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The best way to manage disputes within law firms — and avoid possibly costly turnovers in associates, partners, and staff — is for all partners to work on developing strong conflict resolution skills. Besides helping to resolve disputes, these skills can help partners effectively give feedback and formal reviews and appease displeased clients. But many partners are unfamiliar with these skills. Conflict resolution skills are based on mediation skills. In mediation, a neutral third party helps people resolve their disputes by helping them understand both their differences and their shared interests. The situations discussed here are slightly different in that the partner, as a member of the firm, is not completely neutral. But skillful use of the basics of mediation can help the partner resolve disputes or ease difficult conversations with individuals by improving communication, defusing anxiety or anger, and generating creative, realistic options to resolve problems. The first and most important aspect of these skills is to be an effective, neutral listener. Here is what you should do to ensure that you are listening as well as possible: Physical Setting. In order to listen effectively, you must begin by ensuring that the physical setting allows you to give others your undivided attention. The discussion should occur in a quiet, private place, such as an office or a conference room. Hold your calls and ask your secretary to make sure that no one interrupts you. Body Language. Once the discussion begins, your body language is very important. Face the person speaking and make eye contact. Don’t fiddle with pens and pencils. Lean forward. Try not to cross your arms. Listen. Do not interrupt. Show the people to whom you are speaking that you are listening by reiterating what they say in a neutral way. Do not listen with half an ear while planning your response. Express Your Interests. Expressing your interests will be more effective than expressing your position. For example, instead of stating your position (“I want you to stop fighting with each other”), state the reasons why you want them to stop fighting (“I am concerned that your inability to get along is affecting your work product and the morale of other people in this firm”). Be Precise and Positive.Whenever you get the chance, praise the people to whom you are speaking. Try to be exact about what pleases and displeases you. Be Neutral. This is often the most difficult skill to master. Lawyers, in particular, have been trained to be advocates. Frequently, your job is to make decisions and convince others that those decisions are correct. However, effective conflict resolution often requires exactly the opposite skills. Rather than advocating one side or the other, you must rely on the parties to develop the proper solution. Retain Control. This may sound contradictory to the other skills, but as the manager and conflict resolver or mediator, you must occasionally act as “an agent of reality.” If a proposed solution simply will not work within the context of the firm structure, you have an obligation to inform the parties. However, you also have an obligation to help them find other, workable solutions. PERSONAL DISPUTES Many partners find themselves called upon to resolve disputes between two or more people within their firm. The primary trap for the partner in this situation is trying to figure out who is wrong and who is right and then dictating a solution, rather than allowing the parties to find the solution for themselves. When the partner dictates the solution, neither party may be satisfied and both may blame the partner. Alternatively, the partner may not handle the situation at all. But if the situation is left to simmer, the work product of the disputing parties may suffer, others in the firm may take sides, and one or both of the parties may leave the firm. Proper use of conflict resolution skills can defuse the tension between the disputants and allow the partner to help the parties find their own resolution to the issues between them. The best way to approach a personal dispute is to structure it as an informal mediation. Bring both parties into the room and describe what is going to happen. Tell them that you want to help them resolve their dispute, but that it is up to them to figure out how to do so. Describe your role to them — namely, that you are not going to take sides, the discussion is confidential, you will ensure that they both get a chance to talk, and you will try to make sure that any proposed solutions work within the structure of the firm. Begin the meeting by asking one of the parties to tell you how the situation arose. Start with a neutral question. For example: “Can you tell me when you started having trouble working together?” Once that person has finished talking, ask the other party the same question. If the dispute has reached the point where the parties cannot talk with each other, you may need to meet with each one individually for about 15 to 20 minutes. This helps to defuse tension and can be a good way to learn things that someone is uncomfortable discussing in front of the other person. Ensure them that you will not repeat anything to the other party that they do not want you to repeat. Remember to keep your responses neutral, even when meeting one-on-one. It is best to ask the other party to wait outside your office or the conference room so that the discussion does not lose momentum. While they are talking, occasionally repeat or summarize what they have said, as neutrally as possible. This is particularly important in emotional disputes. You want the parties to know that you are listening, but you will be completely ineffective if one side thinks you are favoring the other. An example of a neutral summary might be to say, “It sounds as though you have been upset by Joe’s responses to your memos.” A non-neutral summary might be: “So, you’ve been upset by Joe’s criticisms of your memos.” Before mentioning possible solutions, ask them for their own solutions. If a suggestion seems unworkable, ask them to explain how they would make it work, rather than telling them that you do not think it will work. Although your goal is for the parties to develop workable solutions with minimal input from you, you still need to maintain control of the situation. In order to keep the dispute from escalating, make sure that the parties do not interrupt one another. Assure them that there is adequate time for both to talk. Giving feedback and reviews can be very stressful for both parties. The person giving the feedback or review is uncomfortable dispensing criticism. The person receiving the criticism is worried about their job security and may be defensive. In avoiding or limiting reviews, partners often fall into a number of traps. These include ignoring situations until they are very serious, giving only negative feedback, not giving enough feedback, or giving imprecise feedback. The person receiving the feedback will often make other mistakes, such as being defensive, not explaining the situation accurately, failing to apologize for serious errors, and failing to express ways in which they intend to improve in the future. Proper use of conflict resolution skills in this situation can defuse tension, allowing the partner to calmly and thoroughly dispense necessary and sometimes unpleasant information. In addition, the parties have a chance to discuss the information and any future changes. In order to lower the stress level of the person receiving the feedback, start by saying something positive. Assuming that the person to whom you are talking is a valued employee, tell them so. Praise them for the things that they do well. When talking about areas that need improvement, use specific examples. Precision is particularly important when you are giving feedback or a review. Then give specific suggestions for steps that the person could take to improve. For example, rather than just telling someone that they do not write well, recommend that they take a legal writing course. DISGRUNTLED CLIENTS Conflict resolution skills can be particularly helpful when a client is displeased with the firm’s work product. In this situation, the partner is effectively in the same position as a person who is receiving negative feedback. By using conflict resolution skills, the partner gives the client a chance to vent and sets the stage for the partner to apologize and then discuss ways to ensure that the client’s needs are appropriately met in the future. Remember, when you are receiving negative feedback, you must listen. Do not interrupt. When the client is finished speaking, repeat what he said (“I understand that you are unhappy that the brief took a week longer to finish than you expected”). Apologize without a lot of excuses (“I am very sorry for the delay”). Then tell them what you are going to do to improve (“We received the necessary documents a week later than anticipated. Next time, we will be sure to tell you when we’ll be sending you something later than we promised”). In summary, today’s partner or manager must deal with many types of stressful personal conflicts. Consistent use of strong conflict resolution skills can help successfully handle these situations. Victoria Ruttenberg is an executive coach who works with both individuals and organizations. She is a certified mediator and former practicing attorney. Her business, Victoria Ruttenberg LLC, is located in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at (202) 244-9488.

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