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Cooling the flames of office conflict

Disagreements are inevitable, and leaders need to take charge to address problems
By Grant Cameron
September 26 2014 issue

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In the courtroom, lawyers must be adept at dealing with conflict. They earn their living by playing the adversary, challenging witnesses and poking holes in the opposition’s case.

Back at the office, though, it can be a different situation. When a conflict arises with another lawyer or co-worker, or with the employing law firm, some lawyers prefer to play Mr. Nice Guy. They want to be a peacemaker rather than somebody who’s disagreeable.

However, legal recruiting and workplace productivity experts say failing to deal with internal workplace conflicts, can — if left unchecked — cause problems to grow into a toxic situation.

“Conflict is an inevitable part of people working together in any office,” explains Steve Prentice, a partner in the Bristall Group in Toronto. “But avoiding conflict can just lead to problems. It’s like having a pot on the stove with the heat on. It’s just going to boil over.”

Unresolved issues can fester, he says, possibly leading to a verbal or physically hostile confrontation in the workplace, or people quitting.

“It’s like a burr under your saddle or a pebble in your shoe. It never gets better. If something irks you about somebody, it’s going to continue to grow into something larger so, one day down the road, a simple thing could upset you and you reach the boiling point.”
Workplace conflicts can arise from myriad situations. Lawyers might not see eye to eye with their counterparts or staff, or they might question or disagree with a firm’s approach.

Prentice says workplace conflicts can involve seemingly trivial matters such as who gets the biggest office or the best chair, but can have deeper roots, such as compensation or the choice of office assistant.

The best way to resolve matters, whether it’s an individual or a firm-wide issue, is to arrange a meeting and allow everybody an opportunity to vent their frustrations, he says. “Basically, it should be face-to-face communication and understanding more about what’s going on.”

It’s also helpful, Prentice says, for those at the meeting to write down their frustrations on a whiteboard or pad for everyone to see.

“The activity of writing things down allows people to let go of what they’re holding in their minds,” he says. “The solutions can only start to appear once you’ve let go of the issues.”

Anita Larek, president of Advocate Placement, which provides strategic advice to lawyers, says it’s important for lawyers and partners to nip conflicts in the bud. She advocates laying the groundwork by building up rapport with co-workers before speaking up.

“There’s nothing wrong with being confrontational but do it as a strategy…rather than just falling into a morass of conflict. It’s not a good idea to demand things and say: ‘You want this, I want that. Let’s duke it out.’ You’ve got to earn the right to make demands.”

Larek says lawyers also have to build up to their argument and make sure they’re not just venting against a co-worker because they don’t like him or her, so “the communication has to be skilled and the intention lying behind it must be thought through.”

Lawyers, meanwhile, should be wary of falling into the trap of a win-lose mentality, she says, because it’s a disincentive to fixing problems. “We’ve got to step back and take a pause from the direct aggressive onslaught for profit or for billings to see how the team is doing.”

Lawyers, she says, also have to be mindful that they’re leaders and should strive to build collaborative teams.

“They are laying the foundations for an environment so the conversations have to be collaborative. When I make a pitch at a meeting I have to look at it like: ‘Does this advance the team or am I just pushing my own next big project or big win?’ ”

In dealing with conflict, Larek says, lawyers must also ensure they respect their co-workers because “how can a lawyer be respected if he or she is yelling, or mean to their underlings?”

Warren Smith, managing partner at The Counsel Network in Vancouver, says it’s dressed up many different ways but the “rub” that causes most conflicts at law firms is when there’s a clash over what an individual lawyer might want and what’s really good for the firm.

For example, he says, a lawyer or partner at a large national firm might want more autonomy over marketing and billing and push for a compensation system that rewards individuals, but the firm might not budge, preferring a system that benefits everyone in the firm. This could cause a lawyer to get annoyed at the firm or resent one of the partners.

“You may have partners that will say, ‘No, we are a partnership, we have to work together, we have to shore up each other’s weaknesses, and we can’t just only look at individual performance because we’re not a collection of individuals, we are a partnership.’”

The mark of a good managing partner or leadership team at a law firm, he says, is one that creates an environment that allows lawyers and partners to deal with such conflicts openly.

“The question is not so much as to whether conflict is good or bad. I think it’s good. The question is more around: How does that conflict get resolved? I think that’s where a lot of law firms get stuck.”

The problem, says Smith, is that law firms often take a pre-dispositional and perhaps unintentionally passive approach to dealing with internal conflicts, “so, rather than actually getting them out in the open and having a frank conversation around a dispute or challenge between different practice groups in a firm, it can revert into a bit of a sniping match.”

If a conflict arises, Smith says a lawyer, paralegal or law clerk should first seek to understand before they try to propose a solution. One way to do that is to speak with veterans at the firm to get some insight.

“Often times, it may be you don’t like it but it’s because you don’t understand all the variables.”

When dealing with a conflict, Smith suggests talking about the problem and not the person.

“Make sure that people understand what you’re trying to do is address the issue and not an individual. As soon as you put it into the personal then it can get very heated. If you have that in mind when you start down a path you’re more likely to get somewhere.”

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