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November 01, 2020 The Leadership Issue

Three Ways Law Firm Leaders Contribute to Internal Conflict

By reviewing solutions to three common mistakes, law firm leaders can avoid creating internal chaos.

Debra L. Bruce

Law firm leaders often unknowingly create or exacerbate internal chaos and conflict within the firm. They aren’t entirely to blame. Many rise to their leadership position by being the biggest rainmaker in the firm or a stellar expert in their area of practice, not for having the most training and experience in law firm management. Law schools don’t teach that.

This article discusses three mistakes firm leaders commonly make and what to do about them.

Mistake #1: They don’t adequately explain their rationale.

Any leadership directive can have unintended consequences. If employees don’t understand the reasons behind a policy, some may be unmotivated to fully cooperate, creating friction with those who do comply. Or, a zealous employee may apply the principles erroneously or dogmatically because they don’t grasp how circumstances justify adjustments to accomplish the firm’s goals. The resulting confusion can sow discord and jealousies due to perceived unfairness.

The solution.

When giving directives or announcing changes, get in the habit of including “because . . .” followed by an explanation. When people understand and support why a leader wants to pursue a certain course, it fosters morale and helps everyone row in the same direction. That takes a little more of the leader’s time in the short run but avoids a lot of headaches in the long run.

Mistake # 2: They don’t clarify roles and responsibilities.

Many aspects of law firm administration require action or oversight that overlaps multiple roles or departments. When roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined, lines of authority get fuzzy, and turf battles and misunderstandings often result.

By way of example, can the IT department make independent decisions on firm software purchases if they fall within the IT budget? Or should the office administrator have final approval on the vendors with whom the firm does business and the employees who get the new technology? Who decides when to pay the invoice? The accounting department, which has the full picture of firm finances, or the contract administrator? Where does the end user, who knows whether the product functions as promised, fit in?

The solution.

Firm leaders, in consultation with department heads, should clarify lines of authority and who has responsibility for what, especially when processes cross departmental boundaries. Lawyers often want to focus on practicing law, and leaders may expect others to just work it out. However, law firms attract and even demand talented high achievers, and that may spawn competition more than collaboration. People need management and leadership.

The RACI method can be used to facilitate effective distribution of tasks and responsibilities among team members. RACI stands for responsible, accountable, consulted and informed. Identify where stakeholders fit in the process by these definitions:

Responsible. Those who do the work to achieve the task. There can be multiple responsible persons.

Accountable. The party ultimately answerable for the thorough completion of the task. Has ultimate authority over the task and the resources allocated for its completion. There should be exactly one accountable person specified for each task.

Consulted. Those whose opinions or expertise are sought, which requires two-way communication.

Informed. Those to keep in the loop on progress of the project, which only requires one-way communication. They needn’t be involved in ultimate decisions but may be affected by them.

In the above example involving the purchase of firm software, the roles and responsibilities might be assigned as follows:

  • Responsible: IT manager and staff.
  • Accountable: Firm administrator.
  • Consulted: Accounting, end user.
  • Informed: End user.

The project involves several different tasks, so they might be broken down in a RACI matrix, which might look like this:


Fire Admin

IT Manager


End User

Choose Software


C, R


C, I

Choose Vendor





Pay Invoice

C, I


A, R



Firm leaders should not necessarily be involved in assigning responsibilities at the granular level reflected in this example. The firm leader can be the accountable party for an initiative to sort out high-level roles and responsibilities in a RACI process, giving responsibility to the firm administrator for designing and implementing the process and requiring consultation with all department heads and other significant stakeholders. The firm leader can inform stakeholders who are affected at the appropriate times or delegate that responsibility to the firm administrator. The firm leader must actively remain part of the process, however.

Mistake #3: They fail to hold people accountable for bad behavior and poor performance.

When one person habitually misses deadlines or creates a shoddy work product while others burn midnight oil to deliver on time with quality, resentments develop. Firm leaders need to clearly communicate expectations and hold employees accountable. Sometimes, however, a lot of finger-pointing occurs as employees blame each other for deficiencies.

The solution. 

The firm can utilize workflows, checklists and documented processes to clarify expectations, responsibilities and timelines. Assignments and status updates can be visible to everyone involved in the process by using law practice management software such as Clio, Practice Panther, MyCase, Rocket Matter, Zola Suite, Matter 365, Smokeball or others. If the firm doesn’t have practice management software, project management programs like Trello, Asana and Microsoft Planner can allow team members to see the current status of action items, their due date and the person with responsibility. Accountability may even take care of itself when everyone can see where the bottleneck comes from and whether work is distributed evenly.

Addressing some other types of bad behavior requires more mettle and skill on the part of leaders but can be far more important. Many law firms do not hold rainmakers accountable for disrespectful, demeaning or harassing behavior because they fear losing the rainmaker’s valuable clients. They may let other offenders slide because confronting them would involve an uncomfortable conversation. They don’t recognize the true price of permitting such behavior.

The conflict negatively affects morale, employee engagement and firm loyalty. It triggers turnover, lost productivity and mistakes made by upset people (including bystanders). Sometimes lawsuits, grievances or other regulatory action result. Additional costs accumulate in the form of time lawyers and administrators spend addressing the fallout and hiring replacements for departures.

The conflict resolution techniques most law schools teach involve adversarial tools for beating the other side. Those methods undermine ongoing working relationships. Because leaders lack training and confidence in de-escalation, collaboration and problem solving, they often avoid dealing with troublesome issues among employees, allowing them to fester. In some cases, the “offending party” may be unaware of the complaints or their level of importance to leadership. As a result, the unconfronted offender does not correct the poor behavior, perhaps because he is unaware of his impact on others.

The solution.

Firm leaders should strive to enhance their communication and management skills. There are many resources to assist them. Two of my favorite books that provide practical and effective tools are Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High and Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior, both by Kerry Patterson, et al. The books are available in audio format, so those who don’t have time to read can listen while driving, exercising or doing mundane chores.

Many podcasts and YouTube videos teach communication skills. VitalSmarts, the company led by some of the Crucial Conversations authors, has a YouTube channel with helpful videos. An affiliated podcast called VitalBytes has compact episodes discussing the application in real life of the Crucial skills. Some additional relevant podcasts are Communication Junkie, The Look & Sound of Leadership and Talk About Talk. Online Communication Skills Training Courses with Dan O’Connor is a helpful YouTube channel.

If your firm suffers from discord, you probably recognize these likely causes. Now you have a path to finding solutions. 

Debra L. Bruce


Debra L. Bruce is president of Lawyer-Coach LLC. Capitalizing on 18 years in law practice, she coaches lawyers on leadership, management and productivity. She is the co-chair of the ABA’s Productivity & Knowledge Strategy Committee and has held leadership roles in law practice management committees of the Houston and Texas bar associations.

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