Well-Being and the Attorney-Client Relationship

A strong attorney-client relationship between in-house and outside counsel can be vital to professional success. Working within the relationship to achieve client goals, meet expectations and deliver results is certainly valued as being good for the business of both lawyers. Managing the relationship in a way that supports lawyer well-being, however, often is not valued to the same degree. It isn’t that lawyers don’t care—it’s just that to many it doesn’t seem professionally relevant. But what if I told you that supporting well-being was the magic recipe to boost lawyer engagement, motivation and performance?

How we treat each other matters. A mountain of research tells us that positive relationships not only impact our well-being, but make all the difference in how motivated and engaged we are in our work. Taking the time to cultivate caring relationships with your in-house or outside counsel opens huge opportunities for you to get the best out of your talented colleagues. On the other hand, low-quality relationships can tank lawyers’ drive. Certainly, if our goal as lawyers is to produce the best results for our clients, then well-being must become a priority.

What Factors Influence Lawyer Well-Being?

A recent study of more than 6,000 lawyers (in law firm and in-house positions) sheds light on the factors that are important to attorney well-being (Kreiger & Sheldon, 2015). The study was based on the self-determination theory (SDT), a well-researched motivational framework and theory of optimal relationship development and functioning. SDT seeks to explain how social conditions can help or harm motivation and well-being. Optimal functioning depends on the satisfaction of three basic needs:

  • Autonomy: Feeling that our actions are self-initiated and personally endorsed instead of being controlled or bossed around by others.
  • Competence: Feeling that we are effective and able to master new skills.
  • Relatedness: Feeling a sense of shared experience, that you belong, care about others and that others care about you.

The study confirmed that the satisfaction of these needs make a huge difference to lawyers. Not only were they found to impact lawyer well-being, they were also consistent with other research that link them to increased work engagement and motivation.

Relationship Behaviors That Make a Big Difference

I hope you are beginning to be convinced that supporting the well-being of both lawyers in the in-house and outside counsel relationship significantly impacts many things that you care about. But you are already a great lawyer, so professional relationships should be a snap, right? Not necessarily. Great lawyering skills don’t always translate into strong relationship skills. In fact, many of us have traits and habits that can undermine our ability to get the best out of one another. We are commonly skeptical, argumentative, self-protective, impatient and low in sociability (Richards, 2002; MacEwan, 2013). In other words, we tend to prefer focusing on the job rather than investing in relationships. Unfortunately, this tendency only gets exacerbated as we move up the professional ladder.

We can sidestep these potential obstacles by becoming aware of the relationship behaviors we should adopt and avoid. Having worked as both a law firm partner and general counsel, I have seen the best and worst of this from both sides. In writing this article I also surveyed in-house and law firm colleagues to learn what their experience showed was significant. What I found is pretty consistent with the needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness emphasized in the lawyer well-being study. The following three key behaviors can make or break motivation, engagement and well-being.

1. Give Autonomy and Don’t Micromanage

The lawyer study showed that of all the SDT needs tied to lawyer well-being, having autonomy was the most vital. This doesn’t mean not providing firm counsel with any input or direction, as autonomy can be experienced even when we comply with requests and depend on others. Instead, an autonomy-supportive relationship is characterized by behaviors of volition, trust and respect.

Micromanaging is not a successful formula to boost motivation and engagement. One lawyer I interviewed even went so far as to call it “professionally soul-crushing.” Fortunately, with a little self-awareness and effort, micromanaging tendencies can be ditched in favor of behaviors that are autonomy-supportive. Here are some ideas:

  • Use “non-controlling language.” Studies show that this has the biggest impact on creating feelings of autonomy-support (Su & Reeve, 2011). Communicate work needs, expectations and feedback in an informational and flexible style. Use requests, not orders. Avoid using pressure or guilt.
  • Show responsiveness to the perspectives or feelings of your colleague. Tell firm counsel you understand how working long hours is tough, but that you appreciate their responsiveness to the client’s urgent problem.
  • View and treat your counterpart as a partner. In-house lawyers know the client’s business best. According to one firm partner, “I do my best work when in-house counsel works as an interpreter between my office and the business people. Helping me to understand the client’s overall goals and helping the client to understand the process and legal strategy makes in-house counsel invaluable to success.” Likewise, in-house lawyers can best pinpoint witnesses and identify valuable documents.
  • Give a meaningful rationale for requests. If you need a quick turnaround, explain why. Avoid setting arbitrary deadlines.
  • Offer opportunities for choice. One lawyer I spoke with said he didn’t mind taking client calls at night and on weekends, but he also pointed out this was only because it was his choice to make himself that available.
  • Maximize a sense of self-initiation. Don’t dictate every tiny detail of how, when, and where counsel should perform your work. Recognize that they have a job to do and remember, you hired them because they brought something to the table—skills, insights and experience.
  • Know when to end the relationship. If you have honestly tried to be autonomy-supportive and you still find babysitting necessary to get firm counsel to deliver good work, your issue is probably one of quality. Find new counsel.


2. Act with Trust

It should almost go without saying that trust is fundamental to a lasting and effective attorney-client relationship. Yet acting with trust can be challenging for lawyers—especially when in-house and firm counsel are both ultimately responsible to the client. Interestingly, many of the lawyers I spoke with were convinced that they and their colleagues performed better if they felt that they were trusted. But acting with trust can be challenging when the stakes are high.

Research shows that trust increases with use. In fact, by showing trust, you are likely to trigger a self-fulfilling cycle where those who have been trusted feel motivated to act trustworthy (Dutton, 2003). The opposite can also be true. I once worked with a lawyer who never treated outside counsel with trust. Even tiny mistakes were met with accusations of bad intent, and she double and triple checked everything. It didn’t take long before her outside counsel either started to live up to her dismal expectations or simply refused to work with her, creating obvious problems for the company. A close firm colleague of mine confirmed the crippling nature of this dynamic on motivation saying, “Thinking that in-house counsel is going to throw you under the bus makes it tough to do your best work.”

Trusting behaviors that support a motivated and engaged lawyer include acting as if you believe in their integrity, competence, and dependability. So make an effort to operate with respect, to really listen, and eliminate the blame game.

3. Show Your Appreciation and Let Them Know You Care

Lawyers who feel caring connections with those that they work with not only experience increased well-being, they are much more likely to be engaged and motivated (Kreiger & Sheldon, 2015). Each of the lawyers surveyed for this article confirmed that this was true for them. One big law firm partner said, “Feeling like I am helping people I respect and care about makes me want to work harder.” Another felt that “the personal relationships I have with clients are the most rewarding thing about my job.” Similarly, chief counsel of an international company finds that treating his outside lawyers with what he refers to as “trust, respect and TLC” makes them work harder for him and produce better work.

We are more likely to work hard for people that we like. Put this into practice by paying attention to the quality of your interactions. Because we make rapid judgments based on verbal and non-verbal information, even small moments can have a profound impact on feeling connected and cared for (Dutton, 2003). Communicate respect by promptly responding to calls and requests. Appreciate hard work and show you care with comments like “I bet it was a long week, make sure you spend some time with your family.” Make eye contact. Don’t use a condescending tone. Say “thank you” and mean it.


Attorney-client relationships that are supportive of both in-house and law firm counsel really matter. Start today to cultivate more positive relationships. By doing so you will not only boost lawyer well-being, but reap the resulting professional rewards of increased engagement, motivation, and performance.

About the Author

Martha Knudson is an attorney and co-founder of Aspire Legal, a consulting and training company focused on the development of thriving lawyers and legal organizations. Contact Martha at mknudson@aspire.legal.

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