About Us Ellen in the Press 3 Ways Firms Can Create A Happier Work Environment

3 Ways Firms Can Create A Happier Work Environment

New York
May 3, 2016


Working at a law firm is not for the faint-of-heart — it means long, stressful hours and an endless workload — but this doesn't mean a BigLaw career has to involve laboring in misery. Here are a few steps law firms can take to inject some happiness into the workplace.

Attract the Right People

Vetting people to make sure there's cultural compatibility is something that law firms generally overlook, so it's important to attract the right people and then invest in them, according to John Remsen Jr., founder of consulting firm TheRemsenGroup.

Firms tend to let toxic situations languish among staff, associates and partners, but if a firm has people who berate, scream and create a hostile environment, it must deal with them assertively, Remsen said.

Senior partners, in particular, often get away with murder in how they treat associates and staff, he added, noting that firms will then often wonder why they can't hold onto an associate or secretary.

"No one wants to come to work and get yelled at and have papers thrown in your face because you didn't write a good brief," Remsen said.

The idea that "we're all in this together" and that "we care about each other and invest in each other" all starts with bringing on the right people, Remsen said.

One helpful tool could be a psychological profile test, such as the commonly known Myers-Briggs test, or the Caliper Profile or Predictive Index tests, Remsen said, noting that it can't hurt for firms to add this to the things it considers as it evaluates candidates.

"I think it's a helpful tool to assess whether you're bringing on team players, hard workers, extroverts, whatever you're looking for," Remsen said. "The firms that do it say the benefits are overwhelmingly positive."

Recognize Good Work

Law firms can create happier work environments by being more generous with compliments and support, whether from partner to partner, partner to associate, or partner to support staff, according to Michael Rynowecer, president and founder of The BTI Consulting Group.

Thanking associates and support staff for working hard is valuable, he said, noting that support staff can make your life easier and can make you look good to clients when you're out of the office.

"It makes them so much happier when they get recognized," he said.

Many law firms have high expectations that they expect everyone to meet, and some even believe that any kind of recognition or public acknowledgement of meeting that high standard somehow dilutes it. But, he said, people find that life goes a little bit easier when they get a compliment.

Lawyers are very good at focusing on what went wrong and what needs to be improved, so it's important for law firms to focus on strengths, according to Ellen Ostrow, founding principal of Lawyers Life Coach LLC.

"Supervisors tend to give much more negative than positive feedback, and that's because lawyers are trained problem-spotters, so you're in that mind frame of spotting problems in your own performance and the performance of other people," Ostrow said. "An alternative would be to focus on what people are doing right and how they are doing well."

Positive feedback, Ostrow noted, doesn't mean empty compliments, but rather, things like, "I can see you're really good at drafting this kind of document," or: "I can see that you're very good at analysis. What would you like to get even better at?"

It's important to do it frequently, she said, and to do it all the way down the line to make it the culture of the firm.

Foster Friendship

Law firms can also foster a merry atmosphere by creating opportunities for some social bonds, Rynowecer said, noting that organizations where employees feel like they have friends tend to be happier workplaces than those where they don't.

The affairs don't have to be on firm time or firm money — the important thing is for firms to provide the infrastructure to have events and opportunities for people to meet, he said. Examples of such activities could include craft beer tasting, seeing foreign films, wine tasting, anything food-related, or running or cycling clubs.

"Providing the infrastructure support that makes people feel like it's a more collegial environment makes them feel like they have more friends and they fit in more," he said.

Alternatively, Rynowecer said, law firms can create small but important diversions that aren't work-related but let people blow off a little bit of steam, even if it's just five or 10 minutes every few weeks or months.

One smaller law firm that Rynowecer knows went out and bought a bottle of bubbles — not champagne, but the kind that kids play with — and everyone went into a conference room and sat and blew bubbles for a few minutes.

Everyone thought it was silly at first but ended up having a lot of fun, he said. He also recalled one partner at a law firm who had cupcakes delivered to everyone's office because he wanted them to realize how successful they had been.

"All these little things just remind everyone that they can stop and take a small breath and go back to work and work that much harder," Rynowecer said.

Opportunities for social bonds, however, aren't necessarily exclusive to social events.

Being mindful of the "human moment" and making a positive human connection with an associate when delegating work — such as making eye contact or asking how things are going — can be just as meaningful, according to Ostrow.

"Get to know the people with whom you work and let them get to know you," Ostrow said. "Encourage people to work collaboratively with one another. Millennials in particular tend to like to work in teams. We also know from research that 'high energy connections' make for more positive and productive workplaces."


--Editing by Jeremy Barker and Catherine Sum


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Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., CMC

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