In 40 years of working with lawyers (most of these as a partner, and more recently as a coach), I have witnessed the destructive effects of law firm environments where fear and lack of psychological honesty engenders mistrust, the formation of cliques and tribes and, in some cases, loathing.
Most lawyers experience fear and insecurity at one time or another, partly because all businesses work that way. Management will play on lawyers’ hopes and fears to incentivise profitable behaviour, but that is of course only one cause. For many, fear and stress are a source of energy and drive, just as an arrow needs a taut bowstring to fly straight and true. But for many others, fear – of making a mistake, of not being recognised or respected, of being seen as underperforming, of being considered inadequate, of being de-equitised, losing their job, and so on – is a paralysing affliction, and itself creates another fear: that of being perceived as vulnerable. In the competitive, Darwinian world of a high-performing business, you do not want to be the weak one in the herd. So admitting vulnerability, and asking for help, is not something we do easily even though outing that fear and sense of vulnerability is the key to dealing with and conquering it. Understanding that we all feel it, that many fellow lawyers are in the same situation, and that it is not a sign of inadequacy to talk about it, is an important step on the journey to put fear behind us, or at least own it and work through it.
Good leadership – and good self-leadership – requires recognising insecurity in oneself and others and creating an environment where talking about it is considered acceptable and safe, particularly in times of change and adversity when fear takes hold easily. This is why building trust through good leadership is so important in law firms, as well as the many little things that contribute to that trust: gratitude, smiles, availability, open doors, appreciation, making the effort to connect, floor-walking, listening and open conversations.
Antonin Besse author of the recent Special Report, The Lawyer as Leader: How to Own your Career and Lead in Law Firms published by Globe Law and Business.