How to Handle Mistakes at Work – Yours and Others’

Most of us have experienced that sick feeling in our guts when we’ve realized that we made a mistake at work. And not just a little mistake, but a mistake that is going to take some work to fix. A mistake that we worry will forever affect our credibility going forward. One that we think at best will blow over in a little while or we decide at worst will cause our peers and our clients to lose trust in our judgment.

 Certainly some mistakes are quite serious. Some are the consequence of extreme carelessness or ineptitude and the results can be career-ending. But those are not the mistakes we are talking about here. We want to address the vast majority of mistakes: honest errors that can eventually be rectified. The real impact of an honest mistake is largely determined by how it is handled in the aftermath – whether the mistake is yours or a team member’s.

 So, what should you do when a mistake is made?

 Maintain Perspective.  The first thing to do is to keep things in perspective. Perfection is often expected in professional settings, but no one is infallible. Unless you or your colleague made an error while charged with the safety of human life, e.g., as a pharmacist or a bus driver or a nuclear power plant manager, the mistake was not deadly and can probably be corrected.

·      If the mistake is an employee’s, don’t overreact. Don’t scream or lose your cool. Stoking fear is never the answer, especially if you hope to develop the employee and have them bounce back. “[Stoking fear is] counterproductive because humans don’t perform to their optimum level when the brain becomes preoccupied with fear and uncertainty,” says Don Rheem, a leadership expert and author of Thrive by Design: The Neuroscience that Drives High-Performance Cultures. [1]

 So, once you’ve taken a breath and put things in perspective, what next?

Take Responsibility, Apologize and Correct.  Don’t make excuses or allow an employee to make them either. Accurately assigning responsibility for the error to the correct party not only allows them to own it and move on, it helps pinpoint how the mistake happened so similar mistakes can be avoided in the future.

·      If the mistake is yours, acknowledge it, sincerely and concisely apologize for it, whether to a co-worker or a client, and go about fixing it. Many times the reaction to a mistake will be the key to how others view the mistake in the first place. Don’t add unnecessary drama to the situation. Take care of it and move on. If you seem to have things under control, you will retain the trust of your colleagues.

·      If the mistake is an employee’s, encourage them to take responsibility, apologize and correct as well. While in some instances you may need to apologize on behalf of your company or firm to a client, when possible you should allow the employee to do so directly. Giving the employee power over managing the aftermath of the mistake helps with accountability and fosters an environment of trust – i.e., if the employee feels that you trust them to make things right, they will be able to move forward productively without worrying about never-ending repercussions for their error.

Learn from the Mistake, Move On and Perform.  Once you’ve acknowledged the mistake and, when possible, corrected it, ask what can be learned from the mistake, let it go and move on. When you do move on, make sure you dependably generate stellar work product. A mistake once in a blue moon will likely be forgotten if it’s overshadowed by excellent performance 99% of the time.

·      If the mistake is an employee’s, allow them to move on and give them the tools to excel. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge the mistake and check for similar errors in the near future if needed, but don’t hold the error over the employee’s head forever. Foster a culture in which everyone is encouraged to learn from their mistakes, and then sincerely allow employees to do so. If you isolate them or cut them off, employees will never be able to put their learnings into practice. Either you trust them with their work, or you don’t. Most employees will remain well aware of their prior mistake(s) and try earnestly to avoid them in the future.

As noted earlier, there are certainly some mistakes that are nearly impossible to correct, let alone rebound from. But most errors at the office are correctable and, when handled with the right perspective, become opportunities to lead, learn, promote accountability and improve performance.

[1] Quoted in AdWeek, (August 22, 2017) What to Do When an Employee Makes a Mistake. Retrieved at https://www.industryweek.com/leadership/what-do-when-employee-makes-mistake.

Does a Lawyer’s High IQ Compensate for a Low EQ?

Emotional quotient (EQ), also known as emotional intelligence (EI), is defined as “The capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”[1] This capacity is crucial to many leadership competencies, not the least of which is influence, something “essential to leadership as a social skill in order to make progress and get things done through – and with – others.”[2]

 “You can’t order people to do what you want, you must persuade or inspire them to put forth their best efforts toward the clear objective you have defined.” – Daniel Goleman[3]

 Most of us have heard the term EQ used in general discussions about work interactions, and perhaps you’ve even experienced the negative personal impact of a low EQ in coworkers – specifically, those who manage others. In fact, low EQ in senior management can result in high turnover, an antagonistic work atmosphere, and low morale. In addition to making for a miserable work environment, low EQ in senior management can give rise to high attrition, which, at a replacement recruiting cost of $50,000 to $100,000 per lawyer, is no small problem.[4]

 And, as if that’s not enough, you might be surprised to know that insurers have begun to suspect that low EQ on the part of lawyers results in higher risk of malpractice claims, just as it’s been shown to do with doctors.[5]

But lawyers are smart, right? One would think their high IQs would allow them to recognize this problem easily and nip it in the bud!

Not necessarily. Studies have shown that while attorneys do score high in intelligence, they generally score below average in emotional intelligence.[6] It’s a perception that is, frustratingly, borne out frequently in fictional portrayals of the legal culture. For every “Atticus Finch” there are a dozen “Phillip Stuckeys” (Jason Alexander in Pretty Woman) or “Thomas Hagens” (Robert Duvall in The Godfather films).

So we know there is a problem. However, can you really improve your or anyone else’s EQ? As it turns out, you can.

According to the Harvard Business Review, one’s EQ capacity is “firm”, but not necessarily “rigid.” [7] By receiving coaching on interpersonal skills and how to manage stress levels, attorneys can indeed increase their EQs. In fact, studies suggest that, “with adequate training, people can become more pro-social, altruistic, and compassionate.” [8]

 As a bonus, it seems that EQ training for the workplace inescapably benefits the trainee’s personal life as well.

 So, it can be done! But how?

 Psychologists have broken down the concept of EQ into four separate skill sets. By consistently working on those skills, you and your colleagues can slowly but surely up your EQs.

  • Self-Awareness – i.e., the ability to grasp and understand your own emotional state. This requires you to acknowledge your triggers and realize when you are feeling angry or stressed. It sounds easy, but how often have you reacted to something in a way that was a tad over the top because you were stressed out about something else entirely? When you feel “off,” take a second and ask yourself why.

  • Self-Management – i.e., the ability to control your emotions. Once you’ve recognized your emotional state for what it is, you need to be able to manage it before it controls you. This is not complicated, but it can be challenging to have this kind of willpower. The old mantra “just take a deep breath” comes in handy here. If you can step back from yourself for even a second, you can gain perspective and more effectively manage your own emotions.

Combining the two skills above allows you to better manage stress by recognizing it for what it is. Once you have mastered that, you can separate your emotions from a problematic situation and calmly communicate possible solutions – whether to a fellow colleague or a client.

  • Empathy – i.e., the ability to identify emotions and reactions in others, regardless of how you feel. If you think you have trouble with this, focus on listening, observing, and asking questions. Look up from whatever document you are reviewing or case law you are trying to explain and zero in for a moment on the colleague or client with whom you are dealing. It’s easier than it seems and is often simply a matter of shifting focus for a short period. It’s highly important to be “present” when engaging with a colleague.

  • Ability to Build Relationships. This skill is essentially a combination of the previous three. Once you understand your own emotions and how to manage them and are aware of what’s going on with your colleague or client, you’ll be able to build a rapport with them that will allow them to trust you and your judgment. Be the person you would feel comfortable taking advice from.

Again, building your EQ is not complicated, but it does take persistence and dedication. Try to hone the above skills each day, and before you know it you will be a better leader and lawyer – not to mention friend, partner, and family member – for it.

[1] Emotional intelligence (noun). In Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved from: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/emotional_intelligence

[2] Key Step Media (2017, August 8) How to Influence with Emotional Intelligence. Retrieved from https://www.keystepmedia.com/influence-emotional-intelligence/

[3] Key Step Media (2017, August 8) How to Influence with Emotional Intelligence. Quoting Influence: A Primer. Retrieved from https://www.keystepmedia.com/influence-emotional-intelligence/

[4] Juetten, Mary (2017, August 14) Attorney Well-Being: Start with Emotional Intelligence, Law Practice Today. Retrieved from https://www.lawpracticetoday.org/article/attorney-well-being-emotional-intelligence/

[5] Muir, Rhonda (2015, June 13) The Psychology of Malpractice, Law People. Retrieved from https://www.lawpeopleblog.com/2015/06/the-psychology-of-malpractice/

[6] (2017, September 26) How emotional intelligence makes you a better lawyer, YourABA. Retrieved from

https://www.americanbar.org/news/abanews/publications/youraba/2017/october-2017/how-successful-lawyers-use-emotional-intelligence-to-their-advan/

[7] Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas (2013, May 29) Can You Really Improve Your Emotional Intelligence? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2013/05/can-you-really-improve-your-em

[8] Ibid.

Building a Legacy

Last year I was offered the opportunity to be the keynote presenter at New York City’s Association of Legal Administrators’ (ALA) annual symposium, whose theme was Embracing Change: Building Stronger Leaders for Tomorrow. 

Preparing for the presentation, I reflected on some major milestones in my life and what I had to do to embrace each one successfully as I traveled along my leadership journey. I then had the privilege of sharing the following six actions with a large group of ALA members and sponsors. We started with a few laughs, shared a few tears and, most importantly, took the time to commit to one action we could each actively do on that day to “embrace change and become a stronger leader.” 

As I transitioned from college to work, I had to LEARN as much as I could. 

As I honed my skills in my career, I had to LEAN IN and DEEPEN my expertise. 

Later in my career, I had to lift my head and LOOK AROUND to see what I was missing and what trends were on the horizon. 

When my first child was born, I had to LOOK INSIDE and clarify my personal values so I could integrate my professional and personal lives in ways that would satisfy me. 

As I transitioned into a business owner, I had to learn how to coach and LIFT UP others so both they and we could be as successful and satisfied as possible. 


My last transition is still happening as I think about the LEGACY I want to leave. This frames my thinking and my approach to how we lead our business. The loss of my beloved mother and the legacy she left reminds me every day of the power of relationships and the lasting impact we have on others—both professionally and personally—when we think not only of the work we do together but how we care about each other and make each other feel along the way. 

I am grateful every day for how the content from The Leadership Challenge® helps me to be the leader of my own life. Two years before my mother died, for example, I gave serious thought to our relationship. I re-visited my values and decided to prioritize time with my mother. I live a busy life, travel frequently but am home on weekends. So, I asked my mother if we could have breakfast together every Sunday. She happily agreed and we set a goal to try every diner and breakfast place in mid- and southern-New Jersey. We loved our Sunday breakfasts together, learning more and more about each other. Often our morning breakfasts would turn into afternoon shopping and movies. On March 8th, 2017 while grabbing my luggage from a carousel at Newark airport, I got a call from my brother. My mother had suffered a brain aneurism. She never woke up and was removed from life support a week later. What I know for sure, is that I will never regret and instead am extremely grateful for our Sunday morning breakfasts together. 

As I strive to live my values, I am confident I am Modeling the Way as I want the world to see me. Each day as I think about my legacy, both professionally and personally, I become a bit clearer on the actions I can take every day to get there. 

Natalie Loeb is founder and CEO of Loeb Leadership, a certified women-owned business and a Global Training Partner of The Leadership Challenge®. With over 25 years of experience in executive coaching and known as an innovative business leader and strategic partner to her clients, Natalie leads her firm in the creation and realization of its vision: to help build high-trust cultures that inspire employees to change, collaborate, grow, and perform at their best—creating a positive impact on themselves, those around them, and their organizations and communities. She can be reached at natalie@loebleadership.com.

Dealing with a Toxic Colleague

No matter your industry, you’ve likely had the unfortunate experience of trying to cope with  negative or otherwise toxic colleagues. You know who they are. They’re the coworkers who backbite, gossip, bully, undermine, complain, and generally suck the energy from you and your team. They’re selfish and exhausting. Some are truly unethical or corrupt. They change the tenor of a room the moment they enter. When a toxic colleague’s name appears on an incoming call, you think twice before answering – if you answer at all.

 While dealing with toxic colleagues can be a daily challenge on a personal level, according to a recent Harvard Business School Study,[1] “even relatively modest levels of toxic behavior can cause major organizational cost, including customer loss, loss of employee morale, increased turnover, and loss of legitimacy among important external stakeholders.”

 If you’re like most people, you’d be astonished to know how much time you waste even thinking about toxic people at work, let alone dealing with the repercussions of their poisonous conduct. So it’s well worth understanding how to deal with, and eradicate where possible, such destructive behavior.

 If you are not in a position to terminate a toxic employee yourself and must contend with him or her as a colleague, there are some ways you can respond and set boundaries that will allow you to remain productive and diminish personal strain.

·      Keep your distance. Create physical and emotional space between you and your toxic coworker.[2] Engage with them as little as you are able, depending upon your job. Toxic people are often just seeking attention, so keeping it from them may serve to minimize their provocative conduct.

·      Counter negativity. If you feel comfortable defending a colleague who’s being undermined or gossiped about, or supporting a team member’s decision or action, do so tactfully. Letting a toxic coworker know that you find their comments off-base might cause them to think twice before sharing them further.

·      Respond with brevity or even silence. If you don’t feel comfortable countering negativity, then don’t. Simply don’t engage in caustic conversation and avoid responding at all to inappropriate comments – particularly those made via text or e-mail. Even a smile and a hurried “Excuse me, I have a meeting” can get you out of an unwanted breakroom interaction if necessary.

·      Reward positive behavior. If, by chance, the ordinarily offensive coworker behaves in a supportive or positive manner, acknowledge it genuinely.

·      Don’t stoop to their level. You won’t be happy if you roll around in the mud, so to speak, with a toxic person. Maintain your own high, personal standards when dealing with them, and with the rest of your colleagues, that serve as an example.

Of course, some colleagues are so toxic that the only way to decontaminate a workspace entirely is to eliminate the poison. If you have tried as best you can to improve your relationship with a particular colleague, or at least minimized your engagement, but have had little success, seek the advice of an HR professional. Leaving your job to get away from a toxic coworker should be a remedy of last resort.

If you are in a position to make an employment decision about such a person, don’t wait until they’ve caused irreparable damage – including the loss of valuable team members – before you take action. Regardless of a toxic employee’s skill set or experience, behavior that negatively impacts an entire team of people is bad for business.

Ridding your team of a toxic employee, as you might suspect, has its challenges. Be as detailed as possible when documenting the events justifying the termination. It’s relatively straightforward to justify termination for provable ethical violations or corruption. But what about less egregious behavior? Avoid vague claims like “you have a bad attitude” or “you’re too negative.” Rather, cite real examples of toxic behavior – e.g., “you screamed at Susan in a meeting” or “you claimed Dave’s work as your own”, etc.

 Sadly, the conduct that has made the employee toxic to begin with can make terminating their employment a more delicate undertaking than usual. In today’s ruthless online world, unhappy, insecure ex-employees seeking revenge can do a lot of damage to individuals and former employers on company sites and across social media. (This can be more immediately damaging than an eventual legal action by the employee.) So, in addition to the standard practice of managing the termination in the presence of an HR representative, you should request from the employee a legally binding separation agreement that protects the company from slander.

 The above are a few ways you can manage the unfortunately all-too-common presence of toxic colleagues in your office. The list is not exhaustive, but will hopefully serve as a starting point to help make your team as healthy and mutually supportive as possible.

[1] Housman, Michael and Minor, Dylan (2015) Toxic Workers. Harvard Business School Paper No. 16-057. Available at: http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/16-057_d45c0b4f-fa19-49de-8f1b-4b12fe054fea.pdf.

[2] Burkus, David (2018, November 2) How to Deal with Toxic Coworkers, Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creative-leadership/201811/how-deal-toxic-coworkers.

 

 

Achieving Diversity in the Legal Profession

ACHIEVING DIVERSITY IN THE LEGAL PROFESSION

Most of us know intuitively that diversity in the workplace is important. We hear repeatedly about companies striving for gender, ethnic, racial, and LGBT diversity in their hiring practices. Endless numbers of task forces and committees have been formed for years to address the issue.

But social justice and the desire to foster inclusivity are not the only reasons to broaden the ethnic and cultural composition of a company or firm. Research has shown that businesses of all types in the top quartile for diversity are more likely to outperform their competitors.1

Diversity, it turns out, is good for the bottom line.

So, if we know workplace diversity is a laudable goal (for a number of reasons), and we are committed to creating it, why is it so hard to achieve – particularly in law firms, and especially in the upper echelons of the legal profession?

While things have improved in the past few decades, they are not changing as quickly as they could be – especially at the top.

Nationwide, nearly 65% of active attorneys are men and 85% of active attorneys are white.2 And the National Association for Legal Placement’s annual report, issued in January, indicates that the percentages of minority partners and women partners each grew less than 1 point from 2017 to 2018.3

The good news is that your firm can make meaningful change. Below are some ideas to help you work toward a more diverse workplace at every level.

* Think Outside the Recruitment Box. Are you focused on the ostensibly limited pool of diverse candidates and not your recruitment process? Shift that focus.

o The pool is less limited than you think. The ABA concluded that nearly 20% of law school students in the past twenty years have identified as minorities, and that the percentage has recently increased to 30%.4

* In fact, many top-tier law schools, including Harvard, have recently reported that minority students comprise over 40% of their incoming classes (the Harvard Law School class of 2021 is 49% women and 44% students of color).5

o Really look at unconscious biases in your firm that may be creating barriers. Where are partners meeting clients and/or potential recruits? If they are socializing or golfing solely at exclusive clubs with a low minority presence, that must change.

o Who is part of the recruitment decision-making process? They should reflect the diversity you are hoping to achieve in hiring.

o Are you in a law school rut? Broaden the law schools from which you recruit. Law degrees from big-name schools are impressive, but you should take care not to confuse a candidate’s potentially privileged background with their real abilities. Star students at smaller schools can be hidden gems.

* Recruit with an Eye to Retain. Recruiting a diverse group of associates is only the beginning. Retaining them and keeping them on the road to partnership is equally important, otherwise those minority percentages we looked at above will never change.

o Let new hires know that you will accommodate cultural and religious holidays and office-appropriate, ethnically-based clothing choices.

o Develop mentoring programs for new associates that specifically focus on making new hires comfortable and aware of opportunities for advancement.

o Work with local cultural institutions to help new hires who’ve moved to the area make community connections that will deepen their ties to the region.

o Ensure your firm fosters acceptance and genuinely values employing a variety of people. Avoid quotas and avoid being accused of using minority lawyers as “diversity props”6 – i.e., hiring them to trot them out at meetings and in front of clients, but not mentoring and developing them into senior attorneys and partners.

o Think long-term. Focus on diversity in all employment matters, not only when you’re filling a position.

o Does your firm meaningfully acknowledge events like Black History Month or International Women’s Day? Think of ways to celebrate or recognize a variety of holidays or cultural touchstones,

* Be Willing to Invest. Invest time and money in sincerely training partners and associates as to the value of diversity in the workplace. Avoid if possible those sometimes excruciating on-line ‘classes’ offering awkward office scenarios and then requiring employees to pick the ‘best’ answer. By investing in face-to-face, mind-expanding programs, you will expose all members of the firm to points of view not ordinarily seen by them.

Above are just some of the things your firm can do to attract and retain a diverse group of talented colleagues. Achieving real diversity in your firm will require playing the long game.

We welcome your ideas and success stories!

References:

1 Hunt, Vivian, Yee, Lareina, Prince, Sara, and Dixon-Fyle, Sundiatu, Delivering Through Diversity (January 2018), https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/delivering-through-diversity 2 ABA National Lawyer Population Survey 10-Year Trend in Lawyer Demographics, (2018), https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/market_research/National_Lawyer_Population_Demographics_2008-2018.pdf

3 Flaherty, Scott, Law Firms Took Steps Forward in Diversity in 2018, Not Leaps: Report, (January 9, 2019), https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2019/01/09/law-firms-took-steps-forward-in-diversity-in-2018-not-leaps-report/ 4 Various Statistics on ABA Approved Law Schools, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_education/resources/statistics/

4 Various Statistics on ABA Approved Law Schools, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_education/resources/statistics/

5 HLS Profile and Facts, https://hls.harvard.edu/dept/jdadmissions/apply-to-harvard-law-school/hls-profile-and-facts/ 6 Flaherty, Scott, Ex-Associate Alleges North Carolina Firm Used Her as 'Diversity Prop', (March 6, 2019), https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2019/03/06/ex-associate-alleges-southeasts-robinson-bradshaw-used-her-as-diversity-prop/

The Role of the Legal Secretary

It has always been the case that by delegating certain tasks to a legal secretary, lawyers can free up valuable time for their clients and themselves. Furthermore, ensuring that tasks are handled by the lowest-cost resource at a firm saves lawyers time and clients money.  

However, the role of the legal secretary has changed substantially over the past two decades, predominantly due to the advent of the personal computer. Younger lawyers in particular are much more likely to type their own correspondence and legal documents than those of earlier generations, and digital files have in many instances made paper document management obsolete.  

 But, how much of a lawyer’s perceived “self-sufficiency” is actually a recipe for inefficiency? It’s worth considering. In fact, with a bit of training – mostly for lawyers – you may find that legal secretaries are as vital as ever in keeping you responsive to clients and as efficient as possible, regardless of your office size or practice area.  

 Delegating for Efficiency 

 It will come as no surprise that study after study has found that distractions are the enemy of workplace productivity. What if you could train yourself to delegate a variety of essentially administrative disruptions to someone you trust? You might be surprised at how much more legal work you accomplish in a day – not to mention how much earlier you can leave the office – when you’re not dealing with all the little things that just seem so easy to do yourself. 

 Below are some areas in which delegating to a good legal secretary can be invaluable: 

  • Certain Client Calls and E-mails. We’ve all been the client on the end of a frustrating customer service call or e-chat – unable to get a non-scripted human to help us. Legal secretaries can interact personally with clients to schedule meetings, answer basic questions about process, timing or billing, and even obtain client information. Having a trusted colleague able to answer the phone and respond quickly to e-mails will make clients feel valued and allow you to focus your energy on actual legal work for those clients. 

  • Marketing. If you’ve ever found yourself wasting precious hours trying to format a PowerPoint presentation for a speaking engagement, navigate your firm’s Facebook page, or print labels for a mailing, you know what a distraction marketing can be. Everything from marketing material preparation to social media engagement to your client holiday cards can be handled by your legal secretary. 

  • Mail and Package Receipt/Delivery. If you open your mail over your recycling bin because most of it ends up there, you know there must be a more efficient use of your time. Your legal secretary can prioritize incoming mail and packages for you, as well as prepare your outgoing mail and arrange any required messenger deliveries. 

  • Finance and Expenses. Invoicing and billing can take an extraordinary amount of time each month, as can organizing receipts for taxes and/or reimbursement. General billing can be handled by your legal secretary, as can documenting your client, CLE, and other expenses. 

  • Filing and Organizing. So much of the paperwork we handle now is digital, but that doesn’t mean it requires less organization. An overwhelming number of document drafts can be accumulated by sometimes even the smallest transaction or case. Plus, now that so much communication is done via e-mail instead of by phone, maintaining organized and easily accessible document and e-mail filing systems is crucial to an efficient practice. 

  • Research. Any legal secretary should be able to perform basic research on press coverage of a new law, details about a new client, or information on an opposing counsel for you. And, depending upon the size of your office and type of practice, your legal secretary might even be able to check legal citations via Westlaw or Lexis/Nexis, saving you from scrolling through data. 

Above are just a few examples of the types of things legal secretaries should be handling to help keep your office running smoothly. With today’s fast-paced digital world, lawyers are expected to respond to all variety of communication thoroughly and often at lightning speed. The days of “snail mail” and having the luxury of time to review documents and formulate strategies is long gone. A good legal secretary will allow you to recapture some of that precious time, benefitting you and your clients. 

Rise to Inclusion: Try Curiosity instead of Conflict

“What is right, can never be impossible!”
-Captain Sir John Lindsay, in the film
Belle

Almost ten years ago I had the privilege to present at a NALP conference. I was one of four coaches speaking to a group of law firm professionals about the use of executive coaching in law firms. Attendees at the presentation were offered a 30-minute on-the-spot coaching session to get a sampling of how coaching works. As attendees entered the conference room set aside for the coaching, they could choose any available coach to engage in a session.

When Tracey West, the Associate Dean of External Relations, Diversity & Inclusion at Boston College Law School approached the conference room, she made a bee-line straight to me. She said, “I’d like you to be my coach. Is that okay?” I welcomed Tracey and we went to find a quiet place to sit and talk. Before we started the coaching session, Tracey told me, “I really enjoyed your section of the presentation, and I knew right away I wanted to work with you. Look. I even wrote in my notes, “the engaging black coach.” I smiled, looked at her notes, felt very humbled as Tracey described me as “engaging”, and then looked at Tracey and said, “You think I’m black?” And she nodded and smiled while saying “Yes.” I immediately asked Tracey, “Are you?” Tracey said “of course.” And I said, “Wow, I thought you were white...and by the way, I’m not black, I’m white.” We both roared with laughter at how wrong we both were, however, it led to a great conversation and an even better professional and personal relationship.

So other than laugh, what did we do next? We did what lots of mothers do and showed each other pictures of our kids and commented on their color too. My white son looked darker than her black children. We laughed. And then I showed her my daughter with fair skin, blond hair and green eyes and we laughed again about the unpredictability of genes. Our curiosity about each other, our cultures, backgrounds and life experiences provided the stage for candid, respectful and open communication. Since we approached each other with curiosity, a safe space for genuine and candid conversation developed. I asked Tracey about being a black woman in America today and Tracey inquired about my ethnic and religious background as an Ashkenazi Jew.

Commonalities were easy to find: as professionals, mothers, spouses and proud Americans.  Likewise, we were both interested in learning and development, so there was plenty to talk about. Being curious about our differences with a healthy respect for each other has given us both many teachable moments, particularly when societal pressures may threaten to inhibit individual dialogues.

I see echoes of our interactions in the 2013 film Belle. Based on the real-life events, the film concerns the relationship between the title character, a mixed-race girl and her white cousin who were raised as equals among the nobility in 18th century England. After Belle’s West Indian mother dies, her English father, Captain Sir John Lindsay is forced to leave his child with his unenthusiastic aunt and uncle, the Mansfields, in order to perform his military duties. It turns out the Mansfields’ daughter Elizabeth is the same age, and the two cousins develop a friendship they navigate into adulthood despite being overshadowed by the politics of race and class culture in their time.

The Curiosity Ladder

Adi Ignatius references recent research in the Harvard Business Review article, “Cultivate Curiosity.” The author notes: “Curiosity improves decision making because it reduces our susceptibility to stereotypes and to confirmation bias; it fuels employee engagement and collaboration; and it fortifies organizational resilience by prompting creative problem solving in the face of uncertainty and pressure. In short, curiosity boosts business performance.” Ignatius’s conclusion supports the argument for curiosity.

Judging → Understanding → Respecting → Appreciating → Valuing Differences*

Choosing curiosity as the tool to use when encountering someone different from ourselves provides the platform for understanding. Think of it this way: as humans, we climb to the first rung of the curiosity ladder when someone is different from us. This rung is called “Judging.” And the behavior of judging one another can cause conflict. If we choose to rise on the curiosity ladder, the next rung is “Understanding.” On this rung we can choose to practice curiosity and inquire and ask questions to understand. If we choose to go higher, we can move to the next rung of the ladder, “Respecting” and demonstrate respect for each other’s differences. From there we can strive to go higher and “Appreciating” each other’s differences. The highest rung of the ladder is one level higher: that of “Valuing” our differences. As we reach the height of “Valuing Differences” we are so far away from judging, we can instead choose to value the unique and exquisite differences our friends and colleagues bring to our work and our lives.

Perhaps when the majority of us get there, we will have transformed society! I remain hopeful our society can get there as a whole. The clip “Soul Sisters,” from a 2017 episode of CBS Sunday Morning shows us why. It profiles Miami preschoolers Jia Sarnicola and Zuri Copeland who say they are closer than best friends, closer than sisters, even. In fact, Jia and Zuri truly believe they’re twins - not because they share the same skin color (they don’t), but because they share the same soul.

*Based on DiSC® Classic, ©2011 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. “DiSC” and “Wiley” are registered trademarks of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

The Generational Disconnect Between Law Firm Partners & Associates

By: David B. Sarnoff, Esq., With Natalie Loeb, Gordon Loeb & David Robert  

Editorial Note: We changed the names of those interviewed for this article to maintain their anonymity.  

When I was a junior associate in the mid-1990s, partners and associates were able to connect over common life experiences, in how we grew up and began our careers. Even though many of the partners were more than 20 years my senior, we were all raised before the internet and cell phones, we were content with seven channels on television, we went to the movies and rode our bikes to the park. Despite the technology advancements in the 90s, many functions at our firm were still being done manually or with limited automation. I recall bates stamping documents by hand and researching caselaw in a physical library with the help of books (gasp!), digests, reporters and supplements.1

Over twenty years later, law firm life has changed dramatically. We often hear from our leadership training clients about the generational disconnect between junior associates and partners, creating challenges to a productive workplace culture. The common threads in these stories include a lack of mutual understanding of each other’s needs, how others communicate, give and receive feedback and collaborate.  This may be the result of having fewer common life experiences than with the previous generation. 

I spoke at length with an attorney, Michael, who has practiced law for over twenty-five years and was a partner at an AmLaw 100 firm. He recalled the excitement he felt after graduating from a prestigious law school and starting his career at a large New York firm. From the first day on the job, he felt a deep sense of commitment to the firm and aspired to be a partner. He doesn’t see the same commitment from the new generation of associates.

Michael discussed how when he was a junior associate the practice of law involved more human interaction, collaboration and mentoring. With respect to the law firm library culture, he said, “I would analogize it to the college experience. At the law library, there were always a group of young associates talking to one another at the reference desk or at each other’s table.” Practicing law was a social activity. “I think it built some esprit de corps,” Michael added, and would lead to establishing relationships outside of work. 

Document reviews, or due diligence trips, presented additional opportunities for attorneys to strengthen their bond. During the early part of Michael’s career, he would frequently join junior and senior attorneys to off-site trips to review thousands of pages of documents that were stored in a warehouse. The document review in many respects was an opportunity to essentially live together in the same hotel, eat together at the same restaurants and engage in informal chit-chat that increased the degree of awareness and collaboration across the team. Although the document reviews could slip into the mundane, Michael appreciated the opportunity to connect with his peers. “Document review trips felt like being in the trenches,” he recalled. “You got to know people better and there was that sense of shared experiences.”

With the technological explosion in law over the past decade in e-discovery and artificial intelligence, there are fewer of these extended document review trips. “The law library has been rendered almost extinct,” Michael shared, underscoring the sentiment of many of his contemporaries. Millions of documents are now streamed through servers to an attorney’s desk and, in many ways, law can be practiced without ever leaving one’s office. That’s certainly inconsistent with how Michael was trained. “The practice of law has become a lonely experience,” Michael said. “I can go days without seeing an associate.”

Shawn, another seasoned partner I spoke with, shares some of Michael’s perspective. He sees erosion in the sense of urgency among junior associates, partly due to the changing dynamic between partners and associates. “Small firms are trying to take my clients and big firms are trying to take my clients,” Shawn said. “It is so hard to bring in business but so easy to lose a client when mistakes are made, or a client feels disrespected.”

Shawn sees a lack of understanding across the associate ranks of the practice of building and retaining strong client relationships. Practicing law isn’t always glamorous. The small transactional tasks can be just as important as the richer assignments, but associates don’t always share that same perspective. “When I give assignments, I’m occasionally greeted with an eye roll,” he shared. “Associates need to understand that each assignment, no matter how mundane, is critical to solidifying the firm/client relationship which helps grow more business and profitability.” 

“I am still waiting to get a junior me as an associate,” Michael said, although he knows that is unlikely given the generational divide. 

Not all partners see these emerging challenges as directly related to a generational gap. “I have never had to deal with so many spread sheets and reports,” said Cathryn, a partner who has been practicing law since the early 1990s. She points to a shift within her firm toward hyper examination of compensation, expenses, and investments. She describes the shift as the legal profession morphing into the legal business. She doesn’t think the generational gap is contributing to the firm’s challenges to the degree that others may assert. “The quality of the associates hasn’t changed in 15 years,” she said.

When reflecting on firm culture today, Cathryn offered some advice to both associates and partners. She advised associates to “align yourself with good lawyers and people who can give good guidance. Learn from firm leaders.” As for firm leadership, “if you want top talent, then understand top talent doesn’t want to work 24/7. Firms need to offer professional development so associates feel valued.” 

Kim, an HR Director with many years of big law experience, couldn’t agree more. “A lot of things get blamed on the Millennial generation simply because they are young,” she said. “There is a lot of ageism against the younger associates.” And Kim doesn’t hold back on why there might be challenges between partners and associates. “Millennials are less likely to take crap and they will express themselves. That is not something that generally happened 20 years ago.” Kim’s perspective hits a chord with many of the recruiters I spoke to as well. “Millennials demand more and if they are not heard they will move,” Kim said. “Because there is such a negative stereotype around Millennials, firms aren’t listening to what associates are saying and are dismissing their concerns.” 

Michael supports Kim’s call for action. “Leaders need to be responsive to needs and desires,” he said. “Young lawyers may want a lot of different things and that doesn’t make them bad or ineffective people.” Michael encourages partners to recognize that the conventional model has changed, and that firms can be trailblazers on Millennial engagement only if they are willing to change. But he knows that change at a typical law firm moves at a glacial pace. “Firms need to cultivate their second- and third-year associates,” Michael added. 

Associates clearly offer a differing perspective on law firm life. “We work hard, bill big hours and make sacrifices to perform at a high level,” said Jennifer, an associate at a large firm. “No matter how much a firm will promote long-term growth opportunities and the chance to make partner, we obviously see that only a small number make it every year.” Jennifer shared many stories about the pressures of the associate role and why she feels somewhat cynical. “It’s just not an honest conversation and that is why some associates don’t aspire to partnership because they believe firms are not dedicated to their development as an attorney or leader.” 

Other associates shared Jennifer’s perspective, particularly as it relates to partner expectations. “We are placed in a difficult situation where we are told we don’t take initiative and simply wait to be given instructions,” Jennifer adds. “However, we are not permitted to act alone, and I can’t contact a client directly without running it through a senior associate or partner.”

Carla, a partner at a different firm, added yet another perspective on the changing times within the legal field. She said that while there still needs to be improvement in women leadership and partner development, it is much better than when she was coming up the ranks nearly thirty years ago.  She describes the reaction from her firm leadership when she told the partners she was pregnant. “I felt as if I had to apologize, because some partners viewed it as a lack of seriousness in working toward partnership.” 

 

It’s safe to state that the practice of law is being disrupted at a rapid pace. Clients are commoditizing services, competition to retain clients and talent is fierce, and there’s an awakening spreading across the industry to the acceptance that a firm’s legal expertise may not be enough. Perhaps the caliber and effectiveness of the internal relationships, particularly between partners and associates, may be the necessary focus for long-term firm success.  

“Rather than focus on what separates us, maybe this is the right time to start a conversation about what unites us,” said David Robert, Chief Strategy Officer at Loeb Leadership Development Group. “People gravitate to the legal profession for a compelling reason. We may find that partners and associates have more in common than we think. Let’s start there.”   

A mid-level associate, Stephanie, suggests some examples that could begin to build a bridge.  “As a young associate, I feel that partners often underestimate the value of our presence during court proceedings, depositions, or any instances of client interaction. Even if we’re simply there to silently shadow, the opportunity alone allows us to absorb skills and techniques that we’re not exposed to through document review or legal research.”  She continues, “the ability to shake hands and introduce ourselves to clients allows us to begin establishing relationships that will ideally strengthen the clients’ connection to the firm.” 

Additionally, Stephanie offers other opportunities to connect, including, “professional development seminars, particularly “lunch and learn” discussions, with partners, are incredibly beneficial. Law school courses don’t address the true nuts and bolts of the industry or impart expertise that can only be gained through experience. The sheer wealth of knowledge and experience that partners possess, position them to be the ultimate educators for the next generation of lawyers,” she concluded.  

Natalie Loeb, Founder and CEO of Loeb Leadership Development Group, sums it up this way, “approach your work with your colleagues, teammates, bosses, clients and direct reports with a sense of curiosity, a dose of empathy and a willingness to have a two-way discussion... and close the gap.” 

INFORMATION ON THE AUTHORS

DAVID B. SARNOFF, ESQ., is Director of Strategic Partnerships of Loeb Leadership and an Executive Coach. dsarnoff@loebleadership.com,  866-987-4111.  

NATALIE LOEB is Founder and CEO of Loeb Leadership and a Leadership Coach. natalie@loebleadership.com, 866-987-4111. 

GORDON LOEB is COO of Loeb Leadership and an Executive Coach. gordon@loebleadership.com, 866-987-4111.   

DAVID ROBERT is Chief Strategy Officer of Loeb Leadership. david@loebleadership.com, 866-987-4111. 

Who Really Performs Better: The Perfectionist or the High Achiever?

 By: David B. Sarnoff, Esq., with Natalie Loeb, Gordon Loeb & David Robert  

Our work needs to be perfect, right? Isn’t the risk too great if it’s not? As a legal professional, you are likely to answer a resounding “Yes!” to both of the above.   

But, is perfection even possible? And, perhaps more importantly, is it worth trying to achieve?  

Merriam-Webster defines perfectionism as “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” This means that the perfectionist will continue to perform tirelessly until they believe the work product is perfect. But – and herein lies the problem – that belief is entirely subjective. So, the perfectionist may never believe they’ve achieved perfection. Spurred on by self-doubt, they labor interminably on a task, impacting overall project workflow, frustrating colleagues, straining imminent deadlines, and ultimately disappointing clients. (We’ve all heard the phrase “analysis paralysis,” and it may actually be the result of a culture of perfectionism.) 

“Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it.”  
― Salvador Dali 

 Now, what about high achievers? Don’t they harbor the same tendencies as perfectionists? In some senses, yes. But there are key distinctions. “Although perfectionists and high achievers [both desire to] excel in their goals, there is a significant difference between the two,” says Robin Farber, an Executive Coach and Psychotherapist. “Perfectionists are driven by a perfect outcome as a way to seek temporary emotional relief from a painful feeling.” This suggests that perfectionists are motivated by the fear of failure or rejection. “Perfectionists find it difficult to enjoy the small wins along life‘s journey,” continues Farber, “which can take a toll on the individual, the team, and the organization.” 

High achievers, on the other hand, while also striving to produce an exceptional deliverable, cope better with disappointment and are not afraid of it. They see mistakes and failures as necessary steps on the road to success. Thus, they tend to have a more positive mindset, are less anxious, and find ways to celebrate even minor accomplishments and milestones.   

Now, you might say, “But clients demand perfection!” In truth, clients frequently tell us that they need their lawyers and team members to demonstrate agility, creativity, and openness to change in pursuit of an excellent result. A hyper-focus on perfectionism contradicts those competencies. Though perfectionists will claim – and believe – that they are focused on producing exceptional work product, their underlying fear of failure inevitably stifles the competencies our clients say they value.   

Sandy Rubenstein, CEO of the digital marketing firm DX Agency, sums the problem up perfectly. “A perfectionist can be the downfall of a creative environment, limiting the free flow of ideas and possibilities.” She adds, “Although perfectionists are typically great project managers, in today’s fluid business environment a perfectionist can sometimes have difficulty with the non-tangibles, the curve balls, and out-of-the-box thinking.”   

Sometimes the best ideas are borne from the analysis of a mistake. While certain mistakes can indeed be costly, if your firm consistently punishes even the slightest error, then a variety of valuable, constructive, and creative activity will be avoided for fear of embarrassment or rejection.  

What if you work alongside a perfectionist? As noted by author and therapist John Amodeo, PhD., “People who are addicted to perfection are often isolated. They don’t have many friends. They’re afraid that people will see through them, so they don’t let anyone get too close.”1  Thus, you can enhance the effectiveness of your interactions with a perfectionist via a handful of proven methods, one of which is empathy. “The most important thing is to be empathetic,” says David Robert, Chief Strategy Officer at Loeb Leadership. “Remember, perfectionists tend to fear rejection, so it’s important to let the person know that you understand their perspective.”  

Perhaps more challenging is how, as a leader, you should provide feedback to perfectionists vs. high achievers. High achievers, fortunately, welcome it. They require just a bit of “TLC” feedback to improve (i.e., Timely, Limited to one behavior, and clearly describing the Consequences of the behavior). For example, “Yesterday, we missed a deadline to get a draft to the client for review. The client is not happy.” This type of feedback, however, will land better with a high achiever ready to discuss what happened than with a perfectionist who may look to point blame elsewhere.  

In fact, because perfectionists tend to respond defensively to criticism, leaders often choose not to give any feedback. This is a mistake, because providing no feedback contributes to the loneliness that perfectionists can feel. It becomes a bit of a vicious circle. 

The good news is that, in our experience, most perfectionists are not unreasonable and will work with you to find some middle ground. “Once you demonstrate an understanding, then you can try to establish a shared vision,” notes Robert. “If you can agree on a shared vision, you’re in a better position to clarify where trade-offs can be made.” Robert suggests focusing on the client experience as a way to frame that discussion. Allow the common desire for exceptional client service to guide the process for getting work done.   

Creating an environment that rewards high achievers is the best way to ensure your team demonstrates the agility, creativity, and openness to change that clients value. High achievers “know that they are always learning and are striving to improve. Cultivating a culture that promotes high achievement and incorporates frequent feedback is often the way to the more ‘perfect’ outcomes, since high achievers are always striving,” says Natalie Loeb, CEO and leadership coach for Loeb Leadership.   

And don’t worry. If you describe yourself as a perfectionist, you’re in good company. Perfectionists who are self-aware tend to be more open to finding a middle ground as compared to those whose perfectionist tendencies reside in their blind spot. “One thing you can try immediately,” says Robert, “is to seek feedback from trusted colleagues. The more self-aware you are, the more likely you are to shift your mindset.”   

While striving for high-caliber results is any attorney’s goal, it must be balanced with rational and reasonable expectations of oneself and others. Lawyers never want to fail their clients, but incorporating certain successful elements of the tech mindset, “fail fast and fail forward,” can be helpful as we look to find a balance in our daily battle with perfectionism. Mistakes happen. Rebound quickly (fail fast) and learn from them (fail forward). Leaving space for non-perfection creates opportunities to build resilience, coping skills, self-confidence, and self-esteem. All qualities of high achievers. 

INFORMATION ON THE AUTHORS

DAVID B. SARNOFF, ESQ., is Director of Strategic Partnerships of Loeb Leadership, Executive Coach and Leadership Trainer. dsarnoff@loebleadership.com,  866-987-4111. 

NATALIE LOEB is Founder and CEO of Loeb Leadership and a Leadership Coach. natalie@loebleadership.com, 866-987-4111. 

GORDON LOEB is COO of Loeb Leadership and an Executive Coach. gordon@loebleadership.com, 866-987-4111. 

DAVID ROBERT is Chief Strategy Officer of Loeb Leadership.  david@loebleadership.com, 866-987-4111.