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Corporate Counsel Connect collection

October 2015 edition

3 key steps to navigating legal department politics

Monica Zent, Foxwordy and ZentLaw

Monica ZentRival cliques, power struggles and groups that refuse to cooperate. Those may sound like dynamics limited to high school cafeterias, but the reality is that, at many law firms and law departments, internal politics are the elephant in the room.

While lawyers often want to believe they are above the fray, internal politics are simply inevitable in any group of people and are a fact of life in any large organization. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an international authority on talent management says, "All organizations are political—and to some degree, they always will be."

Research has documented the prevalence of office politics. A study on workplace conflict by CPP, Inc. found that 85 percent of employees say they have to deal with some degree of conflict at work, with nearly a third saying they do so "always" or "frequently."

Having spent so many years around the largest law departments in the world, I have seen first-hand how office politics can range from very mild to toxic. When teams within large legal departments don't speak with one another, like at an awkward family Thanksgiving dinner, the result can be an inability to get things done. This friction is not good for the department, and it's not good for the business either.

Whether you are in a law firm or legal department, here are three key strategies to addressing internal politics:

1. Recognize when it's there

Office politics are an inherent part of any organization, and the first step towards processing how office politics may be impacting you or your team is to recognize that the politics exist. Don't stick your head in the sand. The cost of ignoring internal conflicts can be quite high. According to the above-mentioned study by CPP, Inc., when office conflicts are poorly managed, the average employee spends more than two hours a week dealing with them. This translates to 385 million American working days wasted every year addressing needless conflict in the workplace.

The study also indicated there are a multitude of other negative outcomes that can arise in addition to time lost to workplace conflicts. Some pernicious results can include personal attacks, sickness or absence and even project failure. These outcomes are simply unacceptable and, if left unchecked, can have a paralyzing effect on a business or department. One way to understand the figurative costs of poorly managed office politics is to analyze the literal costs: According to the CPP, Inc. study, those 385 million wasted American work days translated into $359 billion in lost paid hours in 2008.

2. Evaluate the situation

The next step is to assess your department's dynamics. A CareerBuilder survey found that 43 percent of workers say their office or workplace is populated by cliques. Look at your department and identify the various alliances that exist.

You will want to ensure that cliques are not having a suppressive effect on the flow of ideas. Professors from Wharton point out that ideas created through individual brainstorming can be "killed too early because of group dynamics," as employees might censor themselves, for example, in order to go along with the status quo or to avoid angering a superior.

During your evaluation, take care to consider which employees might be getting iced out of any existing cliques or alliances. It's also imperative to determine if groups such as women, people of color or other minorities are being marginalized. If that is the case, what message does that send about your department or the company as a whole? This is an area where workplace politics can ripple through an organization and, potentially, leak into public opinion, adversely tainting the company or its brand.

3. Do something about it!

General counsel must take a proactive approach to managing internal politics.

According to Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback, authors of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, if you are a leader who avoids addressing office politics when they exist, you are "probably making yourself and your group less effective than you could or should be." Research shows that managing office politics depends largely on the skills of leaders, with a majority of employees saying managers could handle disputes better by addressing underlying tensions before things go wrong.

Proactive steps by department leadership can mean the difference between mild team dynamics and a clique-driven environment that risks turning toxic. What steps should you take? It depends on the facts and people involved. For instance, if minority groups are being marginalized by office politics, you will need to spearhead appropriate diversity and inclusion initiatives. Regardless of the alliances at play in your department, your department likely can benefit from "team building" exercises. Create a department "fun committee," or plan a team retreat.

If you are the general counsel or managing director of a law department or firm, you are likely already doing these things and, if not, you should be—and fast. You don't need to be the general counsel, however, to take action. If internal politics are impacting you, or if you notice an unhealthy dynamic developing, go ahead and speak with the general counsel. According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and Penn State professor James Detert, " news is not good news, from the point of view of senior management. ... Managers need to hear from the people in the organization ...that is, from those who are in the best position to recognize problems." It's important that team members at every level of the organization take the initiative to speak up.

The bottom line

While internal politics may be unavoidable, they are also manageable. Awareness, analysis and action are the three key steps to navigating legal department politics, ensuring departments continue on the optimal path to success.

About the Author

Monica Zent is an experienced entrepreneur, investor, businesswoman and attorney. She is the Founder & CEO of Foxwordy as well as Founder of ZentLaw, a nationally-recognized alternative law firm serving some of the world's most well-known brands. Launched in 2014 in Silicon Valley, Foxwordy is the first private social network for lawyers where they can collaborate with their colleagues, cultivate new relationships and enhance their professional reputations.

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