I wish I had known…how to understand the people in a law firm (Part 1)

mirror_wordsIn my post last week, I talked about how your first year as an associate is quite intense, but before you know it you will acclimate and adjust…just like you did in your first year of law school.  I also discussed how that intensity is present, at least in part, as a result of adjusting to the expectations of others in your work environment.  This week, I will be discussing Part 1 of how understanding the expectations and goals of the people that you work with can help you to be more accepting of the dynamics in your work environment – which in turn leads to a more fulfilling professional experience.
Okay…so this week’s post is going to be a little more touchy-feely than what I have been writing so far, but I think this is such an important “human” issue, generally speaking, that it is worth talking about.  And if it can spare the angst (or, at least, lower the anxiety level) of professional people everywhere (or anywhere), then it is totally worth it!

What I thought then:

When I first became an attorney and set out to work in my first law firm, I had a set of expectations coming into it.  As you may recall from my first post, I had worked in a career before I started law school (and continued to work at that job full-time for my first couple years of law school…I know, crazy, right?).  Because I had a previous career, I had already been exposed to working with others in a professional setting.  I worked in a science-related field, in a company known for its research and development to produce well-known, household name products.  I worked with PhDs, marketing people, patent liasons, other technical people and managers.  And I would say that, while there were always some personality clashes here and there or the occasional deadline on a product development schedule, the work environment was pretty stable, low stress, collegial, collaborative and “happy.”
Given my past experience of a professional work environment, I had this idea that transitioning into the law world would be quite similar. That is, that a law firm would be highly stable, well-run, collegial, collaborative, prestigious and very people-driven – because the law exists to serve people, right??  You have to understand that I worked previously with very intelligent people (let’s just call them science geeks – a term that I use fondly, because I proudly counted myself as one), who were very focused on the work and the results, but were not as focused on relationships, business mindedness and strategies, etc.  So I had this impression that the attorneys in a law firm would be way more people-minded, business-minded and management-minded than what I had come from.

What I know now:

I have learned that law firms, and the attorneys that operate within them, carry stresses that I was completely naïve about.  I didn’t realize until I was in that world how much is riding on the work being exceptionally done.  How critical deadlines are in legal matters.  How everyone in the environment often does not have the luxury of time to sit patiently and explain something – whether it is their approach, their preferences about how communications and workflow are handled, or where the file that you need might be hiding.  How the work environment lends itself more to reacting to the most pressing needs of the moment than taking a proactive approach to projects.  How gears often have to switch quickly if the workload changes, or the clients change their minds, or the depositions get canceled.  Decisions have to be made more quickly than a traditional corporate environment, and any changes are often more client driven than overall vision and mission driven. In short, most law firms are fast-paced environments with high stakes and high expectations. Not surprisingly, there can be a certain amount of tension.
This different type of work environment was totally foreign to me, particularly because of the reactionary nature of the law firm environment in general (as is necessitated by the nature and flow of the work). This more reactionary posture can produce a greater level of intensity, misunderstanding and missed expectations amongst colleagues, interdepartmentally and even amongst the firm as a whole.  And I simply had a lack of knowledge about the existence of this distinctly different work environment, and how best to acclimate.
It took some time for me to observe these factors and accept them.  Up until that point, I reacted to the pressures as if they were my fault or my problem, instead of being able to recognize the distinct nature of law firm environments and the system of operation that had been long-established as a natural outcome of the nature of the work. I had to adjust to this reality, but once I did I was better able to manage the expectations of my colleagues, and my own expectations as well.
Next week in Part 2 of this topic, I will say more about what I specifically learned about the expectations of the people that I worked with, and how I came to a solid understanding of how best to work with them, within that long-established system.

Jennifer Konieczny has been an attorney for 11+ years. Having worked in big firms, small firms and corporate settings, she fully understands the challenges that attorneys face. Her passion is coaching attorneys in the areas of professional skill-building and lifestyle management, in order to help them thrive in their careers.

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