Handling Conflict at Work: The Law Firm Example

by Borland, Ph.D., Jim Wednesday, June 13, 2007
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The opportunity to prepare an article for the newsletter of The New York Chapter of The Association for Legal Administrators gave me a chance to reflect on a specific example of conflict. Since the points are valid in other industries, I wanted to share a shortened version with you....

Is there such a thing as a workplace without conflict? Probably not. Every work situation that involves two or more people will experience conflict. So learning to deal with it is vital. For our purposes, conflict is defined as disagreement between people, or among groups of people, arising from different ideas, needs, or perceptions.

Conflict occurs on three general levels:

  • Between equals, e.g., two fifth-year associates who both want a particular assignment
  • Between boss and subordinates, which can be overt or subtle, e.g., several minority female support staff avoid the one minority female partner
  • Among several different groups competing for scarce resources, such as space, money, time, recognition, or approval.
Law firms are often very large complex organizations, and there can be great diversity in how they are administered, managed, and led. The profession itself cherishes two predominate skills over others: litigation and negotiation. The first, litigation, is not conducive to handling interpersonal conflict, whereas the second, negotiation, can be useful. Hence law firms might have an advantage when tackling the resolution of conflict at work.

And usually there is high pressure on the lawyers — and everybody else. As Lincoln is supposed to have said, “Time and advice are a lawyer’s only stock in trade.” Billable time is an organizational “given,” as is the expectation that advice or opinions are presented. The law firm culture itself is a source of conflict on the most fundamental level: the standard of 2600 billable hours can be in conflict with the personal needs of its employees.

Based on my experience consulting on conflict resolution, I can suggest a few steps or approaches to mitigate conflict and its impact:

  • Before attempting to resolve conflicts, it is important to know yourself and your biases. Knowledge of the people, history, and relationships is also crucial. It helps to know what you don’t know. A West Coast firm sent its administrator to the New York office because of a claim of favoritism shown by one supervisor. The administrator had been with the company for less than a year and had never visited New York. In her consultation with me, she candidly admitted she felt overwhelmed and needed help. As an objective third party, I assured her that I didn’t mind if she asked “stupid questions.” After our coaching session, she felt able to handle the New York “situation” with more assurance.

  • Objectify the facts — separate them from the feelings that conflicts generate. Emotions often lead to name-calling. A human resources administrator was called to the processing department because one person had called another a “Hebe,” and he responded by calling her a “slut.” The genuine work conflict issue had been left behind. Name-calling has to be addressed first, and disciplinary procedures applied; then the cause of conflict needs to be identified, especially if it is a legitimate workplace issue.

  • Understand the conflict in the context of the corporate culture. By no means are all law firms alike in how they respond to and resolve conflicts. Various specialty practices within large firms may have quite different cultures. A fifth-year associate reported being rebuked by a senior partner for routinely assigning paralegals to sensitive work that required overtime. In his old firm, the paralegals wanted the opportunity to be paid overtime, but, at this firm, they complained to the partner.

  • Identify who is involved in the conflict, both directly and indirectly. In the overtime example above, the partner did not tell the associate that the paralegals had complained, and it took him several days to discreetly find that out. In the name-calling example, the incident took place in an open cubicle area and was observed by over twenty other employees.

  • Understand the power relationships of those involved and the role that money plays in bestowing power and shaping decisions (or, in some cases, should play). A Trust and Estates partner was forced out because the younger partners complained that he wasn’t bringing in new business. But they overlooked his large file of wills that would probably need to be serviced in the next few years. Another firm benefited from the failure to resolve conflicting expectations when he joined them.

  • Implement an open process, which should be communicated to everyone. Here is a sample process:

    • Openly discuss, and accept that parties may disagree.
    • Seek agreement on issues, clarifying what is involved... what is behind the conflict.
    • Seek alternatives, and write them down.
    • Negotiate what’s most important, and seek a “trial close”: “If you were to get ... , then ....”
    • Develop a forward action plan, e.g., Who does what? In what defined time frame?

  • Try to avoid win-lose competitions. One firm’s communications administrator was told by a senior partner that her makeover of the internal newsletter was “too serious.” He liked pictures of new babies, the firm’s softball team, and new hires and retirees. But the administrator had redone the newsletter because the partner responsible for new business development had specifically told her to make the newsletter look “more professional.” Eventually the administrator met with both partners and came to an agreement about content and pictures.

  • Always be professional, which means remaining calm, polite, and restrained. Treat others how you would want to be treated. In the name-calling incident mentioned above, I was impressed with the professionalism of the HR Administrator. When I told him that, he grinned widely and said, “That’s why I get paid the big bucks.” This may sound a bit sarcastic, but he realized that he was dealing with perception issues. Those twenty people in the processing department now know that the firm takes them — and what they say and do — seriously.

  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. There will always be conflict, but it’s less likely in an environment that’s not severe. Business can be deadly or fun. Try to allow for the fun. You’ll relax and probably do a better job.