Diffusing Conflict: Taming the Insensitive Partner

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By Jonathan Middleburgh | Dec 7, 2021

Setting the Scene

I have written previously about my experience in resolving conflict between senior lawyers in law firms.  My first article about conflict for the Edge Communiqué was about a dysfunctional management committee and how a relatively simple intervention helped turn things around (“Resolving Conflict: Trouble at the Top and Why it’s Sometimes Best to Part Company”).  A subsequent article was about a bust up between a Managing Partner and a Senior Partner in a large firm (“Avoiding Law Firm Armageddon – How a Major Law Firm Nearly Imploded … and How the Conflict was Resolved”).

In this article I am focusing on a different aspect of conflict among senior lawyers – and one that I am sure will be familiar to many.  This is the case of the insensitive lawyer, or the lawyer who is somewhat lacking in emotional intelligence, and who ruffles feathers or, worse, causes more serious distress to his or her colleagues.

The Archetype

Many will recognise the archetype – the lawyer who is an excellent technical specialist and highly effective at his or her craft, but who lacks certain interpersonal skills, does not know how to manage relationships effectively or is low in emotional intelligence.

My experience is that such lawyers rarely intend the consequences of their actions and sometimes struggle to make the connection between their words or behaviours and the resulting upset that is caused.  For sure there are bullies among partners in law firms – but often it is not a case of out and out bullying, more a case of crass insensitivity or poor communication.

A couple of examples of the archetype.

Example 1:  a partner in a Global Law Firm considered at the top of his technical game and highly valued by his clients.  Acknowledged by his peers as one of the Firm’s star performers in his niche field of expertise as a Banking and Finance lawyer, he was (and is) the go-to for many financial institutions.  Astute at managing external (client) relationships, this particular partner was disastrous at handling a range of internal relationships.  Junior lawyers complained of erratic behaviour, often alternating between lavish praise and extreme criticism.  A couple of junior lawyers had complained of behaviour that amounted to bullying – although they had been careful not to label the behaviour as bullying for fear of reprisals from the partner in question.

Example 2: a partner in a European Law Firm who was a highly skilled and well-respected Dispute Resolution lawyer.  Esteemed by clients for her proactive approach to dispute resolution she had ruffled feathers among several junior lawyers; a couple of exiting lawyers had blamed their departure from the firm on her managerial style. Junior lawyers complained of a brusque (sometimes rude) style in emails, insensitive remarks about their work (including put downs when giving feedback on written work) and a generally hostile, unfriendly, behavioural style.

Both of the above lawyers had been defensive to feedback from lawyer colleagues / HR.  They both complained of the quality of several of their juniors and argued that ‘incompetent’ juniors were mistaking candid constructive feedback for inappropriate feedback.

Resistance to Feedback: Breaking through the Barrier

I have highlighted a couple of examples above, but I have come across variations on the archetype in a significant number of my engagements, sometimes when I was asked to a coach the individual in question, sometimes when I was brought in as someone known to have an expertise in diffusing conflict.

Common to all of these situations is that the individual I am working with is high on IQ and low on emotional intelligence / EQ.   Emotional intelligence is classically defined as “the ability to recognise, understand and manage our own emotions and the ability to recognise, understand and manage the emotions of others” (Goleman).

Lawyers of this type are often fiercely bright intellectually but find it hard to understand the impact of their words and actions on others – or to recognise the emotional response of others as betrayed by their words, reactions or body language.  Thus, by way of example, the Banking & Finance lawyer described above found it hard to recognise that anything he said was overly harsh or offensive and hard to grasp the fact that junior lawyers found the bipolarity of lavish praise and damning criticism confusing.

HR and senior lawyer colleagues often face an impenetrable wall of resistance when dealing with this type of lawyer.  In my experience if there is to be any hope of progress it is imperative to get permission to gather 360 degree type feedback by way of conversations with a representative sample of the individual’s colleagues.  This consists of the external coach or consultant having detailed one-on-one conversations (anywhere from 20 minutes upwards) with a range of feedback givers who are promised confidentiality and that all feedback will be given thematically and without reference to any individual.

The 360 degree feedback does not in and of itself resolve the problem.  Oftentimes the insensitive lawyer will push back against the feedback and it requires a significant degree of skill to break down the barriers caused by resistance and the lawyer’s lack of emotional intelligence.

However the 360 degree feedback is data and, if gathered from a wide range of colleagues, including valued colleagues, hard to refute. Lawyers generally respect data.  The skill of the external consultant is to navigate his or her way through the layers of resistance so that the insensitive lawyer gradually begins to accept the data and to embrace the need to work with that data.

A typical process

In my experience, the process of resolving or diffusing conflict caused by the insensitive lawyer follows a typical arc or methodology when someone external is brought in to help:

  1. Initial Engagement: A colleague or colleagues of the insensitive lawyer approaches someone external to try to help to diffuse or resolve the conflict. Often someone from HR or a senior lawyer colleague (e.g. Head of Department, Managing Partner) reaches out to an external consultant or coach.  The external consultant or coach will discuss the situation with the internal sponsor and the range of possible outcomes (including, at the extreme, the insensitive lawyer leaving the firm – this in my experience is rare).
  2. Contracting with the insensitive lawyer: When I talk of contracting with the individual lawyer, I am not talking of a legal contract.  The formal instruction / retainer (the legal contract of engagement) is with the firm, and the firm pays for the external help.  I am talking here about the non-legal, but vitally important, contracting that takes between the external consultant or coach and the insensitive lawyer, whereby the lawyer agrees to work with that person – and whereby they agree the practical basis / terms for that work.  At this stage of contracting, it is not essential that the lawyer in question agrees that there is a problem or that they are the source of the problem.  It is however essential that they are willing to work with a third party and that they are sufficiently open-minded to allow that third party to gather 360 degree feedback (if this is part of the agreed process).  Contracting also covers the extent of confidentiality as between third party and the insensitive lawyer and the extent of report back to the paying client (the firm) – Who is the third party allowed to report back to? What is he or she allowed to report back?  Are there any other important terms that need to be agreed to regulate the relationship between lawyer and third party?
  3. Initial Rapport Building / Goal Setting: This will usually involve a session or two of getting to know the lawyer and building rapport.  The external third party agrees goals with the lawyer.  The key goal is typically to improve on the current situation in circumstances where the lawyer has received feedback that his or her behaviours /words are playing poorly with some colleagues.
  4. Psychometric testing: Where resources permit, it is usually helpful to use one or more of the better-validated personality tests with the individual lawyer.  It is not essential but the results of the psychometric tests provide helpful data points to work with, to frame part of the conversation with the lawyer.  Although the ‘data’ in question is in fact self-report data (i.e. the lawyer has provided the data by answering questions about e.g. their behaviours) there can often be a disconnect between the data and the lawyer’s self-perception, which is a fruitful topic for discussion. As I have pointed out above, lawyers tend to respond well to data – and can initially find it easier to focus on, analyse and talk about the data, than to acknowledge their shortcomings. It can be particularly helpful to use an emotional intelligence test (of which there are some excellent, well-validated, ones) in order to have a conversation about aspects of the individual’s emotional intelligence.
  5. 360 degree feedback gathering: I have commented on this above.  Typically this will involve speaking to at least 6-8 of the lawyer’s colleagues, often considerably more.
  6. Debrief and processing of 360 degree feedback: This can often be much of the meat of the engagement – not just delivering the feedback but helping the lawyer to understand and process the feedback (this includes the overcoming of resistance, discussed above) and to make connections between his or her behaviour and words (both verbal and written) and the feedback.
  7. Developing insights and translating these into sustained changed behaviours: This part of the process can overlap with the previous step.  Here the external consultant or coach is working with the lawyer to help them to understand the behaviours / actions / words that are impacting negatively on others and then working with them to change those behaviours / actions / words. This can be a difficult part of the process.  Developing insight is one thing – translating the insight into changed behaviour quite another.  Ingrained habits can be difficult to shift and replacing these habits with different habits requires sustained practice and repetition.   This can sometimes involve ongoing coaching – but it is important to ensure that the lawyer does not become dependent on coaching.

Results – A Spectrum of Success

Inevitably, not all engagements result in success.   My experience (this is entirely personal) is that roughly 10-20% of engagements are transformational for the coachee.  50-60% of engagements result in significant success and roughly 20-30% result in partial success.  It is very unusual  (10% of cases or less) that the dial is not shifted to some extent.

In the case of the Banking & Finance lawyer, it took a significant amount of time to break down the barriers of resistance.  I fortunately obtained permission to carry out a very extensive 360 degree process, so that I was able to gather feedback from a very large number of colleagues. This made it very hard for the lawyer to refute the feedback in its entirety.

It required several sessions to establish optimal rapport with the lawyer.  I eventually succeeded in breaching the barriers of resistance but there remained patches of resistance to the feedback, throughout the process. Nonetheless the lawyer did gradually recognise the impact of the key relevant behaviours and actions and we were able to identify which behaviours and actions he needed to change.

I worked with the lawyer for several further sessions to ensure that he was indeed changing those behaviours and actions and to ensure that this became a sustained change.  I was then given permission to carry out a more limited feedback gathering process, which confirmed that the change had occurred and was recognised by colleagues.

In the case of the Dispute Resolution lawyer, the outcome was less satisfactory.  My understanding at the start of the engagement was that it was agreed that there would be a gathering of 360 degree feedback as part of the process.  I had three sessions with the lawyer during which I worked at building rapport and took the lawyer through the results of a couple of psychometric tests, including an emotional intelligence test (the lawyer had insisted, and it was agreed, that the results would not be disclosed to anyone else within the firm).

When it came to the 360 degree feedback exercise, the lawyer expressed considerable concern (even though, as I understood, it had been agreed that this would take place, as part of the initial discussion between myself and the firm).  The lawyer – who, as a Dispute Resolution lawyer, was very adept at tactics, including stalling tactics – raised a series of queries about the process, relating to confidentiality, the risk of her being perceived negatively, in comparison with other colleagues, as a result of 360 degree feedback being gathered relating to her and so on. The combined effect of these queries (and, I assume, the intention of raising them) was to kick the 360 degree feedback exercise into the long grass and to stall the process.  Despite a couple of attempts to revive the process, the lawyer raised sufficient objections to prevent the 360 degree feedback exercise from taking place and thereby caused the progress to stall indefinitely.  Thus, progress of any meaningful kind was frustrated.

Why do I say that the outcome was less satisfactory rather than unsatisfactory? I say this because I learned from HR that the steady stream of complaints against the lawyer had in fact stopped.  It was impossible to be sure that this was a result of the process but HR believed that the lawyer was keeping her head down and sufficiently smart to understand what she needed to do to avoid complaints – even if she had not completely committed to a change process and even though it was possible that the damaging behaviours / actions could resume once the spotlight moved away from her.

Of course, in some cases the lawyer in question is incapable of change – or so resistant to feedback that he or she is unwilling to acknowledge that there is any need to change.  This, however, in my experience, is more the rare exception than the usual case.

In this article, I have dealt with a topic that is often highly sensitive.  The issues covered need to be managed very delicately.  If you would like an informal discussion around any of the issues raised by this article, please contact me (Jonathan Middleburgh) at middleburgh@edge-international.com or on +44(0)7973 836343.

The facts of some of the above case studies have been altered so as to preserve confidentiality.

Edge Principal Jonathan Middleburgh consults on senior human capital issues and coaches senior legal talent in both law firms and legal departments. A former practicing lawyer who is also trained as an organisational psychologist, Jonathan has a wide range of experience helping law firms and legal departments to develop their senior legal talent so as to maximise business outcomes.