Positive Professionals: A New Approach For Building Better Law Firms

While the phrase “work/life balance” can be convenient shorthand for prioritizing individual well-being, it’s not a phrase I like very much—particularly when it comes to lawyers and law firms.

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I do not believe that work and life are separate things that can be perfectly balanced against each other. Thinking about work as this thing we endure to earn a living, so that we can later do those things we long to do to feel truly alive, is a miserable way to spend our days.

I don’t think Anne Brafford would disagree with me on this point, but she might talk about it a little differently. For her, the work/life balance conversation is a little more nuanced. She would point out that all of us must make choices. And those choices have consequences for our work life and our home life. She would point out, however, that our choices are heavily influenced by our work cultures. And one of the most important things a law firm can do is support its lawyers’ efforts to make good choices.

Positive Professionals: Creating High-Performing, Profitable Firms through the Science of Engagement is a book aimed at helping law firms do just that—to create work environments that will support lawyers’ efforts to live healthier, happier and more purpose driven lives, while being more fully engaged in their work.

Over the last several years, the American Bar Association and our state bar associations have done a remarkable job of promoting individual attorney well-being and expanding the definition of wellness. However, we have yet to tackle the need for change in the traditional law office environments in which most lawyers spend their days. Unless and until changes are made there, lawyers are going to continue to experience distress at levels that impair our ability to do our work well and impair our profession as a whole.

Anne puts it this way:

If a goldfish is living in a bowl of polluted water, it doesn’t matter how optimistic and resilient the little guy is. Eventually, he’ll float to the top, belly up, after slowly suffocating in the murk. Law firms need to clean up their fishbowls. It’s not realistic to focus only on individual-level [well-being strategies] without also cleaning up the “pollution” and enriching the environment.

Given law firms’ traditional focus on profitability and the bottom line, this “enriching” of law firm environments is no small task. But if lawyers are going to live up to their full potential, and actively preserve our system of justice, it is necessary. Changing the traditional law firm culture is the foundation for promoting attorney well-being. And that is why Positive Professionals could be one of the most important books written for the legal profession in the last decade.

Engagement

Positive Professionals begins with a discussion of what is meant by “work engagement” and why engagement should matter to law firms. Work engagement is essentially the ability to be totally present and energized at work, and through that energy, achieve optimal performance. This is a concept easy to envision, but difficult to actualize.

Nevertheless, it’s worth the effort once you begin to understand what is available to firms when their lawyers and staff are fully engaged in their work. Through the exploration of a substantial body of research, Anne makes the argument that there can be a direct correlation between work engagement and law firm profit. While it would be nice if firms promoted work engagement for other reasons, Anne’s discussion of this research can make most skeptical, bottom-line-oriented pencil pushers support programs that promote an energized workplace.

The Foundation of a Positive Law Firm

After discussing the importance of work engagement, Anne then explores the four foundations upon which a positive law firm is built: Meaningfulness, Self-Determination Theory, Positive Emotions, and Transformational Leadership.

We all long for work to provide more than a paycheck. We want work to provide a way of being alive in this world instead of a Monday through Friday kind of dying. But the majority of law firms ignore the potency of this longing. Most firms continue to believe that the most effective mechanism for motivating lawyers is the traditional approach of extrinsic reward and punishment—if you want lawyers to bill more hours, pay them more money when they exceed billable hour goals and show them the door when the goals aren’t met.

We know that good data can subvert bad theories. And this is where Anne’s work really shines. Anne is not only a lawyer with almost two decades of Big Law experience, she is also a scientist. She methodically explores the research around the diverse reasons people find satisfaction at work and the demoralizing effect of incentives. She also looks at why the carrot-and-stick approach is not a viable strategy when it comes to building a law firm and increasing motivation. Anne’s summary of the research compels all of us to explore how short-term metrics can adversely impact our long term goals.

My favorite part of this book, however, is Anne’s discussion of Self-Determination Theory (SDT). SDT is the idea that we’re all naturally inclined toward growth and well-being, and that our growth depends on the extent to which our environment thwarts or meets three basic needs: autonomy (the desire to be self-directed), competence (the desire to improve at something that’s important to us), and connection (the desire to feel a part of a group).

Again, the image of a law firm that crafts a culture around SDT stands in stark contrast to the traditional firm built around fear of not meeting billable hour targets, guilt for not working on weekends, and social pressure of clocking “face time” at the office.

This is how Anne describes it:

Just as Cheetos and Big Macs can fuel us, fear and guilt can motivate us—but not optimally. And not over the long-term. If we instead supply our bodies with vitamins and nutrients by snacking on nutritious treats, we’ll have more energy to perform at our best. Similarly, SDT’s three basic needs [autonomy, competence and connection] are nutrients [that]energize high-quality motivation [while achieving]optimal performance.

Making It Real

It’s easy to offer theories and discuss the research, but how does a law firm go about creating the kind of culture that offers meaning to those who work there, and motivates lawyers and staff to consistently perform at their best?

The third section of Anne’s book attempts to answer this question by providing specific strategies for fueling engagement in law firms. This is solid, practical stuff for building a firm of productive and thriving lawyers. The architecture for these strategies is found in what Anne describes as the six “narratives” of work engagement:

  • My work matters
  • I matter
  • I’m growing and capable
  • I feel energized
  • I know how I’m doing and how to get even better
  • I’m able to bounce back from setbacks

The challenge here is that work engagement is a psychological experience. That’s why it can be a tough concept for managing partners (who tend to be profoundly skeptical and imminently pragmatic). Having spent almost 20 years in the world of Big Law, Anne understands that. She doesn’t stop with a discussion of “why.” She spends a lot of time talking about “how.” The book is packed with helpful, practical strategies that any partner, law firm manager, or associate can utilize to create the kind of changes that will enable their firm, and those to work there, to live up to their full potential.

Work culture and office culture are interesting animals. They can reflect who we are—our hopes, our fears, our values—and at the same time they can shape who we become. That is particularly true in law firms, which tend to systematically perpetuate some values while denigrating others; where workaholism and the toxic mythology of work/life balance have led to profound levels of distress. Anne challenges us to envision a work culture that enlarges the human spirit instead of diminishing it. She explains why that is necessary. And she shows us what it looks like.

Positive Professionals isn’t exactly a blueprint for the overhaul of the traditional law firm. Nor is it intended to be. Instead, it is an exploration of ways to tweak our existing law firm frameworks to enhance motivation and engagement for the lawyers who work there. To that end, Positive Professionals more than achieves what it sets out to accomplish.

Nevertheless, having read Anne’s excellent treatment of this issue, I now find myself kind of craving the blueprint. I can only hope she writes a sequel.

About the Author

Michael Etheridge is the founding partner of Etheridge Law Group, a litigation boutique in Charleston, SC, and is the chair of the South Carolina Bar Association’s Attorney Wellness Committee. He also blogs at lawyersinsearchofsoul.com.

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