Is there really psychological safety in law firms?

It is a formidable achievement to make it to the senior ranks of a law firm – especially Partner. It signals that you have worked hard, that you are an expert in your field and that other people see that in you too.

Naturally due to the hierarchical structure of law firms, there are many more junior staff than Partners. This makes sense, as a client, you don’t want to pay Partner rates for work that can be done by more junior lawyers.

Whether or not intended, the nature of this structure means that there can be some interesting power dynamics in the hierarchy of any law firm.

Even if you don’t have any bullying behaviour – it doesn’t mean that all is well in the kingdom in terms of psychological safety.

What is psychological safety?

It is one of the key foundations of a high performance culture.

Amy Edmondson has done much research in this space. Essentially psychological safety means that people can feel comfortable asking questions, or bringing forth new ideas, without fear of being humiliated or reprimanded for doing so.

It’s worth mentioning that it’s a two-way street. It’s also important that people feel safe to be questioned, and have questions asked of them, without feeling attacked or in the firing line. 

Why do we need it – especially in a law firm?

At NEP we work with a number of law firms, and for the most part, they are changing for the better in terms of increasing psychological safety (although firms are still far from equal in this regard).

However, the hierarchical structure can indirectly impact psychological safety in ways that you may not realise.

Recently I was running a workshop for junior lawyers at a very progressive law firm. From the work I’ve done with senior staff and the HR team at this firm, you wouldn’t expect psychological safety to be an issue. Yet the junior staff still mentioned that they feel nervous doing work directly for senior staff. They said they would often take longer for fear of making mistakes which could negatively impact their career.

It’s unlikely that the partners are saying anything directly to make them think this, but it is felt indirectly nonetheless.

Regardless of the intention of the Partners to be supportive, the impact of this is that if people are fearful in any way, they are spending cognitive energy being fearful instead of putting that energy into doing their best work.

And in some firms, Partners still have the belief that it’s not their job to “mollycoddle” the junior staff, so as you can imagine lower levels of psychological safety would tend to ensue.

What to do

Like all parts of a high performance culture, it should be explicitly stated. All staff should know what it is and how to promote it.

All staff should also know the path to speak up if they don’t feel they have it, or speak up if they don’t know how to promote it in others – it’s a two-way street.

If it’s not directly discussed, you can’t expect people to feel psychologically safe by osmosis especially when a hierarchical structure will have inherent challenges to it.

Often it’s the simple things; if you are someone who is quite direct as many people in law firms are (and I can totally relate to that myself), then just telling people in advance that you are quite direct and to not interpret that directness as anything personal against them can go a long way to removing ambiguity.

Removing ambiguity can go a long way to improving psychological safety.

If you would like to discuss frameworks for improving psychological safety in your business, please contact us to book your 45 min complimentary Performance Call.