I wish I had known…how to understand the people in a law firm (Part 3)

mirror_wordsPreviously I discussed my initial (misguided) impression of how a law firm environment would work, based on my past work experience. I described how, after some time and opportunity to observe, I came to a clearer understanding of the inherent pressures of the law firm environment. This new level of understanding benefitted my professional relationships almost immediately. I also discussed the resulting shift in my mindset, giving me a sense of greater personal responsibility about my role in improving the environment of my firm, and also a greater sense of compassion for the people who shared that environment. 

I used my understanding of my work environment to then make improvements to my relationships by learning more about the people in my law firm. Today I’ll discuss what I did to learn about my co-workers.

What I thought then:

As I’ve shared in past posts, I didn’t understand the high intensity nature of law firm life when I started at a firm. My former career, which had an entirely different purpose, work load, pressures, and culture, contributed to some of my expectations about what it would be like to work at a law firm. But the intensity at my first law firm left me confused and disillusioned. I observed myself (and those around me) react to stressors in what seemed to be highly dysfunctional ways. In past posts I used the words naïve, immature, and ridiculous, just to name a few adjectives that came to mind in those early, disillusioned days! While in the pressure cooker myself, I had a hard time understanding that everyone’s behavior (including my own) arose out of the intense nature of the work and the resulting intensity of the workplace. Having recognized this fact objectively, I decided to take action to better understand the workplace dynamics and the people involved, in the hopes that everyone could have a more gratifying work experience.

What I know now:

In order to understand people, you need to get to know them. I know that concept may sound a little too simple. And it is simple. But simple does not mean automatic or even easy. And it is especially not easy when you are in the thick of a busy and intense workplace!

Getting to know the people that you work with is a two-part endeavor: first, you need to understand their professional responsibilities: their position, their obligations, who they support, who supports them, and how all of these pieces fit together. We will call this “the Logistics.” Understanding the Logistics of your particular law firm is the first step to really understanding the people that you work with.

The second step in understanding your co-workers is getting to know them personally—taking the time to learn about their unique backgrounds and skills, as well as their internal drive and motivations. The ability to successfully develop understanding in this second step is a skill we’ll call Emotional Intelligence. Your Emotional Quotient (EQ) refers to how well you recognize emotions in yourself and others, and how well you manage these emotional states to work as a group or team.

In my experience, when people do not have a good grasp of either the Logistics of their law firm or the internal motivation and drive of their co-workers (using their EQ), interpersonal problems are inevitable.

So, let’s look at the first step in understanding the people in a law firm: Logistics.  Understanding your firm’s Logistics means developing an awareness of the following three factors: Proximity, Affinity and Necessity.


Who are the people in your neighborhood?  If you are in a law firm, you are most likely to place the people that you are working with into one of the following categories:  partners, associates and support staff. “Support staff” usually includes everyone else in the work environment, such as paralegals, administrative assistants, office managers, and other office staff.

If you are an associate-level attorney in your work environment, you will likely be working with at least one partner (or more than one, especially in the beginning of your career), at least one paralegal and at least one administrative assistant.

These are the people that are in “Proximity” to you.

In turn, the paralegal and administrative assistant who assist you are likely to work with other attorneys as well. Taking the time to develop an understanding of who is in “Proximity” to all of the people you work regularly with is a good step toward understanding your firm’s Logistics.


Proximity is usually driven by “Affinity.” In other words, the people that you work regularly with usually support a common partner or practice area (or both). As a result, you all have Affinity with one another. For example, in the first law firm that I worked with, I worked in a specific practice area that included 3 partners, 1 associate, 2 paralegals and 2 administrative assistants.  One administrative assistant supported at least two attorneys and at least one paralegal. Developing an understanding of this dynamic (one person supporting the work of at least 3 other people) and why (due to the Affinity of the nature of work we all did) contributed to my knowledge of how much work was flowing in the office, who the work was flowing to, when, and perhaps most importantly, why. Once I had a handle on how the Affinity of work in our practice group led to the work assignments of each individual and determined who was in Proximity with one other, it made a great impact on my ability to understand and manage our overall workflow.


Necessity is the most self-explanatory factor of firm Logistics. The people in a law firm are there because they are each necessary to ensure that the legal work flows smoothly, is cost-effective, and utilizes the unique abilities and skill sets of the individuals best suited to perform each component of the work. Because of the variety of details that comprise legal work in any practice area, there are a variety of people that are necessary to the ultimate work product. An appreciation of the contribution of each person, and how they all converge to create the end product, is the final piece of the Logistics puzzle. In other words, understanding how Necessity leads to certain work assignments and decisions about Proximity will help you manage all of your interactions more effectively.

In your early years in a law firm, you’ll probably have very little choice regarding the people you work with. The work assignments were probably set long before your offer was made, most often due to the typical work necessary to your (chosen or assigned) practice area. Yet each person has a role to play, and the ability to work productively together is crucial. In order to have that ability, understanding the people you work with, what role each person plays, and why, is absolutely necessary to maintaining a successful workplace. For these reasons, taking the time to familiarize yourself with your firm’s Logistics is a task that will certainly serve you as you grow within your organization.

Next week I will discuss the second step for developing a better understanding of the people in your workplace: utilizing your EQ.


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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