Law Firm Success Tied to Leaders’ Communication Practices - Business Law Today from ABA (2024)

Law firm leaders today are like circus jugglers flipping balls into the air so fast you can hardly see them. Yet most leaders primarily focus on putting out fires to keep themselves afloat. Issues of the moment include:

  • Addressing the Great Resignation: what do employees want?
  • Managing the return to office
  • Implementing guidelines and processes for a hybrid office
  • Reimagining the physicality of the office
  • Rethinking safety for humans and cyber-safety for work product

It’s a beginning. Futurists might hope that leaders would think more strategically to address the impact of the tech-driven world we are moving into. But most law firms are not receptive to dramatic change. The typical law firm organization is paramilitary. Lawyers work their way up to equity partner and, once there, set the rules for everyone else without asking for anyone else’s input. It’s top-down decision-making with little regard for input from others.

Law firm leaders will be more comfortable addressing issues as they arise rather than tackling a comprehensive cultural overhaul.

This article looks at the importance of inclusive communication practices as an essential underpinning for any change. The assumption is that the more inclusive, receptive kind of communication required to make any changes “stick” will necessarily chip away at the dictator-leader model. A new kind of communication will foster worker buy-in to small changes that will, over time, lead to more democratic, decentralized, inclusive firm communications.

Communication Basics

“Communicating means establishing good relationships and reaching the right persons with the right messages at the right messages at the right time, usually for the purposes of getting something done.”[1] Good communication requires preparation and knowledge. “Right persons,” “right messages” and “right timing” presume that the communicator knows the organization, the players, the leaders and the culture—their jargon, their values, their biases, the way they have always done things.

Workplace communications almost always involve an element of persuasion, where the speaker is looking for buy-in. To persuade requires the persuader to:

  • Be trusted by those in the audience.
  • Be sincere about personal beliefs and use appropriate body language to reinforce that sincerity.
  • Use stories to emphasize points that resonate with the audience.
  • Use their language and communicate the main “ask” clearly.

Audiences never hear exactly what the speaker says because they process words through their own life experiences, beliefs, and preferences. Workplace leaders create greater alignment with their audience when they seek their involvement. To increase the likelihood that they will hear “real” answers from those lower down on the office ladder, the leader has to create a safe environment for the dialogue.

To achieve audience rapport, the leader should be empathetic, open-minded, non-judgmental, and willing to adjust the original idea to incorporate some of their input. To see how these generalities play out in the law firm environment, let’s look at two of today’s issues: 1) what employees want; and 2) the return to the office.

What Employees Want

The assumption that work could only be done in an office died after two years of productive remote work. The ability to work elsewhere enabled professionals to carry out work assignments as just one among many daily activities. Women tasked with childcare responsibilities could interweave the two activities. For many, it worked.

Of course, while some flourished, others felt isolated, burned out, lonely, and depressed. They found it difficult to separate work and home activities either physically or mentally. Without something as arbitrary as a commute to separate work and life, they overworked. This tendency was made worse by bosses who called innumerable videoconference meetings to compensate for the lack of in-office collaboration.

Employees had time to think about preferable work environments. Especially for younger lawyers and new hires, the absence of in-person mentors and colleagues creates a feeling of isolation—and often depression. Despite a multitude of team meetings, it is difficult to become friends with online colleagues; to understand firm culture; and to behave according to informal office norms.

2021 saw approximately four million workers a month disappear from the workforce either through firing and attrition or worker resignations. As worker shortages grow, employees are in the catbird seat.

They want more than more money. They would like their law firms to accept work as one part of a balanced life rather than the focus of their waking hours. They are asking for:

  • Respect
  • An understanding that flexibility includes both scheduling and location plus the ability to decide for themselves how to get their work done
  • Clarity as to career paths and development of pathways to personal growth
  • Leaders willing to include their input when making decisions about their work lives
  • Firm values aligned with theirs regarding issues such as climate change, Black Lives Matter, and DEI

Leaders used to docile followers were surprised and disoriented. They were focused on confusing health mandates, client demands, and technology disruptions. Instead, they have to deal with demands for new workplace relationships and opportunities.

The Return to Work

Important concerns complicate any return to office-based work. Firm leaders are faced with the need to:

  • Assuage health worries focused on COVID upticks and returning to elevators, shared lunchrooms, and cubicle offices.
  • Change firm cultures to meet new worker definitions of an acceptable workplace.
  • Reconsider partner-associate and lawyer-staff relationships.
  • Deal with the impact of 20th-century thinking about the role of in-office participation in career success versus the new reality that people want to work asynchronously.

Firms’ knee-jerk response was to offer a hybrid work model that would include the option to work remotely. Less thought was given to details like scheduling and meeting employees’ emotional demands for participation, career success, and well-being.

Culture-changing questions include:

  • What needs to be done in the office and what is better done alone?
  • For knowledge workers, does the nine-to-five workday still make sense?
  • Does everyone in a law firm need to be in the office together all the time?
  • How does the autonomy to decide when and where to work coexist with the reality of teams or set work schedules?
  • Does choosing remote work need to negatively impact careers, especially for women lawyers?

Law firm leaders have begun to respond to these pressures. Successful responses begin with those good communication skills, that is, the willingness to be authentic; open to others’ ideas; empathetic; and ready to change. Rather than lay down an arbitrary rule, modern leaders will move toward more inclusive decision-making that shows respect, support, and interest in what other people in their firm think.

Questions that guide this kind of conversation include:

  • What do you think?
  • How can I help?
  • Why is that important to you?
  • What do you suggest to resolve the issue?
  • What can we as a firm do to meet your expectations?

An example of a brief but positive conversation with a complaining employee:

Employee: Complaint.

Leader: I hear you and I understand. I have some thoughts about the issue but I am more interested in how you would resolve the problem. I’d love to hear your ideas. Let’s get together next Wednesday to find a solution. I will send you a calendar invite.

The leader has in four sentences expressed understanding of where the employee is coming from; said she wants to hear their solution; given them time to craft a workable result; and shown respect for the employee’s issue by setting a specific time to resolve the issue.


All the pandemic-induced changes of the past two years have created an opportunity to alter the dynamic between law firm leaders and employees—non-equity partners, associates, and staff. As firms try various solutions in 2022, there is an opportunity to make the best ones permanent: To address a future where lawyers will be paid for their knowledge rather than the process of creating specific products.

In subsequent issues I will discuss specific solutions to the problems raised here.

[1] George de Mare, “Communicating: The key to establishing good working relationships,” Price Waterhouse Review, 1989, p. 32.

Law Firm Success Tied to Leaders’ Communication Practices - Business Law Today from ABA (2024)


Why is communication important in a law firm? ›

Good internal communication is key as it provides all team members with the necessary information about firm objectives and goals that enable them to perform their roles efficiently and effectively foster positive and productive engagement.

What type of communication do lawyers use? ›

Verbal communications: Speaking

In appropriate circ*mstances, in-house counsel should supplement their verbal communications with written summaries. If those summaries contain legal advice, they should make sure to include appropriate legal protection and privilege notices.

What business structure do most law firms operate under? ›

  • Limited liability partnerships. The vast majority of large commercial law firms are structured as limited liability partnerships (“LLPs”). ...
  • Lawyer Hierarchy. Partners are therefore at the top of law firm hierarchies. ...
  • Support Staff (Non-fee-earners) ...
  • Practice Areas.
Jun 12, 2023

What type of business is a law firm an example of? ›

Limited liability company, in which the attorney-owners are called "members" but are not directly liable to third party creditors of the law firm (prohibited as against public policy in many jurisdictions but allowed in others in the form of a "Professional Limited Liability Company" or "PLLC");

What are the benefits of good communication to a business firm? ›

It builds bridges between employees and management and promotes effective collaboration across your organization. It ensures that colleagues can work together to improve business processes, increase efficiency, make better decisions, reduce mistakes, and achieve business goals aligned with core company values.

What is the most important purpose of law in a business context? ›

The purposes and functions of business law include maintaining order, protecting rights and liberties, establishing standards, and resolving disputes when it comes to businesses and their interactions with individuals, government agencies, and other businesses.

What are the methods of communication in law? ›

Communication takes many forms, such as writing a letter or an email to a client or speaking with a client face to face or on the telephone. It also includes drafting other kinds of documents that communicate information to clients, courts, judges, and opposing parties and their legal representatives.

Are communications within a law firm privileged? ›

Although historically courts held there was no privilege, more recently courts—including one California court—have concluded that communications between attorneys and their firm's in-house counsel are privileged.

What are the most effective methods of communication in the courtroom? ›

Body language, or the nonverbal cues and signals we give off through our movements and expressions, plays a critical role in the courtroom, often conveying more than words themselves can express. A significant percentage of communication is non-verbal, making body language a powerful tool in legal proceedings.

What form of business is best for a law firm? ›

That's one good reason to pursue a limited liability partnership if it's available in your state. A limited liability company (LLC) is a business whose members are protected from personal liability for the acts and debts of the company in the same way as a corporation, but can opt to be taxed as a partnership.

What are the three most popular business legal structures? ›

The most common forms of business are the sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, and S corporation. A Limited Liability Company (LLC) is a business structure allowed by state statute. Legal and tax considerations enter into selecting a business structure.

What legal structure is best for your business? ›

If you want sole or primary control of the business and its activities, a sole proprietorship or an LLC might be the best choice. You can negotiate such control in a partnership agreement as well. A corporation is constructed to have a board of directors that makes the major decisions that guide the company.

What type of law is business law? ›

Business law determines the formal process of establishment of a business organization and regulations related to the selling of corporate entities. It also includes rights assignment, drafting, and work delegations, breach of contract, transactions, contracts, and penalties for violation of the agreement.

What is an example of firm in business? ›

Examples of firms are a sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company, or corporation. The term is slightly more commonly associated with a partnership. Given the broad reach of this term, it cannot be used to specify the legal protections afforded by a certain type of legal organization.

What are the different types of businesses in business law? ›

Compare business structures
Business structureOwnership
PartnershipsTwo or more people
Limited liability company (LLC)One or more people
Corporation - C corpOne or more people
Corporation - S corpOne or more people, but no more than 100, and all must be U.S. citizens
3 more rows
May 19, 2023

Why is it important to communicate professionally? ›

Communication in the workplace is important because it boosts employee morale, engagement, productivity, and satisfaction. Communication is also key for better team collaboration and cooperation. Ultimately, effective workplace communication helps drive better results for individuals, teams, and organizations.

Why is communication important for paralegals? ›

As the liaison between counsel and client, paralegals are called on to handle complex and sensitive exchanges of information. Communicating with your law firm's clients requires skills in translating legalese, managing documents, keeping track of critical dates, and imparting a level of emotional support.

Why is communication skills important? ›

Communication today is very important both in the business world and in private life. Successful communication helps us better understand people and situations. It helps us overcome diversities, build trust and respect, and create conditions for sharing creative ideas and solving problems.

What does communication mean in law? ›

Communication is the expression or exchange of information by speech, writing, gestures, conduct or electronic medium. It is the process by which an idea is brought to another's perception. The information that is so expressed or exchanged is also referred to as communication.


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