We have this purple plant sitting beside a west-facing window in our house. It only gets a couple hours of late-afternoon sunlight per day, and otherwise it just receives the ambient lighting available in the room. I gave it to my wife for Mother’s Day, so it’s been with us for a few months now. The plant is doing okay. We mostly remember to water it about once weekly. And it’s surviving. That’s about it. Surviving. There aren’t any new blooms. It isn’t growing significantly. The plant is just subsisting. We haven’t put it in an environment where we can expect it to do more than that. We haven’t put it in a place where it can thrive. Where it can reach its full potential.
People Aren’t So Different
Like the purple plant in my house, people have needs that must be met in order for us to thrive, rather than just survive. A. H. Maslow set forth his theory in 1943 of people’s “hierarchy of needs,” and others have since put it into a business context. Here, I want to discuss it in the context of putting the lawyers in your firm in the best environment to succeed.
Physiological needs are our most basic, instinctive needs because all our other needs become secondary until these are met. Maslow described the four bottom lawyers of the pyramid as deficiency needs – we feel nothing if the need is being met, but become anxious if it is not. In a business context, these needs largely relate to our financial well-being.
The financial stress on new lawyers coming out of law school is tremendous. According to a 2015 article on Above the Law, the average law school graduate in 2012 had student loan debt of $140,616. While the job market has recovered somewhat from the lowest ebb earlier this decade, it is still a grim place for new graduates. According to American Bar Association data, as of April 2016, only 59.2% of 2015 law school graduates had obtained a full-time job as a lawyer within 10 months after graduation.
For many of those fortunate enough to have obtained a job, the majority were likely disappointed upon hearing the salary offer. They knew the stat that the median starting salary for new associates was $115,000 annually, but no one had bothered to explain the bimodal salary distribution curve. Most new graduates have no idea they’re far more likely to start near $50,000 per year, than $125,000.
And with that, you can see how that base layer, the foundation of our well-being, is already disrupted. But for those of us who have obtained jobs as lawyers, we figure out the right student loan plan. We adjust our expectations. And we begin to build toward our future.
Safety needs can be ascribed to things like a safe job environment, available benefits, and job security.
What is the work environment like at your firm? Are staff and associates on edge, thinking they might be fired at any moment? This is not a recipe for thriving or for producing good work-product. There are employers who think that keeping everyone uncomfortable is the most effective means of getting the best out of everyone. They couldn’t be more wrong. This kind of environment paralyzes people. It inhibits risk-taking and growth. Rather than prodding people toward their best, an insecure environment cripples motivation and stifles innovation.
On the contrary, when lawyers feel secure in their jobs, they are more inclined to be emotionally invested in their work and loyal toward their employers. A secure lawyer will be comfortable shouldering more responsibility and taking measured risks. She will know that a mistake won’t necessarily result in a job loss, but instead an opportunity to grow. She will be in an environment where she can grow intellectually and professionally. By fulfilling her safety and security needs, this lawyer will continue her journey toward thriving, and what Maslow called self-actualization.
As a born introvert, I feel a bit out of my depth writing about social needs, because mine differ from the majority in a profession that is teeming with boisterous extroverts. But here are some things I do know. In order to meet people’s social needs, an office doesn’t have to be a place where everyone gets to work with their best friends. But it does need to be a place where there are people with amicable and supportive relationships.
You should be actively cultivating an collection of people who are willing to go out of their way to help one another out. This is done in part by hiring people for qualities over skills. And more importantly by those in leadership positions exhibiting a spirit of cooperation and collaboration, not only to those who are on a lateral plane but also to their subordinates.
A hostile work atmosphere in which everyone is only seeking his own best interests can quickly become toxic. Certainly, there’s a middle ground between hostility and friendship, but being ambivalent toward those with whom you spend half your waking hours does not breed the sort of environment that enables a firm or its lawyers to thrive. So the next time you run the coffee maker and leave the reservoir empty – fill it up! If there’s a fax on the machine (yep, people inexplicably still use these), take a few extra steps to drop it by the intended recipient’s office. If someone needs a couple of minutes to bounce around an idea or work out a problem, give them your time. Small gestures are the stepping stones that can put you on the path to a culture of amicable collaboration.
You’re likely thinking that based solely on the bravado and entitlement you’ve seen other lawyers display – whatever their station – there’s no way the “esteem” need (which envelops job title, prestige, and status) requires much curation. But you’d be wrong.
When new associates enter a firm, they often hear, “Fake it ’til you make it.” Unwittingly, they have entered a world for which law school has only minimally prepared them. Some will land at supportive firms, where a partner another associate is able and willing to guide them. Others will be left to flounder.
In order to thrive, young lawyers need structure and support. A mentor who has a vested interest in their development and success. They need feedback on the work they’re performing – instruction, reinforcement, and criticism. This level of development aids in laying the foundation for a successful professional career. The early years of practice will effectively mold the lawyer into the practitioner she will be for the next forty years. A proper support structure will enable the lawyer to launch into self-actualization.
Psychology Today describes self-actualization as “a state in which people are at their very best.” Maslow believed the self-actualized person is one who is fully realized: “I think of the self-actualizing man not as an ordinary man with something added, but rather as the ordinary man with nothing taken away. The average man is a full human being with dampened and inhibited powers and capacities.”
What our profession doesn’t need is more “average” lawyers, who have diminished abilities. To quote Keith Lee of Associate’s Mind (and I bet I’ve read or heard him say it a dozen times), “The average lawyer isn’t very good … and fifty percent are worse than that.” Rather we need lawyers who have been put in positions to thrive. Others have put in the time, energy, and devotion to stretch their intellectual limits, critique them to higher performance levels, and generally prod them to caring and achieving more than the “average” lawyer. We need lawyers who are “at their very best.”
But in order for a lawyer to be more likely to advance and achieve, she needs her baser needs fulfilled. That takes consistency and intentionality. She requires those around her to commit to creating an environment in which she can not merely survive, but thrive.