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Whether or not we like to acknowledge it, internal “politics” are a fact of life in the workplace, and law firms are no exception. At every level of the firm’s structure, issues of power can exist whenever two or more people work together. Too often, these issues remain below the surface, instead of being openly discussed. But, lurking there, they can lead to all sorts of problems — clashes, controversies, jealousy, intrigue, and simmering resentment, just to name a few — all of which hinder productivity and reduce motivation. When turf wars and power plays are the result, the entire firm may be affected. Politics are not only distracting and disruptive to the business of the firm, they may eventually lead to departures of valued lawyers — along with important clients. Much of the difficulty in addressing the problems that politics cause is tied to inadequate and indirect communication. Sometimes poor communication is intentional, so that top management or group leaders can maintain their control and ability to quickly shift their objectives and actions. More often, both managers and those who report to them are simply uncomfortable with these topics and don’t know how to start a conversation that will have a positive outcome: How do you bring it up? What do you say? How do you deal with sensitive egos? Feeling uncertain, most people avoid or delay the conversations, or wait for the other party to start the dialogue. The inability to deal with conflict, even healthy conflict, causes more serious problems. Many people, including a large percentage of firm leaders, fear rocking the boat. There are risks in talking about sensitive issues, but what is underestimated is the cost of not speaking up. If firm members feel dissatisfied, the boat must be rocked, or else nothing will change and people will leave. The key to boat rocking is to make it have the desired impact with minimal personal threat to those involved. A list of politically charged issues raised by clients in my coaching sessions over the years includes: • Feeling circumvented or left out of important meetings and assignments. • Sharing credit for bringing in business. • Being treated like a senior partner’s assistant. • Having to report to several masters. • Mixed messages and unwritten rules. • Being too closely associated with one partner. • Understanding the motivations and behaviors of the people you report to. • Dealing with inappropriate behavior. • Penetrating the inner circle (getting a seat at the table). • Inability to deal positively with conflict. This article cannot cover all of these issues, but here are some of the most common and sensitive ones, along with suggestions on how to improve the situation. (Other issues will be discussed in a future article.) GETTING OUT OF SOMEONE’S SHADOW Many junior partners and associates face the problem of being too closely associated with one partner or being treated as an “assistant,” or both. Major rainmakers and partners with growing practices, especially those who are not well- organized in work habits, may feel they are justified in pre-empting associates or junior partners to attend to all their details and clean up their messes. In exchange, they offer “protection.” For some people who dislike having to generate business, this may seem like a good deal, but often and ultimately, it is not. There is no real security without your own power base, and being too closely associated with one partner can have negative consequences for your career. This kind of relationship is a common trap for women, but it happens to men as well. How do you develop your own identity, get rid of the “assistant” work, and maintain a good relationship with the partner-protector? Tactics must take into account levels of seniority and the kind of working relationship you have, but here are some successful approaches: • Become known by other partners. • Start to develop your own niche expertise and market it within the firm, as well as outside the firm. Build your own base while staying connected to your practice group. • Maintain a good relationship with the partner by finding other people to assist him or her. • Have a frank discussion with the partner about your need to grow on your own without making it seem threatening. If the relationship is with a long-time mentor, this can be particularly sticky. DEALING WITH DIFFICULT PEOPLE Perhaps due to the adversarial nature of lawyer training and the lack of emphasis on interpersonal skills, along with the pressure to bill so many hours and the competitive nature of most law firm compensation systems, people who are considered “difficult” are found in many firms. (I am not talking here about the smaller number who are outright abusive.) “Screamers” are not uncommon, and, unfortunately, bad behavior is often tolerated in partners who have key client relationships the firm fears losing if the individual is challenged or asked to leave. (Those situations require strong management action.) More commonly, the behavior is not extreme. However, associates and junior partners are too often put in situations where they have to work with partners or senior associates who are overly demanding, argumentative, and critical, or who have a very different viewpoint. Because these difficult people usually wield power, trying to forge at least a tolerable relationship with them can be to your long-term benefit. If you are junior to them, they can be very intimidating, but remember that people often exhibit difficult behaviors because of their fears of being bested, being embarrassed, losing face, or losing control. While you cannot change someone’s personality, behaviors can be changed. You can influence behavior change by the way you approach, speak to, and respond to a person’s behavior tendencies. The way to begin is by maintaining a positive mind-set, no matter how difficult that can be when faced with negative attitudes and actions from others. Here are some tactics that usually prove successful: • Don’t be defensive. Don’t take the negativism personally. Many, if not most, negative people, perhaps particularly lawyers, don’t realize they are being negative — it’s the way they think, reinforced by their training to look for all the reasons something can’t work. • Get a dialogue going. Ask open-ended questions and listen, showing that what they think and say matters to you. • Throw them the ball. Focus on one or two items of most concern to them, and ask for their suggestions to address those concerns. Keep asking for productive suggestions, and continue the conversation only for as long as they are willing to be constructive. • Reinforce their strengths. When it’s appropriate, acknowledge the person’s skills, accomplishments, and strong points. Many negative people are insecure and lack self-confidence and self-esteem, no matter what professional accomplishment they have under their belts. • Focus on the present and the future. Don’t dwell on past history and baggage. If necessary, talk it out and put it to rest, then concentrate on what is now and what needs to be done for mutual benefit. • Keep the focus on the big picture. Don’t get derailed by details, to the detriment of where you want to go. • Reinforce positive behaviors. Follow up with appreciation for their time and attention to the problem, especially if you have received constructive criticism. GETTING CREDIT One of the most difficult political issues is getting rainmakers to share origination credit because that may have a significant impact on compensation. An origination system can be insidious, protecting long-established power brokers and leaving newly developing business generators unrewarded for their role in bringing in new business or expanding work with current clients. Some tactics to win your fair share of credit include: • Step up your internal marketing so that others will be aware of your capabilities and efforts. • Document all your efforts and results. • Demonstrate independent efforts to develop business. • Make known your contributions to client retention. • Identify what else is important to the person, besides money, and try to facilitate that type of recognition. Internal dynamics, particularly in a partnership, can be frustrating, demoralizing, and destructive, reducing productivity. Dealing successfully with these issues requires strategic thinking, awareness of the principles of influence, savvy use of interpersonal skills, belief in one’s self — and, often, a good coach. Phyllis Weiss Haserot is the president of Practice Development Counsel ( www.pdcounsel.com), a business development consulting and coaching firm working with law firms, and its organizational effectiveness division, AuthenticWorksTM. She is the author ofThe Rainmaking Machine (West Group). She can be reached at (212) 593-1549 and [email protected].

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