October 23, 2012

Law Practice Magazine

March 2006

Volume 32 Number 2 | PAGE: 54 | BY: Marcia Pennington Shannon


Bringing Respect Back to the Profession, One Firm at a Time

I suspect that if you’ve been in the legal profession long enough, you have a story about another lawyer treating you with disrespect. Perhaps it was an adversary who acted far from professional. Maybe it was a supervisor who called you an offensive name. Perhaps it was a partner who lashed out during a meeting.

There are countless stories of discourtesy between professionals in law firms. Combine that with the effect of hearing the 100th derogatory comment from the general public about your chosen profession and what is the outcome?

Whether the disrespect comes from outside or inside the profession, it has definitely tainted a noble calling that at one time was widely considered to be one of the most prestigious. What does this disrespect for the profession, and those who practice in it, do to the profession as a whole? More importantly, for the managers reading this column, how does it affect the practice of law for you and those you lead? What steps can you take in your firm to counteract it?

A Cycle That Needs to Meet Its End

Many excellent lawyers have left the profession owing to a pattern of uncivil behavior that has flourished in the past 25 years. Still more are considering leaving. And a number of those who are left behind feel alienated, stressed and even depressed. While we can’t point to ill-mannered behavior as the only reason, it is a significant contributor.

Moreover, what about the effects on your firm? Offensive behavior leads to stress. Increased stress leads to greater occurrences of illness, higher rates of absenteeism, less productivity and more mistakes in the workplace. Discourteous behavior can also be contagious: Once someone has been the brunt of such behavior, it is not unusual for him or her to act in a similar way. All of this is part of a cycle of poor behavior affecting a profession that has diminished respect from the general public. No wonder lawyers are taking to telling the bad lawyer jokes themselves.

While individual members of the profession cannot, by themselves, stop the cycle of disrespect in one fell swoop, they can make tremendous strides toward doing so in their own circle of colleagues and acquaintances. In addition to enhancing perceptions of the profession, there are some practical reasons for doing so, especially on a firm level. The byproducts of halting rude and unprofessional behavior include increased retention of lawyers and staff, higher productivity throughout the workplace, and a greater sense of satisfaction for those involved in the firm and in the practice of law. One firm at a time, starting with your own firm, can bring civility and principles back to the profession. All in all, you’ll feel better about yourself and you’ll sleep better at night.

10 Ways to Make a Difference

There are three broad areas in which you and others in your firm can have an effect: within your firm, within the profession and within the community at large. The following are 10 specific suggestions for how you, as a leader in your firm, can make a difference across those areas and inspire others around you to do the same.

  1. Make it clear that civil behavior is the only acceptable behavior in your firm. No professional should call others names, bully anyone into doing things that are unacceptable, or shout at their colleagues or subordinates (unless there is a fire). Regardless of who the individual is—whether your biggest, most-senior rainmaker or the most-junior receptionist—the firm should consider uncivil behavior totally unacceptable.
  2. Demonstrate your commitment to respectful behavior by thanking others for their contributions to assignments and, thereby, to the firm as a whole. Yes, the firm is paying them to perform work, but showing appreciation also reinforces the fact that the individual is an important member of the team.
  3. Show employees they are valued by learning and acknowledging their special dates. For example, saying “Happy Birthday” to the people on your staff makes them feel that you take a personal interest in them. Ask about their weekend, their families, their hobbies. A couple of minutes of chitchat go a long way toward making individuals feel valued. In turn, they will feel loyal and be there when you need them.
  4. Take the time to introduce administrative and professional staff to clients. By doing so, you demonstrate respect for the value these individuals bring to the firm and its clients.
  5. Inform everyone that there will be specific consequences for abusive, disrespectful behavior. Let them know what the penalty is, and follow through on it.
  6. Make it the rule of the day at your firm to practice in an ethical and responsible way. Encourage administrative and professional staff to ask questions so that mistakes can be reduced as much as possible. Training should be a high priority for everyone. In the short run, your people will learn faster and become part of the profit center sooner. In the long run, your firm’s reputation and financial success will be kept out of jeopardy.
  7. Ensure that all your people understand that belligerent, disrespectful behavior outside the firm is not acceptable either. Those dealing with your firm should always think that, although your lawyers advocate fervently for their clients, they never lose their professional demeanor. You don’t have to raise your voice or curse at your opponents to make points for your clients. On the contrary, often the thought is that if people have to yell, they must not have a very good argument. Teach your associates that they are representatives of your firm and of the profession and, therefore, only professional behavior is acceptable.
  8. Advise your staff to respond to disrespect in a professional manner. Even if they are goaded, tell them not to take the bait. They’ll feel better about themselves and, who knows, they may have an effect on the other person.
  9. Advocate pro bono and community service for your professional staff. Lawyers should be role models for their communities. It also is a good and satisfying thing to give back to society.
  10. Look for ways of bringing community back to the profession, too. It isn’t just about the billable hour or fiscal profitability. It’s about being part of a profession filled with smart, creative people who can help those in need and feel connected to their colleagues. Attend local bar meetings as a way to get to know those who practice in your city or town. Encourage other lawyers in your firm to do the same. Building strong social relationships with colleagues in other firms instills a sense of camaraderie and civility.

The Law’s Rightful Legacy

The legal profession is an excellent one, filled with terrific people who can and do make a difference. But there are also still some who behave in a rude and unprofessional way. Changing their way of practice can have an impact on the profession as a whole. Consider what you, as a leader in your firm, can do to make the profession a more satisfying one as well as to reestablish the place it deserves in society—one of respect.

We owe it to ourselves as well as those who follow to bring respect back to the profession. I can’t think of a better legacy.