I wish I had known…how to understand the people in a law firm (Part 2)

mirror_wordsIn my post last week, I started a discussion regarding the misguided expectations that I had about what a law firm environment should be like, based on the professional work experience that I had prior to becoming a law student. What I learned is that a law firm is inherently more reactionary and faster paced (due to the nature of the work) then the previous career that I had been in. The work often involves tasks or transactions with high stakes. And the people in legal work environments react and operate accordingly. In this week’s post I will disclose the one major mental shift that helped me to better understand the people that I worked with, and how that major shift forever changed my view of my colleagues.

What I thought then:

As I discussed in last week’s post, when I started out in a law firm environment that was much different than what I had experienced in my pre-law career, I was surprised at all the differences and found myself pretty overwhelmed. Part of my surprise resulted from the demeanor I observed in my colleagues and superiors. When people are under pressure on both a daily and ongoing basis—pressure that can result from a variety of factors—they often don’t behave as they would in an ideal world. I found this high pressure environment very difficult to adjust to, and I truly wondered if I had made a tremendous mistake going into the legal field altogether.

It seemed as if almost every day came with some sort of major crisis. A deadline had come up that we had forgotten about. Someone was out sick or in court and we couldn’t find the file that we needed to transact something critical by the end of the business day. Or we couldn’t reach the client to obtain some critical piece of information that we needed in order to complete a filing, which of course needed to happen immediately.

When you have enough people in crisis mode running around in a work environment, all at the same time, with the same level of desperation, it can be extremely stressful. And when everyone is stressed out all of the time, people may not show perfect patience and respect at all times and in all interactions. I had the chance to observe several, let’s just say “less than ideal” interactions, and found myself thinking “what exactly have I gotten myself into?” And “this is NOT what I signed up for!”

What I know now:

I have so much more compassion now for the legal community as a whole than I did back then.  When you are really “green” as an attorney (“naïve,” is what I think I called myself last week), some of the behavior that you observe and find yourself participating in is almost ridiculous.  Even immature, at times. “Where are the grownups around here?” “Who is allowing this to go on?”  These are the thoughts that I had.

Looking back, from my viewpoint as a very new lawyer and an associate with quite limited responsibility (let’s just call it “the cheap seats”), it was really quite easy to judge the management style, leadership and decisions that people “superior” to me were making (or not making). While still in that environment, I had to take a step back from my own feelings about the situations I was observing and really try to understand what could be contributing to them. And now that I have been a solo practitioner for over seven years, I have much more respect for what the leaders in these high-stakes, fast-paced, intense work environments are facing. The problems, pressures and decisions that I have faced as a solo attorney, on the whole, are much more “small potatoes” than what these mid-to-large firm folks are dealing with. Please understand, I am not saying that my clients are small potatoes (they are not) and I am not saying that my work or my contribution is small potatoes (it is not). But the issues and challenges I have struggled with are smaller and more manageable crises than those that come up in firms larger than mine. In my small practice there are less client matters to manage, less people to manage, and as a result, less stressors to manage. Still, my experience running my firm has left me with a new level of understanding and compassion for the leaders in larger law firms.

I cannot even conceive of the pressures of juggling firm growth objectives, client expectations, employee management and cash flow in a large law firm. And these are only some of the moving parts that leaders in larger firms deal with, each and every day. From my vantage point as a solo attorney, I cannot imagine putting complete trust in the people who work with me and for me—people who may be quite qualified, but do not have nearly the stakes in the game that I do—to do their jobs and do them impeccably, so that we do not have to shut our doors due to a malpractice claim or the loss of an important client, all because someone dropped the ball. I cannot imagine the payroll that these folks have to worry about meeting, especially when a client (or a handful of them) is 2-6 months past due on their over $100K in outstanding invoices (or much more in some cases).

I recognize now that these sorts of pressures are not easy on folks. And you know what? I know another area of my life that looked far easier from the outside than it is in reality: parenthood. As a parent, I can tell you that when I have told my child to do something five different times and he still isn’t doing it, my patience runs right out. I think the “worn out” factor of parenting is actually a great correlation to what it is like to be in a law firm environment at times. When the stakes are that important, you are stretched so thin with pressure sometimes that you find yourself acting just like that kid you are trying to discipline. Lord knows, if I let myself “lose it” somewhere, it is with my child. I have seen some tantrums, and I have certainly thrown some myself. Stress is sometimes unavoidable when an endeavor means a lot to you, and unfortunately, that stress can have an effect on how you handle situations that arise.

With the benefit of this observation and perspective, I started to see my colleagues with fresher and gentler eyes.  I started to think…maybe I should find out how I can make their lives a little easier, rather than sitting back and judging. Maybe if I have time to observe that “we need a grown up around here,” I should put my big girl pants on be the grown up that is needed.  Maybe I could lighten a load.  Maybe I could be a part of the solution more often, instead of a part of the problem.

I have to tell you…this shift in mindset and personal accountability did wonders for me. Of course, the next step for me was to really know the people I was trying to help. Because you cannot make someone’s life easier if you don’t know them well enough to know what they NEED from you.

Next week I will discuss the specific ways that I went about getting to know my colleagues, and how those efforts made for a much more workable workplace. 

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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