Although most people tend to avoid conflicts, the best law firm leaders understand that conflict, when handled correctly, can be beneficial for a firm and its members. Leaders and managers may initially be tempted to ignore conflicts in the hope that they will eventually disappear. As attractive as this approach may appear, it frequently causes lower employee productivity, morale, engagement, and retention. In the worst situations, failure to address conflicts can lead to legal actions that must be defended.
If you are a law firm leader whose natural instincts are to hide or wait rather than address and resolve conflicts, how can you learn to demonstrate leadership when dealing with conflicts within your firm? Start by being curious, shifting your thinking about conflicts, and developing some key conflict-resolution skills. Here are seven tips to help you change from a conflict avoider to a dynamic problem-solving leader.
The most effective law firm leaders do the following…
1. See intra-firm tensions as normal and healthy, and conflicts as an unavoidable part of law firm life.
Let’s face it—law firms are high-stress environments due to demanding schedules, constant deadlines, and an adversarial system. Every work environment has its share of misunderstandings, personality conflicts, and rivalries. Potential areas for conflicts abound in law firms, such as a firm’s direction, strategy, and priorities; reporting relationships and job responsibilities; use and division of revenues, and clashes over sharing staff and working in teams. Accepting that conflicts will occur and can be resolved is the first step to take.
2. Understand the numerous negative consequences of habitually avoiding, deferring or failing to resolve conflicts.
When you fail to address conflicts, firm members can interpret your inaction in a number of ways. They will often assume that as their leader, you either don’t care about the conflict or aren’t fully aware of its importance and the impact it is having on firm members. In short, they tell themselves that you are out of touch, or worse yet, don’t care. They may also feel that you don’t have the skill, courage or confidence to tackle tough conversations. Either way, their respect for your leadership is weakened.
3. Find it useful to shift out of a purely lawyerly or legalistic mindset and instead consider the emotional dimensions of a conflict.
Many studies have shown that leadership effectiveness is more dependent on emotional and social intelligence than cognitive intelligence. Your lawyer mindset may have conditioned you to unconsciously think in terms of win or lose, right or wrong, black or white or all or nothing. This is useful when dealing with adversarial situations, but being overly reliant on logic and argument as well as this kind of binary thinking has its limitations when dealing with conflicts. It’s necessary to consider the emotional factors that are at play beneath every conflict. They often drive a conflict and are a potent obstacle to its resolution. When assessing the emotional side of a conflict, you also need to pay attention to the relationships, status and power dynamics of firm members involved in a conflict.
4. Achieve greater competence in dealing with conflict by understanding firm members’ personal hot buttons, triggers and preferred conflict resolution styles—including yours.
Conflicts are usually triggered by a precipitating event that can lead to anger, stress, and frustration if not quickly addressed. Even if you are normally calm, collected and patient, you, like everyone else, have hot buttons that may lead you to lose your composure and overreact. We all have our own unique triggers and hot buttons. Take time to reflect and contemplate what your hot buttons are, so next time you are better prepared to deal with them. Some of the more common ones, according to studies, are unreliability, perfectionism, micromanagement, narcissism, arrogance, untrustworthiness, and overt hostility. It’s also helpful to understand how you—and other firm members—typically respond to conflict. How assertive and cooperative are you when confronted with a conflict? Do you tend to avoid or accommodate? Is compromise your default way of handling things or do you get competitive? Or perhaps you try to collaborate with others in seeking to resolve a conflict?
5. Have the ability to self-reflect and recognize when, where and how they may have contributed to a conflict.
Take the time necessary to reflect, learn and know yourself, so you won’t overreact when faced with a conflict. Ask yourself whether you are part of the conflict—does it involve you personally or do you have a stake in it? You can respond to conflicts with either constructive or destructive behaviors. Constructive behaviors such as expressing emotions, reaching out, or delaying a response until tempers have cooled tend to reduce tension and keep the conflict focused on ideas, information and problem-solving. Destructive behaviors such as demeaning others, focusing on personalities, retaliating, hiding emotions and avoiding tend to make things worse and escalate conflicts.
6. Help firm members achieve greater competence in dealing with conflicts.
Once you acquire and demonstrate the skills needed to resolve conflicts, other firm members will learn by following your example. Firm members may have very different triggers and responses than you do, so recognize and appreciate their unique perspectives and qualities. Help them learn to resolve their own conflicts and have more productive conversations by getting them to pause and first reflect on who is involved in a conflict and why, and how differences in power and status may be influencing their behavior and that of others. Although leaders should generally not avoid conflicts, you don’t have to solve every conflict that comes your way. Give firm members the opportunity to resolve their own conflicts before and after coming to you. Coach them through the conflict when skills or perspective are needed, but leave the responsibility for a resolution to them so they can improve their own skills.
7. Use conflicts as an opportunity for firm-wide learning, growth, and healing.
Conflicts are not only problems to be solved but opportunities to learn. Be curious and ask yourself and others such questions as: What can be learned from this situation? What could have prevented this conflict from occurring? Is this a recurring conflict? How might others and how might I have contributed to this conflict? Set a positive example for the members of your firm by keeping an open mind, remaining curious, and displaying a willingness to be influenced by what others say and do.
As a law firm leader, it is imperative for you to develop skills in handling conflicts in your firm. If you follow the seven tips described above, you will be well on your way to improved interpersonal communication, stronger working relationships, and a more positive firm culture.
About the Authors
Andrew Elowitt is a professional certified coach and practice management consultant specializing in leadership, talent, and career development for lawyers and executives. Marcia Watson Wasserman is president of Comprehensive Management Solutions, Inc., a law practice management consulting firm. They are co-authors of Lawyers as Managers: How to Be a Champion for Your Firm and Employees (ABA 2017). Contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org and Marcia at email@example.com.