, but teams beat the odds. —Navy SEAL saying

I am passionate about wellness. Everyone’s wellness. Life’s too short not to love what you do or deal with unnecessary aggravation. A partner at a BigLaw firm recently shared with me, “I don’t work a day in my life. Practicing law is play, so I get to play every day.” It’s no surprise that this lawyer is successful and valued by clients. I wish this for every lawyer.

I am also passionate about the need for firms to embrace diversity and inclusion, but not for the reasons you might think. It’s not out of a sense of fairness. Because if fairness were compelling to all, diversity and inclusion wouldn’t be a “field,” nor would the statistics on women and people of color making equity partner reflect such dismal progress over the last couple of decades. Rather, I am focused on the very practical and timeless need for people in all fields to work together for the individual good, the good of the clients, and the wellness of their organizations and communities. Whether you are solving a society’s or a client’s challenges, you need diverse perspectives and experiences to solve complex problems. Quite literally, it’s a matter of surviving and thriving. Thus, whether you care most about the firm’s efficacy and bottom line, your experience of work, or the environment and the people around you, how people work together and treat each other matters.

Not everyone shares this view. The skeptics assert that a focus on how colleagues treat each other detracts from the focus on work. It’s a waste of time, they say. They challenge the very existence of a problem because they are having a positive experience in the workplace. And, more importantly, they cite the “fact” that in a firm’s meritocracy everyone has equal opportunities to prove themselves, and that diverse lawyers who are exceptionally bright will actually have far more opportunities than white men. People have to perform, they say. They also cite the hassle factor: They want to work with people who have the same attitude toward life, work similarly, at the same tempo, and are dedicated to the practice of law.

Understanding the Power of Diversity

While I’ve referred to the skeptics as “they,” there is only “we” and “us.” The skeptics are not the enemy, just unenlightened. I challenge them to consider the costs of their colleagues having a less than positive experience by imagining what it’s like for people who don’t fit the firm’s demographic. These “different” people wonder if they are truly accepted, why they aren’t invited to lunch or coffee very often, or why they didn’t get a particular opportunity. They start to doubt themselves. If the firm doesn’t truly embrace diversity, people are stressed. And, according to Shawn Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage, stressed people have 30 percent less brainpower, which means they are less productive and less effective. Pause and note the effect of how people treat each other has on the bottom line: A firm suffers if it doesn’t make the best use of all its resources, such as when some lawyers are hampered by feeling excluded. Even if you care most about your own or the firm’s bottom line, you must embrace diversity.

This means you must also care about your firm’s culture. Culture is the sum total of how people work with and treat each other. Analyzing a firm in terms of how its lawyers collaborate effectively does more than label its culture good or bad; it assesses whether the firm will effectively serve clients, be able to recruit and retain lawyers, and is a place people want to work. In today’s competitive market you can’t afford to lose talent or be an employer of last choice.

Consider a culture in which “meritocracy” prevails: Those who are excluded may experience resentment, isolation and frustration. One person’s negativity can affect others, including staff and associates. One firm’s culture survey showed that literally everyone loved working there. Then, four months later, after a lateral hire, the best associates left because the new lateral partner micromanaged and belittled. One person’s attitude toward others makes a difference to the entire firm in the same way that sniffles spread in a kindergarten class.

Finally, have you forgotten that many clients prefer to hire diverse legal teams? The irony is that women and diverse lawyers seem to have more success in-house than they do at big firms, which means they are also making the hiring decisions. One diverse woman lawyer claimed she had a choice between two firms: one that put together a diverse team while the other team consisted entirely of white men. Can you guess which she selected?

Harnessing Diversity

You’re probably asking, what is the solution, and do I have time to implement it? Don’t worry, I am not going to ask you to do a trust fall or sing “Kumbaya.” I do, however, suggest that you have lunch with a colleague you don’t know well. Simple, right? I suspect you’ve already thought of what else you can do to create a culture that is both diverse and inclusive. And I am excited to share that, in late 2019 or 2020, we will publish the results of the ABA’s research initiative, Men in the Mix, designed to better understand why some men don’t support women, and what men, women and firms can do about it.

Whether you are persuaded by the desire to serve clients more effectively, create a better work experience or are focused on who’s hiring firms, a diverse firm is a well firm. Those who ignore these implications do so at their peril. 

Anne E. Collier is the CEO of Arudia, a firm dedicated to improving culture, collaboration, and communication. She coaches and delivers programming designed to help individuals and teams achieve greater self-actualization, meaning that they are performing well because they are confident, revitalized and resilient.