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Law Practice Today


How to Build Resilient Law Firm Leadership

Renee Branson


  • Values are closely held beliefs that guide our behavior and way of being. Integrity is the congruence between those professed values and actual practiced behavior.
How to Build Resilient Law Firm Leadership Gordon

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Often, when law firm leaders engage in well-being initiatives, the focus is on opportunities for personal wellness (mindfulness classes or chair massages) or organizational wellness (collaborative workspaces or flex leave policies). A great need rests between the personal and the systemic, and that is interpersonal. c Resilient leadership requires people to cultivate three qualities in their teams:

  • Authentic connection. Our need to experience belonging and trust with those around us.
  • Operationalized values. The closely held beliefs that guide our behavior and way of being.
  • Grounded optimism. The realistic hope that allows us to be tenacious and employ grit when we are experiencing a crisis, challenge, or change.

Authentic Connection

It matters little whether you are extroverted or introverted, no one (aside from the true sociopath) is not wired for connection. It is part of our human experience; it is in our DNA. When we deny ourselves true connection, we can lose cognitive function and experience an increased risk of depression and anxiety. More recent studies on addiction highlight the link between substance abuse and lack of connection. People report that the feeling of isolation during a stressful time was more anxiety-provoking and depressing than the actual stressor. An authentic connection is not about fitting in (having to conform to be admitted into a group), it is about belonging (being able to show up imperfectly and being accepted).

We don’t often have control over what stressors come into our lives. Other times, however, we might actually seek out some of those stressors (like asking for that new role or promotion). How connected we feel to those in our work lives can make a difference in our ability to absorb and release the stress in a healthy way. How does a resilient manager-leader foster those healthy connections?

One way is by simply being able to identify and respond to bids for connection. We all continually make and receive bids for connection all day long in our personal and professional lives. A bid is simply an attempt from one person to another to receive attention, affirmation, assistance, or other positive connection. It might look like a chat at the water cooler about a Little League game, talking through a new idea for a project, or the need for recognition for a job well done. When we recognize and respond positively to those bids from our colleagues, it weaves tighter connections of trust and safety. Those seemingly small, daily interactions make a critical difference in times of challenge and change when teams must engage in hard conversations and difficult choices.

Resilient leaders:

  • Value authentic belonging versus simply fitting in
  • Recognize and respond to bids for connection

Operationalized Values

Values are closely held beliefs that guide our behavior and way of being. Integrity is the congruence between those professed values and actual practiced behavior. All law firms have an established set of guiding principles or values, whether they are memorialized or not. Many times they are hanging, beautifully framed, in the hallway somewhere between the reception lobby and the conference rooms. The limitation to those values are that they are often aspirational, and don’t correlate to behaviors that can be taught and measured.

Resilient leaders understand that the values hanging on the wall must come down and be operationalized into daily actions and behaviors. Those values must be applied consistently, regardless of whether they are managing up, managing down, or working peer-to-peer. Can a firm confidently say they have a value of collegiality if their managers and leaders turn a blind eye to bullying, racist or sexist behavior from the rainmaker of the group? Can they claim to value loyalty if they shrink away from the colleague they see struggling with depression or addiction? The damage to well-being caused by this betrayal of values has an impact beyond that single individual who is at the receiving end of inconsistent values. It erodes the trust and psychological safety required of healthy and high-functioning teams.

Resilient leaders:

  • Operationalize professed values into behaviors
  • Apply those behaviors consistently across the firm

Grounded Optimism

Discussing optimism can be tricky. It can easily lend itself to saccharine platitudes and a healthy dose of eye-rolling. People easily chafe at a rose-colored view of the world. Bad things happen, often out of our control and wildly unfair. When leaders embrace a skewed positivity bias (Pollyanna syndrome), the result can be the opposite of what they were hoping to achieve. Team members can question a leader’s ability to accurately assess the crisis or challenge. Perhaps worse, they might question her ability to be transparent and honest. At the other end of the spectrum, few people want to work with a doomsdayer who sees catastrophe in every challenge, either. What lies between Eeyore and Pollyanna is grounded optimism. It is an acknowledgment of three things:

  1. The current crisis, challenge, or change is indeed difficult, and the feelings that arise from that are valid
  2. The situation is not permanent, pervasive and (most of the time) not even personal
  3. The belief in the ability to succeed even in the face of mistakes, setbacks, and failure

An acknowledgment of these things requires many of us to let go of another closely held but unhelpful belief: perfectionism. If we do not have a healthy relationship with mistakes and even failure, we are apt to catastrophize. Catastrophizing is an irrational thought that leads us to believe in the worst possible outcome for a situation. While it might seem like these thoughts could spur a group into creative problem-solving to avoid the worst possible outcome, the opposite is often true. We are immobilized when we see a predicament as catastrophic. Our amygdala (the lizard brain) lights up and we go into self-protection mode. This is not an ideal mental state for thoughtful critical thinking. In other words, grounded optimism and a healthy acceptance of mistakes make us better, healthier thinkers. Managing a challenge or change in responsive, thoughtful ways reduces stress for everyone.

Resilient leaders:

  • Practice grounded optimism
  • Have a healthy relationship with mistakes

Cultivating connections, values, and optimism will not change the culture of a team or a firm overnight. Establishing these as norms within a circle of influence, be it a department, practice group, or entire firm requires an intentional choice each day. It is a process to be developed and not a product to plugin. Each opportunity to authentically connect, operationalize values, and practice grounded optimism is another thread woven into the well-being of the individuals you lead and throughout the entire firm.