This concerns a former place of employment which was a law firm engaged in private practice. The firm has been in existence for more than 25 years and had at the time, 14 attorneys, plus approximately 25 para-professional and clerical staff. As with most law firms that I have become familiar, communications are a critical, and often horribly lack function within the organization. The hierarchical nature of most law firm operations, and this one in particular, resulted in limited flows of communication, generally from the top down, as will be discussed in greater detail herein. Even to the extent that communications flowed upwards from staff, or horizontal from internal and/or external sources such as the client base, by and large, such communications were often ignored and/or discredited. This naturally led to dysfunction and dissatisfaction amongst staff and others including, perhaps most importantly, our loyal and valued clients, and other professionals (including attorneys) in the community.
As noted above, communication flows within the firm were highly problematic, if not contentious issues. While partners were free to send communications (a.k.a. orders and edicts) down through the junior attorney and staff ranks, there was very limited reception to communications in the other, or upward direction. It was almost somewhat of a “speak only when you are spoken to” environment. This naturally caused huge issues when junior attorneys or staff had questions about an assignment or a client. There was very limited room for dialogue and little to none, in terms of collaboration. Horizontally, there was information flow internally, as well as externally from clients and other related constituents, including co-counsel and opposing counsel. Informally, water cooler or cigarette break huddles were the norm and a tremendous opportunity for venting and more elaborate communications about what was really going on in the firm. Emails were generally to communicate formal information, and absolutely the preferred form of communication for downward flowing situations. Phone and meetings might have taken place with external communications, and perhaps with and amongst staff, but very rarely as between the partners and the individuals below them in the organizational chart.
The communication climate not surprisingly, was chilly at best. Because of the inherent inability or lack of desire to maintain extensive communications with the partners at the top of the hierarchy, very real issues would emerge. Partners would make certain promises to clients without advising the junior attorneys and/or safe to whom the tasks should have been delegated, and on countless occasions, client tempers would erupt in response to the lack of action or forward momentum, and the partnership would do little other than to point the blame anywhere but upon themselves.
The sheer audacity of partners throwing junior employees and staff under the bus for their own inability and/or unwillingness to communicate is reprehensible, unfortunate, and downright unethical. In fact, during the time that I was at the firm, I personally witnessed several individuals being let go from employment for ostensibly failing to meet client expectations, when in reality, the client dissatisfaction actually emanated from the partners’ failure to communicate what they had actually promised, and/or to see if such delivery of service was ever even possible to meet. Not surprisingly, this type of behavior also led to internal copycat behaviors. That is, staff thought nothing of placing blame on others when they themselves were the point of failure or dissention. It was a truly unfortunate example of how a poor or unethical dynamic in the workplace, can spread to cancerous proportions.
Cross Cultural Communication and Workforce Diversity
If there was any thought given to either cross cultural communication or workforce diversity in my former workplace, it was well concealed. The legal community was fairly homogenous in our case, as was the client base. The partners and staff were all of similar racial and cultural background, so there was no need or emphasis given towards further diversification. Even amongst vendors, employees, and customers, there was very limited diversification, and accordingly, cultural concerns were not paramount. However, given the major issues present anyway within the organization, there were seemingly far greater problems to identify, embrace, and resolve, other than multi-cultural challenges.
Strategies for Improvement
As noted by the foregoing, this was a sad and stagnant work environment. There was little harmony in the workplace other than the delight given over watercooler discussions, knowing that people were not alone in the struggle to survive in this particular workplace. Not surprisingly, consultants had been brought in on several occasions, for the purpose of assessing workplace communications issues and to facilitate internal discussions on how to quell the high degrees of employee turnover and employee dissatisfaction. These prior attempts did not work, perhaps in large part because the problems are so systemic and ingrained in this very hierarchical and flawed firm culture. Realistically, it would and will probably take the retirement of one or more of the managing partnership to right the situation, and even then, it will take a considerable amount of time and effort to ensure that these historically engrained wrongs did not continue to be perpetuated. Because the coin of realm was fear and paranoia, mixed with extreme ego, there was also minimal effort made with respect to developing others as leaders, or even supervisors or higher ranking teammates. Being eternally optimistic however, it would be really nice to see the right type of organizational consultant to come in and give honest 360 degree feedback to those who need it the most.