Episode 7: Law Firm Culture – How To Motivate Your Employees with Philippe Danielides

Culture is crucial is crucial for any company to thrive. Law firms should be especially cognizant of the way they motivate their employees while promoting a healthy workplace culture.

On this episode of Lawyer Mastermind Podcast, Casey talks with Philippe Danielides who is a former Wall Street attorney and is now a life coach, about creating a healthy workplace culture within a law firm.

Prefer to read? Read The Transcript Below

Interview Transcript

Casey Meraz:

Okay. Hi, I’m Casey Meraz and today you’re listening to the Lawyer Mastermind podcast where we help attorneys grow their law firms by interviewing experts who can fast track your success. Today I’m excited to be joined by Philippe Danielides, an executive coach. Philippe, thank you so much for joining us today.

Philippe Danielides:

My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Casey.

Casey Meraz:

Absolutely. And today we’re going to be talking about law firm culture and how to motivate your employees. And what I noticed just looking at your bio first online through LinkedIn, is that you said you’re a recovering lawyer. What do you mean by that? Tell us a little bit about your background?

Philippe Danielides:

Sure. So I worked in New York city at Millbank and Whitencase. So I did tours of two big law firms in New York before leaving and transitioning to coaching. And when I talk about a recovering lawyer, really what I’m speaking about is the lawyer mindset, which can be an incredible asset but also a liability. So here’s the lawyer mindset, it is a scanning for what if’s, right? Looking at fact patterns, trying to figure out what can go well, what can go wrong, and making sure that everything is accounted for, organized in an agreement, and being really specific and precise. That is an incredible strength and quality that you want in a lawyer, but the problem is that many of my lawyer clients encounter is that when we take that mentality and we bring it into our personal life and try to account for all the what ifs in relationships, in our professional careers and the other goals that we set for ourselves, it’s usually a recipe for stress and anxiety that can cripple people’s ability to take action.

Casey Meraz:

Okay, wow. Well good point there. And so talking a little bit with law firm culture, we were having a little bit of conversation offline before this and you had mentioned that wherever you are, that’s the culture that’s there, that it already exists. How important is culture for a law firm?

Philippe Danielides:

I think culture is extremely important. The challenges for many law firms is that it’s hard to measure precisely, or measure specifically. And that’s where I think a lot of firms can get into trouble in terms of prioritizing culture and cultivating a better work culture for their associates and employees. So what we were talking about earlier was just the fact that culture exists one way or another. It is inevitable for there to be a culture, but the choice that we have is whether or not we’re cultivating a culture that supports the mental and emotional well-being of your lawyers, of your associates, but that also then supports productivity and initiative and entrepreneurship taking responsibility for work, right? There are all these different facets of work that culture can either inform or promote or stand as an obstacle to.

Casey Meraz:

Okay. And does that start from the top down, the culture that you have? Or is it just a little bit from everyone? What creates that culture, I guess is what I’m asking, and who can influence that?

Philippe Danielides:

Yeah well it’s not linear, but I would say generally speaking that it is top down in that, let’s say junior associates so when I first started working at Millbank as a first year associate, I was looking to the senior associates partners, the management committee for direction about the norms. And these are the social norms and the values of Millbank, right? What was acceptable, what would help me to be successful and what wouldn’t? And I think that one of the biggest mistakes that senior leadership makes at firms is actually expecting culture to be created from the bottom up. Around the topic of well-being, and this is something that I’ve heard a lot from senior leadership is, well if associates need something, let’s say more mental health or wellness support, well then they’ll ask for it.

Philippe Danielides:

Well, sure, but I think that’s actually expecting a lot for the people who aren’t in positions of power, who don’t have decision making authority to step up and to ask for what it is that they need. And I think that usually also runs a fly runs, again, I don’t know the exact term, but that runs contrary to another major tenet of law firm culture, which is you just do the work, right? You grind and the work comes first. So that’s one of the cultural norms within our industry that has created a lot of the problems around well-being, anxiety, substance abuse, that also now I think we’re coming together to begin to address.

Casey Meraz:

Yeah, good point. And those are big problems that we’ve seen a rise of and we know that they exist. Should law firm managers that are maybe in charge of the culture talking about this top down that you had mention, should they put a large focus on this? Is this a major thing that’s going to affect the operations of their firm? I guess, how important is it?

Philippe Danielides:

Yeah, I may be biased, but I think it’s actually extremely important. Again, I think the difficulty is that it’s hard to quantify the impact of culture, especially when culture is as a, let’s say this diffuse or amorphous idea is up against the billable hour, which is a very clear competing interest, or what seems like a competing interest. So the idea of let’s say sending your team to a weekend off site, or bringing in other wellness programs around mindfulness or exercise, well there’s always going to be a cost benefit, and on the other side of that scale is going to be $500 for this hour of time worked. So I think that’s the biggest challenge that, or the biggest hurdle that we face that we need to get over.

Philippe Danielides:

But I think a really helpful perspective shift is to just widen the perspective to understand how being in a culture that promotes well-being affects the bottom lines of law firms because ultimately they are for profit businesses and there’s nothing wrong with that. So understanding how well-being affects productivity, affects retention of talent or the quality of talent, affects communication. And we’ve all known as lawyers, what happens if we’re not communicating clearly both on our teams but also between lawyers and our clients. And there’s really a laundry list of all of the unintended but clear consequences when we don’t pay attention to culture. Does that make sense?

Casey Meraz:

Yeah, it does. And I want to touch a little bit more on something that you had said, you were talking about stressed employees and just kind of changing that terminology. If we’re talking about happy employees now at this point, are we going to be able to expect better performance? And ultimately making more money hopefully too, because like you said a law firm is a for profit business.

Philippe Danielides:

Yeah. I mean there are many studies that have been done over the last few years just trying to make the connection or the direct correlation between, you used the word happiness. I think a lot of people, lawyers will roll their eyes at this idea of happiness as a legitimate business objective. When we talk about well-being, I saw there was a 2017 report by the World Health Organization concluding that anxiety costs the world economy over a trillion dollars a year.

Casey Meraz:

Wow.

Philippe Danielides:

So just break it down into dollars and cents to understand what the trade off is between wellbeing as a priority and the effect to a company’s bottom line.

Casey Meraz:

Okay, got it. Well that’s good information there and it definitely points us in the right direction. So what are some practical tips for somebody that just started thinking about culture that really wasn’t in their mind before but they see an opportunity? What are some things they can do to start putting this at the forefront of their mind and then maybe taking some action on it?

Philippe Danielides:

Sure. I think the first is just the lens through which you see culture, which is that it isn’t a one and done thing, right? If you think about culture and the word where it comes from, it’s Latin, but it has to do with cultivating the land and farming. And if you have farmed, if you have a small garden on your balcony, I’m here in New York city, some of us have window gardens. But we understand how things grow and we know that you don’t plant a seed and then immediately expect that seed to sprout, right? You’ve got to plant it, water it, and then as it grows you continue watering it, sunlight, weeding, there are all of these things that you are doing to create the conditions for that seed to turn into a flower or food that you can then eat and then in time you harvest it.

Casey Meraz:

Yeah.

Philippe Danielides:

It is a continuous, multifaceted process. The same is true of a culture in companies and what it takes. I think the mistake is thinking we can just do a two hour workshop on mindfulness at the beginning of associate orientation. And then we never talk about it again and everything should be fine and good to go. And so I think that’s the first shift, is recognizing that culture is something that is alive and that requires consistent effort to maintain. I know I’m speaking about this from the biased perspective of a coach, but it’s what I’ve found to be true with my one on one clients and also the organizational work that I do that’s more around setting culture. So that’s one concept around how to approach culture.

Philippe Danielides:

The second really important point that I would make is that actions speak louder than words. So if a company, if a law firm brings in a class and they have an optional one hour wellness session at the tail end of first year orientation, right? Or as an afterthought to a retreat, even if that’s the topic and it’s being spoken about, do the partners stay, right? Are they asking questions?

Casey Meraz:

Are they gone?

Philippe Danielides:

Right, is it mandatory or optional? Right? At what point in let’s say a two or three day workshop or a retreat do you slot in a seminar around taking care of yourself, mental, emotional well-being, you know, anxiety, stress reduction, whatever the topic is. So these are all things where even if the words are actually being spoken, again the context, the culture in which it’s being presented also really matters. And you can bet that your lawyers, people on your team are picking up on that, whether they say it or not.

Casey Meraz:

Got it. Yeah and I think that there’s a lot of things we could go into from there talking about that. But when you say they’re picking up on it, they may not say anything. Have you seen that develop into a toxic culture? Because I’ve seen in the past organizations where maybe somebody should have said something, but they didn’t. They harbor that inside and at some point that becomes gossip and that’s like weeds in an organization and it kind of corrupts the whole thing. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen anything like that, but just wanted to get your input on that?

Philippe Danielides:

Yeah. Well, I experienced that when I was a lawyer working at the firms in New York. I was struggling at times, even before I decided to switch careers, times where I was burnt out or I had a family emergency. There was something else going on that I needed to attend to that I just didn’t feel comfortable sharing and that stayed with me, I just internalized it. Again, I think it’s the culture within the legal industry. I’m generalizing, obviously there are some firms and organizations who are being really proactive and who are at the forefront of this work. So not to minimize the progress that’s being made right now. But yeah, I kept it inside because that is one of the dominant themes within the culture of our profession, which is you just shut up, you get the work done and that comes first, and anything else is complaining or can be seen as a sign of weakness.

Philippe Danielides:

So lots of lawyers who I speak with have spent years not only internalizing what they’re struggling with, but feeling real shame and resistance to asking for help. Not shirking their responsibilities, right? Or not doing their work, but even just acknowledging publicly in some way, whether it’s to their managing partner or the HR that there’s something that they need help with.

Casey Meraz:

Yeah. No, that’s a good point. I think you bring an interesting perspective. Not only have you been there and kind of experienced that firsthand, but now you’re a coach. So can you help identify that pretty easily? Is that something that’s a part of what you typically do in one of your executive coaching arrangements?

Philippe Danielides:

What do you mean?

Casey Meraz:

Just can you identify a culture problem if you’re coming in right away, and put a plan together to help people overcome this barrier?

Philippe Danielides:

Yeah. So, and just to answer that question, but also just to add to your last question around how we see culture affect well-being in companies. This isn’t just the perspective of a coach who cares about such things. The American bar association put together a task force, a well-being task force in 2017-18 and they came out with this report essentially detailing the crisis within our profession citing elevated levels of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and other mental health issues. So this is something that has been studied and documented and is clearly happening within our industry.

Casey Meraz:

Definitely.

Philippe Danielides:

But to the question of how do I pick up on it? What do I see? It’s just by asking about people’s, it begins with these broader questions around what do you need to be successful at work? It’s almost like inquiring about the norms of a within a company and understanding what the expectations are. So it varies from company to company, but usually someone will present it as a given as just how things are. So they’ll make general statements of, “Well, you’ve got to do what you need to do.” Right? It’s a passing statement. It’s a throw away, but it’s actually a clue to what that person, but they’re probably not alone within an organization, thinks are the rules of the road, what you need to do and agree to in order to be successful in that environment. Does that make sense?

Casey Meraz:

It does. Yeah. And I just had a thought, I wonder if a lot of junior associates or employees, if they just kind of accept this for what it is and if they’re in a toxic culture or just an environment that really isn’t humming right now, if they just accept that as normal and run with it and never say anything if that just like very prevalent. I just got thinking, because I have a friend who’s an attorney in California and he works at a firm and I don’t think they treat them well, but he’s just like, “This is how it is.” Is that the wrong attitude?

Philippe Danielides:

Yes. No, it’s not, well, depends on how you’re asking that question. It’s not the wrong attitude in the sense that it’s a rational and reasonable response to culture. I think that a great way of putting it, it’s asking people what is normal? And they’ll tell you, but what forms their normal is a very clear insight into the assumptions and beliefs that shape their reality, that shape the culture that they are working in. And the problem is what many of us have come to accept as normal because that’s just how things are, are the norms that are contributing to these increased levels of anxiety and depression and all of the things that I mentioned before. So the first step is recognizing that maybe what is normal isn’t working for us.

Casey Meraz:

Got it.

Philippe Danielides:

On a personal level, but also as we were talking about earlier on a business level, because the well-being of your individual employees of your lawyers in aggregate is going to have a significant impact on your firm’s bottom line.

Casey Meraz:

Yeah. And not only probably bottom line, but maybe even, your mental health. People don’t want to have to worry about their employees and all this stuff that’s going on, I mean it just adds more stress and if things are bad I could really see that bringing them down. But yeah, at the end of the day, you want to run a profitable law firm, these are things you have to pay attention to. What are some specific steps, what would you encourage a small law firm that’s in this position right now, what can they do to start making progress on this?

Philippe Danielides:

Yeah, I think the first thing is to just get ahead of it. So if it’s a new firm, establishing that well-being for example, is something that’s important from the get go is really important. And the way to do that is by signaling to your lawyers, to your team, that it is an actual priority. And there are different ways to do that. Usually by putting resources behind it, whether that’s an ongoing program or something on a quarterly basis.

Philippe Danielides:

So that’s one, just showing that you’re putting your resources behind what you claim to value. And two, the participation of senior leadership to signal that this is something that the firm actually takes seriously rather than just paying lip service to. I cannot stress enough how important it is for leadership to also engage in this process. Otherwise lawyers, and we are again, trained I think to be a skeptical bunch and that comes in handy in our work. But we’re skeptical, so if we hear something from leadership and we’re getting emails talking about certain things being a priority but not seeing that backed by action, then it’s not going to hold water. People aren’t going to find it credible.

Casey Meraz:

Yeah, good point. I think you touched on that earlier and actions speak louder than words, like you were saying. So it needs to happen.

Philippe Danielides:

Yeah. And the other thing I would just say, because I think there’s a really important distinction between proactive and reactive support. Most if not all firms usually have some kind of mental health support or substance abuse, addiction services that people can take advantage of, but that places the burden on employees to seek it out. Which again, I think usually doesn’t take into account when we’re talking about kind of the broader culture in which people are working, which says asking for help, needing help is a problem. And so that’s a really important safety net. Right? Keep doing that for sure, but recognizing that in order to shift culture we also need to take proactive steps to cultivate and maintain a healthy culture. Not just deal with things when they go wrong.

Philippe Danielides:

I mean, thinking about personal health, it’s the difference between do you just manage your health by going to the emergency room whenever things go South or do you also eat well and exercise, get good sleep? Right? That’s really the difference in approach that some firms have really started to take to heart and shift. But that I think is a key shift that we all need to make if we want to see meaningful progress across the board.

Casey Meraz:

Awesome. That’s great advice, thank you for sharing that. And do you have any parting advice here or anything that we didn’t talk about related to culture that you wanted to mention that we didn’t get to?

Philippe Danielides:

Parting advice? Well, just speaking to leaders at firms, I would just say your team, the junior lawyers are looking to your example. It really makes a big difference, not only in what you say but how you show up. That’s what I would say to them. And to the junior lawyers, the associates, if they’re also listening, just knowing that if there’s something that you are struggling with or worried about, whatever you think is normal, well you’re not alone, the person in the office next to you, different life situation for sure, but they’re probably affected by the same beliefs. So just knowing that you don’t have to take this on on your own, that whatever you’re struggling with isn’t a reflection of a personal failing. That’s what I see, and I have a window into the offices of your peers who are in the next office over and this is true time and time again and I think it’s really important that we acknowledge that we’re all working and being affected by a similar culture.

Casey Meraz:

Definitely. Well thank you for sharing that. And Philippe, you do executive coaching, if somebody wants to learn more about your company or talk to you to learn how you might be able to help them. How would they find you?

Philippe Danielides:

Sure. Thanks for asking, Casey. You can visit my website at innercurrentcoach.com. It’s long just like my last name, but that’s where you can find information about working with me one-on-one and if you want to reach out, happy to find some time. And also where I talk about the corporate cultural work that I do as well.

Casey Meraz:

Awesome. Yeah, of course we’ll provide a link here as well to make that easy for people to find you. And again, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate your insights and your expertise and I look forward to catching up again in the future.

Philippe Danielides:

Thanks, Casey. My pleasure.

Casey Meraz:

All right, take care. Thanks.

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