By Susan Smith Blakely • April 09, 2020•Careers, Firms and the Private Sector
The coronavirus pandemic has been devastating to so many lives and complicating and stressful to so many others. It has left many experiences in its wake that will best be forgotten, if that is even possible. Images from the news each night, alone, will be hard to forget.
As much as we want to forget much of what has gone on in America during the last 90-plus days, there are some things that I hope we remember.
I hope that we remember the kindness. I hope that we remember the caring. I hope that we remember the civility. I hope that we remember the power of community.
My focus is on young lawyers and their experiences in their chosen profession. Much of what I write about concerns private practice in law firms for the simple reason that the majority of lawyers in America practice in that setting. In my experience, and as research confirms, law firms have not been bastions of kind and caring behavior. They have not emphasized good manners and civility in defining acceptable behaviors, and the goal of creating community has not been high on the "To Do" lists in many law firms.
In 2016 I wrote an article for Corporate Counsel magazine where I called out the greed of law firms for the first time. Since that time, I have addressed it at law firms, law organizations and law schools throughout the country, and the greed of law firms has become a topic of discussion by many other law profession observers since that time. However, it continues to be a very big problem.
Greed has driven a lack of humanity within the walls of law firms and has encouraged toxic behaviors that pit lawyer against lawyer without recourse. Profits have ruled above anything else, and workers have been treated as fungible. These management behaviors spread fear and discontent and leave bodies behind.
But now it appears that we are presented with a great opportunity to right the wrong. Today we see how positive values can lift people up during a crisis. Today we see that kindness counts. Today we see the importance of caring and creating a community of support. Today we see that it is possible to embrace a kinder and, yes, gentler profession.
It is refreshing and gives me hope to know that these better behaviors can thrive in law firms. I see it when managers send compassionate e-mails wishing their colleagues well and sharing thoughts about future law firm operations and staffing issues. Where that kind of information was rarely shared in the past, today it is commonplace and expected of effective leadership. I hope those managers and leaders understand how important it is to the young people, who rely on them and who are frightened and insecure about their futures.
I see it when managers acknowledge the effectiveness of working remotely instead of fighting it with passe arguments about the importance of face time. Face time is important, but it is not all important, as it has been regarded in the past. Managers and effective leaders now know that business as usual may never be "as usual" and that the work will go on.
I see it when management takes care to avoid furloughs for junior lawyers, choosing first to reduce partner draws and keep the ship afloat in the least invasive manner.
And I see it when leadership recognizes that these new behaviors are the ones that will go the distance. Behaviors and policies that will encourage rather than discourage young people to flock to our profession for all the best reasons. To become soldiers in the mission to improve lives through legal services --- with managers and leaders who are positive role models.
So I encourage all lawyers to look at the practices of their law organizations and ask what can be done to extend the kindness and the regard for positive human experiences beyond the threat of COVID-19. Talk about it. Co-opt others in the discussions. Make managers and leaders know that the behaviors during COVID-19 are important beyond COVID-19.
Let's usher the toxicity of many of our institutions out the door and the mental and physical tolls on our professionals with it. Let's refuse to tolerate the kind of behavior that is so stress inducing that it threatens the humanity of our workplaces.
Let's take advantage of the lessons of today for a better tomorrow, an improved profession, and professionals who love traveling the road they have chosen.
Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law. She is author of Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar: The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another. Her third book in the series, Best Friends at the Bar: Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, focuses on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and was released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.
Ms. Blakely’s new book for ALL young lawyers, What Millennial Lawyers Want: A Bridge from the Past to the Future of Law Practice, will be released by Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers in the summer of 2018.
Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including Corporate Counsel Magazine, the ABA Journal, the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, Women Lawyers Journal (NAWL), DC Spotlight, Lawyerist.com, Daily Muse, Lawyer and Statesman, Law.com, Georgetown Law Magazine, Legal Toolkit Podcast, and Huffington Post Business. Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues in business and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division. She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 "Sharing Her Passion Award" and the Lawyer Monthly “Women in Law Award 2016” for her work on behalf of women in the law.
Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she was a teaching fellow. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and is certified as a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy. For more information, please visit www.bestfriendsatthebar.com.