The practice of law in America became a “profession” 100 years ago when, in answer to critics claiming lawyers largely existed to help large corporations evade the law, Dean Wigmore said:
“The law as a pursuit is not a trade. It is a profession. It ought to signify for its followers a mental and moral setting apart from the multitude – a priesthood of Justice.”
This exclusive priesthood used the term “professional” as coded language for white male favoritism tolerating only “acceptable” speech and behavior, mandating written communications, requiring proper demeanor, and compelling observance to strict dress codes. It requires the use of logic and objectivity over feelings and emotions and demands adherence to strict time requirements. Such unyielding demands promote individualism and an unrealistic sense of self-importance, defensiveness, binary thinking, along with perfectionism, paternalism, and power-hoarding. These are all the defining characteristics of a culture of white supremacy.
I’ve been a civil rights lawyer for more than 30 years fighting on behalf of people of color, LGBTQIA, homeless, immigrant, and socially and economically marginalized individuals and families. I work face-to-face with those impacted by racism, violence, homelessness, substance use disorders, disabilities, and mental illness. I started my woman-owned business when women represented just 20% of the “profession.” Despite running an office that is inclusive and diverse, I continue to struggle with the oppressive nature of the dominant white male culture.
It is high time we either redefine the term law “profession” or dispense with it entirely. In its place, we should accept the fact that we are in law business, and substitute the oppressive conventions of “professionalism” with healthy business strategies.
These are the four foundations of business:
In the law business, this translates to the: 1) production of legal services; 2) administration of cases, clients, and office management; 3) leadership over the organizational culture; and 4) entrepreneurialism of marketing and growing. Law school teaches the ins and outs of the production of legal services. However without the implementation of all four pillars of successful business, lawyers are severely hampered in their ability to curb white supremacy culture embedded in the profession.
Strategy #1: Align Your Brand With Your Values
To curb the culture of white supremacy in your practice, you must not only diversify in your purpose, clientele, and personnel, but also create an inclusive environment where everyone feels supported, listened to, and able to do their personal best. To do that, you need a brand that echoes your mission and vision statement and an internal culture that matches your brand.
You must ensure that the values you seek to promote are alive within your company culture and among your employees. To achieve this you must operationalize your business’s core values by clearly communicating the purpose or mission of your company, and the core values of your brand, then provide employees with a toolkit of ways to participate in bringing these values to life internally and externally.
With branding, you can identify the values that your organization should embrace. For instance, if you have a performance brand, you can work on cultivating a culture of achievement, excellence, and consistency, while a socially responsible brand focuses on a strong sense of purpose, commitment, and shared values. Clarity on your business’s values will allow you to develop your culture, through organizational design, leadership development, policies and procedures, and employee experience.
When your brand and culture are aligned and integrated, you increase operational efficiency, accuracy, and quality; you improve your ability to compete for talent and customer loyalty with distinct intangibles and you move your organization closer to its vision.
Strategy #2: Use Leadership to Shape Culture
Strong leadership is necessary to change a culture. Too often, as lawyers, our self-worth is tied to obtaining the best possible result, even though the result is completely out of our control. This can cause lawyers to blow up over stupid e-filing errors; stay up nights endlessly rewriting pleadings; micro-manage co-workers; and harbor the false idea that we, alone, can get the job done. These are the three P’s of White Supremacy Culture: Perfectionism, Power Hoarding, and Paternalism.
1. Perfectionism Is Neither Professional Nor Striving For Excellence.
“[T] he important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men.” – George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans)
As a woman practitioner, I know only too well, the ease with which I can be dismissed as “unprofessional” for a simple mistake. But, mistakes are rarely case- defining and are, often, easily cured with a phone call or an amended filing.
Perfectionism is the striving for the unattainable goal of perfection. Perfectionism does not lead to a good reputation. A good reputation is built on resilience, honesty, reliability, and hard work. Whether a personal challenge or a leadership strategy, perfectionism is destructive and ineffective. It causes paralysis and helplessness. Instead of appreciating the work that is done and those who did it, the perfectionist dwells on mistakes and inadequacies, creating oppressive environments and missing opportunities to learn from mistakes.
Perfectionism can be managed by developing a culture of appreciation and implementing and modeling healthy behaviors.
- Separate the person from the mistake – a mistake is not a personal failing;
- Strive to appreciate what went well before focusing on the mistake;
- Incentivize the identification of mistakes to use them as learning opportunities;
- Develop a culture of appreciation to reward and appreciate the work done;
- Bring focus to the impact of the work;
- Manage expectations and set measurable goals;
- Set up feedback strategies for accountability and honest review; and
- Identify and distract from unproductive ruminating.
Another tactic is to diversify your workforce. Evidence suggests that perfectionism can decrease as one ages. Organizations like Encore.org can help you bridge the gap innovatively and economically.
2. Paternalism and Power Hoarding Are Not Effective Leadership Methods
Most law businesses start small and grow without a business plan. Help is hired as a reaction to overloaded capacity, often without clear policies and procedures, training, or supervision. It is no wonder lawyers hoard information and micro-manage staff, believing they alone can get the job done right. But, this behavior drives feelings of helplessness and frustration in our teams, instead of autonomy, confidence, and self-respect.
Admittedly, lawyers face specific regulatory hurdles to delegating work which is beyond this article. However, you can learn to safely and effectively delegate:
- Hire team members with the appropriate strengths and personalities;
- Train your team and trust them to do the job;
- Have explicit policy & procedure manuals;
- Be clear on exactly the task being delegated;
- Set the scope of authority;
- Set clear boundaries, goals, expectations, and deadlines;
- Check-in often, maintain open lines of communication without micro-managing;
- Focus on the outcome, not the process; and
- Appreciate the product and the work.
Learning to take your ego out of the mix is difficult but it is imperative. Age, caregiving, and parenting can help develop leadership traits such as: emotional intelligence, collaboration skills, courage, and a growth mindset. Therefore, diversifying your workforce inter-generationally and employing mature workers, and/or those with parenting or caregiving experience can provide strong leadership and team building. Check out tendlab.com for more information.
Strategy #3: Use Office Management Tools To Reduce Stressors
Investing in robust technology and infrastructure will increase your productivity and allow you to efficiently manage your practice while increasing your effective hourly rate. Rewarding employees for innovation and thinking outside the box can help your team feel more valued as partners in the battle, instead of hostages to it.
Combat The Sense of Urgency With Time Management
Law is a business permeated with an oppressive sense of urgency dictated by case-dispositive deadlines and timeliness requirements. While there is no getting around these time requirements, sound leadership and strong management can help law businesses manage the associated stress.
Become a realistic time manager. Before burdening your team with projects, or new cases, make sure to check in with them to ensure you have sufficient capacity. Follow up throughout the project and set realistic goals with manageable time frames and work plans. Remember, you will never regret a case you declined. But, you will most certainly regret losing a team member you carefully hired, trained, and cultivated.
The stress of consequential deadlines can drive shame, blame, and judgment in any business. It can be debilitating to everyone. Consider counter-balancing the stress of case-driven deadlines by affording the same sense of importance to community and capacity building exercises with your team.
Strategy #4: Open Lines of Communication To Address Conflict
While there is no such thing as a conflict-free environment, most of us, even lawyers, avoid open conflict, preferring politeness over honesty. It’s easier. Until, that is, things boil up and explode causing defensiveness, shame, blame, and judgment. Then, the cost can be immense.
Lawyers are experts in objectively constructing arguments, interrogation, and cross-examination. Unfortunately, these skills are toxic to creating safe places to be vulnerable and engage in open communication. Effective communication requires, active listening, emotional awareness, compassion, and empathy. To develop non-oppressive law offices, lawyers must acquire and employ a different set of communication skills.
8 First Steps to effective communication:
- Put yourself in the other person’s shoes;
- Be curious and assume that everybody has a valid point, even if it seems illogical;
- Use active listening;
- Respond with “Yes. And” instead of “But”;
- Become comfortable with your vulnerabilities;
- Make it safe for others to share their vulnerabilities;
- Give and receive feedback non-defensively – listen for impact – stop defending intent; and
- Create a clear structure to hear and address grievances.
By employing good business strategies, you can start to free yourself from the culture of white supremacy we call “professionalism” and develop a sustainable and resilient business.
- Encore.org is a nonprofit dedicated to bridging inter-generational divides.
- Tendlab.com is a resource for leadership and parenting skills.
- The Center for Non-Violent Communication
- When Satya Nadella became CEO of Microsoft, the company was known for hostility, infighting, and backstabbing. He turned the company around, by requiring senior leadership to read “Nonviolent Communication” by Marshall B. Rosenberg.
- Community mediation centers, like Community Boards, SEEDS, or PCRC, offer training on communication skills and conflict management.
- Dare to Lead, by Brené Brown
- How to Manage Your Perfectionism, by Rebecca Knight
- Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones & Tema Okun
- Bias Interrupters, Small Steps Big Change.