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Learning to Give and Take at the (Law) Office

A dozen women lawyers filed nervously into the conference room at the mid-size firm where they worked. I had coached many of them individually through an agreement with their firm’s Women Lawyers’ Initiative, and today they had agreed to be guinea pigs in something called a Reciprocity Ring™.

The Ring concept, set forth by Wharton Professor Adam Grant in his book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, required them to become vulnerable by both asking for help and giving it.

The instructions were simple. Each was to come with a single request for help to share with her colleagues in confidence. And each was to come prepared to offer assistance to a colleague in some way.

 “Come needing something more than the name of a good Chinese restaurant,” I told them. “But I understand if you don’t want to announce you need help with a job search.

“And when you offer help, you don’t need to take on someone else’s project, just offer a resource or some instructions that could be helpful.”

Still, they were hesitant. Said one: “As lawyers, we’re used to having the answers. It’s hard to admit you’re stuck. And as women, we don’t want to appear weak.” And another: “It seems like we’re giving help all the time, so the idea of signing up to give more isn’t very appealing.”

Learning the dance between giving and taking in a zero-sum/win-loss environment like a law firm is especially tricky. In such environments, says Grant, there is pressure to lean in a taker direction, toward short-term gains. And giving is especially risky when takers are on the scene.

So why did we try? 

First, for a smart business reason.  Grant’s research has taught that those who learn the delicate dance of giving and taking effectively can build the most lasting networks to nurture their business success, especially in sales and service work. 

In the long run, these “givers,” he says, will outdistance both “matchers,” who give tit-for-tat with an expectation of return, and all-out “takers,” who make short-term gains by looking out only for themselves. The payoffs can be especially powerful, Grant says, for those in service and sales industries. The service and sales components of law, whether in marketing services, providing them, or selling a case to a judge or jury, are unmistakable.

And second, on a very practical level, we tried because the Reciprocity Ring presents an opportunity for participants to learn both how to make an effective request for help and to respond to a request in a smart way that doesn’t drain the giver dry.

For that reason, we also talked about his technique for dealing with takers, a “generous tit for tat” strategy of competing two times out of three and acting cooperatively on the third, rather than always giving.

On this day, the requests and offers of help were varied.

“Does anyone have a good article on franchising?”  asked the first volunteer. To which a colleague offered to share an article and another, whose clients included a franchisor, offered to answer questions. 

A woman developing a new practice area aimed at the medical community asked for access to potential clients. Colleagues offered to forward her information to their own practitioners.

Another requested access to someone with a close connection to a high-level contact in the international affairs department of a university, and drew promises from others to contact their alma maters.

And a lawyer-mom looking for back-up child care received a working parent’s treasure trove: another’s personal list of babysitters. (But the giver was clear “in front of witnesses” that she already had dibs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.)

Besides the information shared in the circle, the women reported some larger aha’s:

  • Other lawyers and departments already had resources they needed. There was no need to “reinvent the wheel.”
  • Other women also needed help and struggled to ask for it.
  • Specifically framed requests for help are the most effective.
  • Effective giving need not take a lot of time.

So is the Reciprocity Ring™ a panacea for the burnout or the silo-ing that typifies many law firms?

Dan Bowling, who holds faculty appointments at Duke Law School and the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program in positive psychology, doesn’t think so.

“It’s intriguing and a little counter-intuitive to think that a formal structure like this, for giving and taking, might work in a law firm,” he says. “Law firms are not known for effective sharing of resources among departmental lines nor among partners. They are very protective of work. And yet it’s heartening to think that it might.”

He predicted the most success in a smaller firm or a single division of a larger firm with a high level of trust and collaborative culture.

Perhaps in this particular firm, it was the high trust level within the Women Lawyers’ Initiative that drove the participants shyly at first and then more boldly to offer their requests and responses as they went around the room.

But in a collaborative legal environment where trust is high and efficiency is valued, the Reciprocity Ring™ is worth a hopeful test-drive.

Anyone interested in conducting the exercise can contact www.humaxnetworks.com.

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