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June 28, 2023

Practice Management Advice: The Workplace Continuum: From Engagement to Moral Injury

John D. Bowers
Leaders must take ownership of motivating team members to develop their skills and advance their careers.

Leaders must take ownership of motivating team members to develop their skills and advance their careers.

Drazen Zigic via Getty Images

When i was in the third grade, my elementary school teacher wheeled out a television on a cart, much to the absolute delight of her class (those who lived the 1980s remember exactly what I’m describing, complete with VCR on the shelf beneath). It was January 1986 and, probably like so many other students around the United States, we were invited to observe a schoolteacher make history by rocketing into space. Except that the Challenger shuttle exploded just off the launchpad, shocking the class and sending our teacher running in tears to the office while we, momentarily unsupervised, watched the aftermath of news correspondents attempting to articulate what had just transpired. 

In my adult life, I’ve learned that the rocket engineers employed by NASA contractor Morton Thiokol had stalled the launch and, after begging and pleading, failed to further prevent Challenger’s takeoff. Cooler-than-normal temperatures at Kennedy Space Center in Florida had made the launch untenable. Regardless, NASA and management at Morton Thiokol overruled the engineering team and unwittingly caused moral injury, defined as when a person in authority disregards a subordinate’s judgment on the morally correct course of action, thereby causing subordinates to take part in, witness or fail to prevent an act which violates the subordinate’s trust and self-esteem.

Though hopefully not as dramatically, employee engagement is critical for the success of any organization, including law firms. Leaders of law practices must stop theorizing about how to engage their team members and work tirelessly toward retention, since a disengaged workforce can lead to high turnover, low productivity and poor client service. Worse, consistent overruling, particularly with respect to judgment calls on legal issues, may lead to moral injury. The following are tactics that law firm executives must immediately employ to improve employee engagement.

  1. Clear communication. Leaders must ensure that team members understand the firm’s mission, goals and objectives. They must provide regular updates on the firm’s performance and future plans. Often what is newsworthy to team members was last month’s project for a leader and, thus, not worth describing. Yet clear communication promotes transparency and helps people feel more connected to the organization.
  2. Recognition and rewards. Law firm leaders should recognize and reward team members for their above-and-beyond achievements—taking care not to reward for merely completing that for which employees are compensated. Rewards may include bonuses, promotions and other forms of recognition. When team members feel valued and appreciated, they are more likely to be engaged and motivated to work harder.
  3. Professional development. Leaders must take ownership of motivating team members to develop their skills and advance their careers. This can include providing training programs, mentoring and networking opportunities. When people believe they are learning and growing, they are more likely to be innovative and engaged.
  4. Flexible working arrangements. Law practices must offer flexible working arrangements such as remote work, technological capability or flex hours for positions that aren’t needed on-site 40 hours each week. By providing an option to work from home—even if just part time—leaders can reduce rates of resignation by 50%, according to Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom.
  5. Employee involvement. Leaders should seek to involve team members in decision-making and problem-solving. Often, administrative decisions in the office are not “life and death” but call for greater creativity or an alternative perspective. Inviting ideas on everything from fringe benefits to office layout often yields better outcomes when management is underwater managing clients, budgets and human resources.
  6. Encourage collaboration. Inasmuch as lawyers are better client counselors when they can bounce ideas off qualified peers, law practices must foster a culture of collaboration and teamwork. Forming administrative teams, conducting employee surveys and holding town hall meetings helps to build a sense  of community and belonging among people, which necessarily increases engagement.
  7. Wellness. Leaders should promote employee wellness programs, such as gym memberships, healthy snacks and mental health support. This helps to ensure that team members are physically and mentally well, which can increase productivity and personal happiness.
  8. Celebrate successes. Leaders must celebrate the firm’s successes and milestones, such as new clients, bar exam passage, or successful cases or deals. Ninety percent of lawyers are too modest; small successes are generally assumed and most attorneys only privately celebrate career-making wins. Law practices are built on a sense of pride among peers and require nurturing for team members to feel like they are part of something greater.

Employee engagement is critical for the success of any law practice of more than one person. However, many lawyers devote just enough time to be sure that, once hired, team members are kept busy. Challenges to leadership, the status quo and held opinions may be unwelcome, if not altogether browbeaten. When productivity is sacrificed for activity, especially arbitrary duties, team members given no voice in decisions vote with their feet. By implementing these strategies now, law firm leaders will create a more engaged and motivated workforce, which can lead to better performance, higher productivity and improved client service. 

John D. Bowers

CEO, Thompson Burton PLLC

John D. Bowers serves as CEO of Thompson Burton PLLC in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the founder of Integritas Executive Solutions, providing fractional CXO consulting for small and growing law practices. He is a former editor-in-chief of Law Practice and continues to serve on its editorial board. [email protected]

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