The Culture of your Law Firm or Law Department Shouldn't be like The Hunger Games

Does your office culture ever feel like the Hunger Games – the best and brightest pitted against each other in a fight to death?  Do your co-workers shout, “I volunteer at tribute!” when project assignments are made?  What if I told you the highest performing teams can be collaborative instead of competitive? A thriving organization where your team is brilliant, high-performing, responsive, and client-focused is one where people genuinely want to help each other and their clients, NOT one where competition is so fierce that people are pitted against each other in some sort of race to survival.

“There is often a belief among very successful, very competitive, people that the thing you want to do in a company is get everybody to compete with each other, that if everybody is racing against everybody you'll have this kind of a white heat of brilliance and creativity. And I think pretty much everything about that's wrong. And that's not to say that I'm not competitive, I'm deeply competitive with myself in the sense that I really want to do a better job today than I did yesterday. But I don't want you to fail. And I have seen more companies and organizations go wrong. Because of what I think of as negative competitiveness. I do want you to fail or I want your department to fail or I want your product to fail because that will make me shine. I've seen more damage and destruction and waste from that mentality than probably from any other misunderstanding.”

This quote from Margaret Heffernan in an episode of the Masters of Scale podcast got me thinking about the law firm and law department cultures in my past roles and now with Nimble clients. Some had great cultures and were high performing teams that genuinely wanted to help each other and their clients. Others were not.

Internal competition, while perhaps well-intended, can derail trust. In a dog-eat-dog competitive culture fear prevails instead of trust. See “Competition at Work: Positive at Work or Positively Awful?” by Kristi Hedges. Lawyers are competitive and law school has a way of pitting students against each other. You’re given a class rank that prominently sits on your transcript. You get on-campus interviews or invited to join the law review all based on your first year performance in law school. This competition can get kicked up a notch when you go to work at a law firm where you want to outperform your peers and ultimately make partner. Within a law department, you can have a bunch of lawyers all jockeying to be the next General Counsel or trying to move up into positions of increasing responsibility when those opportunities, in reality, don’t exist. When you move in-house, the opportunity to move up in that law department often doesn’t exist.

Good leaders match the competitive landscape of their organizations to the people they have on their teams. “[P]eople are just hardwired differently: some thrive off of stress, doing their best work in high-stakes environments, while others need a calm, tranquil space in order to perform optimally,” writes Kristi Hedges in “Competition at Work: Positive at Work or Positively Awful?”. Hedges also points out that “Men and women are also affected differently by competition. Men tend to be overconfident in their abilities and less fearful of the risks inherent in competition. Women tend to be conservative about their chances of winning in a competitive environment and avoid it.”

Beyond creating an unstable work environment for your team as leader you also have examine the effects this “Hunger Games” culture has on your clients. Is this highly competitive environment in the best interests of your clients? If the competition is so fierce internally that everyone is out for themselves then the answer is probably no.

“May the odds be ever in your favor.”