Modern television has a fascination with lawyers. And with their shenanigans. From the likes of Rake and The Good Wife through to Boston Legal and Suits, we might get the impression that the practice of law is necessarily accompanied by profound dysfunction and the bitter rivalries of lawyers acting on instruction from neurotic clients.
What’s life really like working in an Australian law firm?
Most lawyers and paralegals have experienced toxic workplaces at some time in their legal career. I have heard (and still occasionally hear) appalling stories of staff mistreatment and other reprehensible conduct in other firms. I also occasionally hear horror stories from clients about experiences which they have had elsewhere, from allegations of gross overcharging and neglect right through to woeful incompetence.
One of my earliest memories in the law was being sternly told by the managing partner of a CBD firm that I would have to choose between family life and a successful career, because it was impossible to have both. I observed him dishing out personal abuse on a daily basis to most of the staff, whilst remaining sweet as pie with his loyal clients who were none the wiser. There seemed something very inauthentic and self-destructive about his behaviour. It did not surprise me to hear some years later that his legal partnership had broken up in very acrimonious circumstances.
Lawyers are taught to focus on risk. Their headspace is often negative, because they are concerned to protect their clients from what might go wrong. Lawyers excel at winning arguments, and producing menacing letters. Contention becomes an art form. This culture may explain the link between legal practice and depression. According to a study of depression in the legal industry in Australia published in the Sydney Law Review in 2011, almost one in three of the 924 solicitors interviewed suffered high levels or very high levels of emotional distress at work, more than three times the average working population. The same study noted the strong link between emotional distress and dependence upon drugs and alcohol.
Negativity and dysfunction in the practice of law ultimately does a disservice to clients. It stifles creative thought, interferes with listening properly to what a client actually wants, and can take a matter in a direction that is ultimately a waste of time and resources for the client.
In litigation, for example, it is almost always in all parties’ interests to explore compromise options in favour of going to a hearing before a judge. This is because of the major costs of running a hearing, the unpredictability of what can occur at trial, and the potential for an adverse costs order if the case is lost. A lawyer with an unduly negative perspective may be so hell-bent on winning at trial that the commerciality of the situation for his client is entirely forgotten. By contrast, a solutions-oriented lawyer will always explore the potential for a resolution of their client’s dispute as a top priority before heading to court, because this may be in the best long-term interests of that client.
Workplace theorist Daniel Pink argues that there are three things we all need in order to be the most effective at work: mastery, autonomy, and purpose. Mastery recognises that when we become very good at something, it is intrinsically satisfying to apply that mastery. Autonomy honours the individuality of every person, and is based on the notion that when we show trust in a person and allow some flexibility, rather than seeking to control them, they will usually respond positively and produce their best work. Purpose focuses on the underlying “why” of our job. If we are genuinely helping others and solving their problems, this provides a more lasting sense of satisfaction and motivation than simply collecting the fortnightly pay packet.
We are actively working to build these notions of mastery, autonomy and purpose into the culture of Atkinson Vinden by prioritising the five key values of authenticity, excellence, security, social engagement and balance. These values guide our decision-making and priority-setting as a business.
Authenticity describes our commitment to genuine relationships. We will be honest with clients about their matter – giving the right advice as opposed to the advice they may want to hear. We will only act for clients who are genuine in their commitment to integrity so far as the law is concerned. We are truthful in all of our dealings with the court. When we contact opposing lawyers on behalf of our clients, we prefer to focus on collaborative solutions rather than threats and intimidation as we see, time and time again, that constructive dialogue produces the best results. Internally, we expect all staff to relate openly, honestly, and respectfully to each other. A culture of authenticity encourages autonomy and purpose.
Excellence is the bar we set for everything. Our staff are expected to strive to be fantastic in everything they do, whether it is in the practice of the law, or how they answer the phone, or the enthusiasm with which they restack the paper in a photocopier. By being excellent, we take pride in the quality of our work, and we produce the best outcome for our clients. As we have seen, mastery becomes its own motivator to become better and better.
Security describes our desire to ensure the firm remains financially strong in the future. We are committed to achieving strategic growth by focussing on areas where we have specialist skills and the interest and passion to be market leaders. We choose to act for clients who recognise the value of our work, and with whom we can build long-term strategic alliances for the financial benefit of all. These choices provide us a long-term purpose from which we all benefit.
Social engagement captures the desire to live with purpose. Lawyers have particular skills which can make a huge difference in the world. Each year we are committed to dedicating our resources without fee to five worthy causes in the community. We want to make a difference. The things we commit to reflect the individual concerns of members of staff.
Balance focuses our attention on finding joy through both work and rest. A satisfying professional life is an important part of finding contentment, as is also having enough free time to enjoy friends and family, and to do those interests outside of work which we are passionate about. We choose not to work excessive hours because autonomy and purpose are so important, and it ensures that when you engage us to work with you, we can be at our best for you.28