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The pursuit of happiness

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  • Jarrett Kerr

Would you consider your firm a happy place to work? Do you think your people feel the same way? It’s too easy to focus on success, to the exclusion of happiness, says Nick Jarrett-Kerr. So how can you make your firm a great place to work?

I have been involved in the management of professional service firms for over 25 years. During that time, much of my effort has been directed towards helping firms to develop and build what might loosely be described as ‘success’ – strategic success, financial success, business development success, organisational success and positioning success (relative to rivals), as well as individual career and monetary successes for the professionals involved in the enterprise.

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Profit is, of course, key to the survival and prosperity of any business, and all the individuals in professional service firms are quite rightly focused on both how to maximise the potential of the firm and how to achieve a sustainable, productive and effective organisation that adds value to clients and can appropriately reward its stakeholders. In this context, the approach to organisational culture has concentrated on the dimensions of culture that have been found to make a difference in a firm’s success. The logic is that a powerful and positive culture can bring people together, serve as the glue that turns a bunch of individualists into a team, and fire up the firm’s members to perform better and more harmoniously.

Having said all that, I have not come across an enormous amount of discussion about or analysis of what makes a firm happy: what makes it a rich and harmonious place to work and hang out, regardless of the profit motive.

There are good commercial reasons for seeking to make a firm a happy and rewarding place to work. After all, there is a strong financial argument both that a contented firm is more productive and that the cost of people attrition can be measurably reduced by improvements in morale. But I believe there is a stronger case than commercial gain. We all spend a large proportion of our lives at work, and we owe it to ourselves and our employers that our career and the environment in which we work should be stimulating, satisfying, and even fun. I would go further and suggest that the pursuit of happiness in our firms is more important than the pursuit of profit.

It might seem obvious that good leadership is a necessary element in any happy ship. While in a crisis, people respond to the imposition of martial law, a contented firm needs a more nuanced approach – a blend of determination and emotional intelligence. At the same time, nobody wants to be pampered for long or to live in an atmosphere where any sort of conduct is tolerated. Like parenthood, we’re talking discipline with a lightish touch, rather than mere indulgence. And it helps enormously if the firm’s leaders are passionate about the firm and what it does, and care deeply for its members.

In this article, I list 10 steps that the leadership team can take towards a happier firm. These are not exhaustive or definitive – they are based purely on my own interaction with contented places to work that I have experienced or observed through the years. I would add that none of the suggested steps is easy, and they all require long-term thinking, persistence and – above all – a willingness and passion to invest.

1. Lay the groundwork

Whenever I walk into the offices of a professional service firm, I am struck by the atmosphere of the place, rather than the glossiness of the reception area. Some offices seem to radiate warmth and friendliness, while others seem more clinical and lacking in energy.

Invest both time and money in your office ‘ecology’. For instance, well-trained reception and office staff clearly help visitors and clients, so train members of the firm in soft skills as well as hard ones. And give thought and care to the obvious artefacts of office life: although a pleasant office may not be motivational, an unpleasant place to work clearly demotivates. People may complain if a room is too cold, but take it for granted and rarely enthuse when the temperature is just right.

2. Communicate

A common complaint about an unhappy workplace relates to communication: specifically, when it is poor, patchy, economical with the truth, or lacking transparency. There are some significant structural and emotional barriers to good communication in law firms. Teams, practice groups and offices can easily lapse into functional silos, with poor communication even between people on different floors in the same building. In addition, the concentration on maximising the billable hour and the overall drive to prioritise time combine to reduce interaction between staff. The use (or misuse) of email, and stilted discussion at formal team meetings become a poor substitute for the easy interchange of ideas which can often take place in a semi-social setting. And many firms have grown in size to the extent that fewer employees know each other. While communication between friends is often difficult, communication between strangers can be fraught.

Poor communication can also create issues in leadership and management: partners will have difficulty understanding what their tasks and roles are, and how they are expected to contribute to decision-making. The leadership team and the partners can also often find themselves singing from different song sheets, and the fragmented results almost always have an adverse effect on morale.

In response, there is a temptation to increase the number and length of meetings, memos, papers and emails with a corresponding decrease in the likelihood that the offerings will be read, listened to and understood. Some leaders even continue to purposely under-communicate within the firm, so as to protect vital information and data from slipping out of their controlled grasp.

The clear message to firm leaders is that they should adopt a careful and methodical approach to their strategy for discussions, interchanges and information flows.

3. Build a collegiate culture

The assets of a ‘people’ business come into and out of the office every day. Partnership relationships tend to be quite long-term, and although they are business relationships and not necessarily personal ones, they need investment.

It is easy to make a long list of the many mistakes made in firms in understanding and developing people. Closed doors, hierarchical thinking, displays of arrogance and self-importance, selfishness, impatience, intolerance of mistakes, eagerness to lay blame, morale-sapping behaviours, anger issues, bullying, sarcasm, disrespectful treatment of others, exploitation, unwillingness to listen, internal politics and jealousies are all features of unhappy firms where morale is low and careers tend to be short-term.

The positive antonyms of the above list are formed by acts of will and decision-making, rather than by a feeling or a burst of emotions. Happy firms tend to be ones where the leaders and followers have made a conscious determination to invest in relationships, moderate their behaviours, and do their best for the collective membership and individuals at all levels. The firm’s leaders should be exemplars of the sort of positive cultural traits, values and behaviours that they espouse.

4. Embrace difference

We tend to like people to be like ourselves. This can lead to intolerance of people who are different from us, and this can breed unhappiness. The way in which a business handles diversity is critical to the achievement of harmony – and I mean not just ethnic, cultural, religious or biological diversity, but diversity in views, opinions and behaviours. The key to the happy firm lies in understanding and making allowance for the very different ways in which people interact and behave as a result of their particular mixes of history, origins, upbringing, traditions and personalities.

You will find many different character types in a law firm – including extroverts, introverts, drivers and thinkers – and each will tend to look at the world in different ways. Some constantly strive for results; some are laid-back and amiable; some are analytical; and some are process-oriented. People come across vastly differently as well – for instance, as dramatic, entertaining, sociable, closed, reserved, sensitive, submissive or indecisive. None of these different approaches is necessarily right or wrong, but there are at least two issues. First, relationships between diverse personalities can result in conflict, because, particularly when under stress, we expect other people to behave and interact just like us. Second, strengths can become weaknesses: laid-back people can become lazy; drivers can be dictatorial; and perfectionists can become paralysed by their analysis.

Firms need to strive for a combination of the discipline of self-perception (and a desire to correct one’s own shortcomings) and an attitude to others of understanding, appreciation and encouragement; this enables harmony to be achieved, strengths to be pooled, risks to be identified, and robust decisions to be agreed.

5. Consider compliance

Conformity can have a somewhat deadening effect on the atmosphere of firms. All professional service firms need to have processes, systems, quality checks and compliance regimes in place. All of these are no doubt necessary for efficiency, risk management and regulatory control. However, I have often noticed how weighed down people can feel because of the huge load of internal regulation, some of which can seem unnecessary. Morale suffers where there is too much unnecessary red tape. To quote Joseph Conrad: ‘The atmosphere of officialdom would kill anything that breathes the air of human endeavour, would extinguish hope and fear alike in the supremacy of paper and ink.’

It is, of course, easier said than done to say that the compliance touch should be as light as possible, consistent with the firm’s overall objectives. But slavish and obstinate adherence to existing systems can be avoided if firm members are encouraged to be questioning, proactive and innovative in suggesting alternative approaches and new ways of doing things – and if they are rewarded for doing so.

6. Make conflict work for you

Happiness is not the absence of conflict. I have always loved the example of the grit in the oyster to illustrate the importance of constructive debate and the advantages of healthy argument on important issues. The tension between two valid points of view can often be tested and deployed to improve decision-making and foster innovation. The problem is that in any discussion, bitterness, resentment and anger can easily set in, and this can be difficult to prevent when strong-minded personalities are involved.

The key is to engage with different points of view, and tap into a spirit of healthy debate and commitment in order to find the best solution, suspending personal stakes, ego trips and stubbornness. In meetings, this kind of engagement requires subtle and refined chairing skills. In individual instances of conflict that require intervention, diplomacy and mediation skills may be needed.

7. Engage the mavericks

Every firm has people who challenge the firm’s conventions and approach, and this can be a good thing: the insistence on dogmatic convictions can lead to stagnation of ideas. I remember one partner who was extremely innovative and was constantly thinking up new ideas and plans, some good and some not. He was certainly not easy to get on with and, unless influenced by a moderating force, he tended to cause a lot of strife in the office.

As always, a balance needs to be struck in managing your mavericks: too much freedom, and chaos (and unhappiness) results, but too much restriction of new ideas, and stultification occurs.

8. Build teamwork

Isolation breeds discontent. Law firms are often guilty of being ‘motels for lawyers’, in which lawyers carry on a largely autonomous existence as sole practitioners held together by the glue of compliance and professional regulation. Such firms are not necessarily unhappy as such, but this approach (apart from being in most cases commercially inefficient) can breed an atmosphere in which firm members are not encouraged or forced to build close ties with fellow members. Instead, people stick in their offices with their heads down and keep to their individual routines.

I have noticed that in such an environment, people often wear a mask or outer shell to hide their inner feelings of isolation, boredom and lack of career fulfilment. A culture can then easily grow in which everyone’s mask or shell condemns others to live the same pretence, and everyone keeps their dissatisfaction a secret.

There are many ways in which teamwork can be built – such as weekly team meetings, firm retreats, and frequent face-to-face interactions. In my experience, firms that try to be a ‘one-firm firm’ generally seem to be more stimulating, contented and productive places to work.

9. Engage externally

Corporate narcissism – where the firm constantly looks inwards and not outwards – is unhealthy and can imperil a firm’s state of wellbeing. I sometimes see firms where nothing seems to matter other than the firm itself. The firm lives in its own bubble and is both egotistical and egoistical – both feeling superior to others and preoccupied with itself. Clients become a tedious necessity, and the pursuit of unique or exclusive technical excellence is paramount. Such firms often refuse or seem unable to engage more than is absolutely necessary with the world outside, and this results in a lack of organisational oxygen and elements of claustrophobia.

This is where corporate social responsibility (CSR) can help. As a young lawyer, my then senior partner always encouraged us to give back something to the community by way of charitable work or working towards a societal need.

But for this to work, firms need to properly commit to it – too many undertake CSR with a degree of hypocrisy or cynicism, to protect a sensitive client base or to assist in brand building.

There is a strong business case for CSR. First, it brings in clients and work. Second, it helps relationships within the firm develop well. Third, as my former senior partner would have said, not only is it right and proper to give back something to society, but selflessness frankly feels better than selfishness.

10. Work hard and play hard

‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’, or so the proverb goes. Some years ago, I asked a prospective lateral hire why he wanted to leave his firm, and he replied that he regarded the firm as a ‘coalmine’, in which the only things that mattered were chargeable hours and revenue generation. I am not sure that such a firm is ever a place of great joy and happiness, unless of course it entirely consists of workaholics.

The proverb does, however, have a second line: ‘All play and no work makes Jack a mere toy.’ The law is well paid, and the expectations of hard work are accordingly and understandably very high. I would never argue for a pampering and indulgent environment where laziness is endemic and little effort is needed.

I would, however, push for firms where – at every level – the taking of due and proper annual leave is encouraged, and firm members are able to have a balanced social life and are not expected to endure an oppressive servitude. 

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