Us versus them mentality in a law firm

Us versus them mentality in law firmIf you are a law firm manager or owner, you want your law firm to succeed. To succeed, you generally need everybody moving in the same direction.

Whether the issue be the quality of the legal work being performed to the business aspects of the firm, you want your entire firm on the same page. The reality is that in any business (including law firms) there has to be a collective mentality that everybody is in it together.

From the owners, to the managers, to the attorneys, paralegals and all the way down to your support staff, everybody has to understand that it takes a group effort to have a successful law firm. It takes a group effort to perform excellent legal work and to have a firm that is financially stable.

When a law firm is successful, it means that the majority of the firm clients are happy with the services they are provided. It also means that the employees of the firm feel satisfaction for the work they perform. The employees are also compensated well for the work they perform because the firm is doing well financially given that there are: (a) happy clients who are hiring the firm; and (b) paying their invoices.

One mentality that can become prevalent in a law firm, however, is the us versus them mentality. Even the American Bar Association has referenced the us versus them mentality as a problem with some associate attorneys. If the us versus them mentality takes hold, it can start to do great damage to the law firm. Law firm managers need to watch for the us versus them mentality with their law firm. And they need to take appropriate action when it begins to manifest itself.

The us versus them mentality is where the employees focus primarily on their own individual self-interest versus what is good for the firm and the firm’s clients. Put another way, the us versus them mentality reveals itself when employees stop asking what they can do to help the firm and the firm’s clients, but instead focus almost exclusively on what they feel the firm should do for them.

If they do not feel as if enough is being done for them, then they can start to complain. They can start to gossip. They can start to loaf. Complaining, gossiping and loafing can lead to work product that is not up to par. Productivity numbers can start take a hit. For example, billable hour numbers may begin to drop. Account receivables may rise. Retention of new cases might drop.

The us versus them mentality can also show itself from a general viewpoint that the employees are us and the management/owners are them. The view that can become prevalent is that the management/owners (them) have it easy, while the employees (us) have it hard. It can also rear its ugly head through the employees (us) not following policies and procedures as a group. They (us) then collectively try to not comply with the policies and procedures of the firm. If any employee does not give their loyalty to the employees (us), and instead complies with policies and procedures of the firm, they are often viewed as outcasts, suck-ups or sell-outs.

The us versus them mentality can arise in a law firm for an abundance of reasons. Often, it can begin through bad hires that were not thoroughly vetted.  In other words, the employee might be a me-monster and/or overly ambitious.  They might also have unrealistic salary exceptions or it might be their first legal job. For example, new attorneys or other administrative staff might have wildly unrealistic expectations how law firm life really looks.

When it isn’t how they visioned it in their head, they can become frustrated that it wasn’t the nirvana they thought it to be. They can then think that the management/owners (them) should change their policies, procedures and the way they operate their law firm to please them. If they do not, they (us) can band together and form a counter-culture within the firm. They might even form a drinking or social group where they get together to complain.

What do you do if the us versus them mentality is starting to take hold in your firm? Obviously, you need to have somebody talk to these individuals about their questions, concerns and perspectives. There are times where employees can be coached and mentored back into understanding that if the firm and the firm’s clients do well, and that is put first, they will ultimately do well. They also have to understand that law firm life is not easy or a utopia anywhere, but the policies and procedures of the firm are in place to ensure that the firm runs smoothly, which will benefit the firm’s clients and the employees in the end.

Law firm employees also have to understand that those who advance in a law firm are often those who are humble and put the interests of others above themselves. When they do that over time (and this can take years sometimes), they will eventually get noticed, get the promotion, raise or extra responsibility they are seeking.  But if they seek those things first and make the law firm an us (employee) versus them (management/owner) situation, they will likely never get what it is they seek. And when they disobey well-founded policies and procedures, and unjustifiably think that the management/owners are living on easy street, they never rise to the level of ever being management in a law firm environment.

In instances where coaching and mentorship has been tried and doesn’t work, those employees are  not going to work in your law firm. It’s almost always better to let those employees go quickly and then bring in other employees who do not have this mentality versus trying to struggle with an employee who wants to pit the employees versus the management/owners.

The us versus them mentality can be terribly damaging to a law firm environment in a multiplicity of ways.  In particular, it can cause a great divide within a law firm that is damaging to the need for unity.

If you have any thoughts, feel free to share them below.

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