An Inclusive Firm is a Happy Firm

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Every law firm is — or should be — a team, with lawyers, staff and support personnel committed to providing the best possible service and work product for the benefit of clients.

Involving everyone in the office so that they feel a sense of inclusiveness, understand their roles and look forward to exercising them, creates a better and more successful firm. At too many firms, unfortunately, that does not exist.

Lawyers primarily focus on the task at hand and on getting results, leaving little room for camaraderie and support. Inclusiveness will produce more harmony for all, increase productivity and, therefore, profitability of the firm.

But studies have shown that inclusiveness is difficult for lawyers, who tend to be more skeptical, impatient and intense, and less interactive and able to take criticism, than the general population. When lawyers fail to make a positive connection with team members, it breeds inefficiencies in the firm and, thus, poor client relations.

Lack of inclusiveness, made more intense by the pressure of today's economy, can even create a dysfunctional firm. Lawyers may ask firm members and staff for achievements that are beyond their reach without providing explanations or resources. Accurately or not, the lawyers are seen as trying to fool the other members of the firm by saying things that cannot be believed, and too often the result is anger.

An angry law firm is doomed to fail. It's far better to be open and honest about what a firm needs to achieve and to work as a team with everyone having the same agenda, using sufficient resources to achieve agreed-on goals.

Inclusiveness doesn't just mean the relationship between lawyers and staff; it also applies to the relationship among the firm's attorneys.

In a successful firm, lawyers like the colleagues with whom they work. They value the exchange of ideas and the education of one lawyer by another, creating a camaraderie that shapes the development of a firm culture. These are real considerations, and their absence can poison a firm.

I once coached a lawyer who was not a firm partner and was driven to distraction by one partner whom she considered arrogant and a bully. The other partners, however, were nice enough, and my client was not certain she disliked the bad partner enough to leave the firm.

Yet, upon further analysis, the "nice" partners had created a problematic environment. They continued to tolerate the abusive partner, and they (as the only other partners) made no effort to involve others in the life or management of the firm.

I recently wrote in this space about the dissolution of the national firm Howrey, where the partners were apparently pulling at cross-purposes with one another on issues of compensation. Unless there is continuous open and candid communication among partners in a firm, and acceptance and buy-in for the business plan by which the firm operates, sooner or later there will be dissolution, whether by withdrawal of individual partners or wholesale departure and formal liquidation. The end result will be the same.

Communication and inclusiveness are continuous requirements to ensure that individual agendas do not subvert the firm itself.

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