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MSBA speaker offers his plan to change law firm cultures

Benjamin L. England

Benjamin L. England

Turns out it’s no longer enough to simply ask that employees abide by the golden rule within the context of the traditional law firm.

Such firms have historically rewarded attorneys financially for falling into the corporate pecking order, which makes communication and relationship building a challenge, according to Benjamin L. England, a Glen Burnie-based lawyer.

So when England founded his eponymous firm a decade ago, he tried to flatten out the organization to create interdependence between departments and improve communication by encouraging employees to speak transparently and empathetically.

“Law is just a people business, and as it turns out, if you communicate with self-awareness and empathy, even if you defend your point of view sternly and legally and logically, you are met with respect as long as you are transparent and honest,” England said.

England is scheduled to speak Friday at the Maryland State Bar Association’s Legal Summit & Annual Meeting about how to identify limitations of the traditional law firm culture and his firm’s strategy to combat the toxic aspects of that culture with a non-traditional approach centered on two-way communication.

England’s firm represents businesses who need help navigating federal and state regulations in their dealings with domestic and international trade, and he has borrowed some lessons from business culture to develop his approach.

The highly competitive “shark-eat-shark” dynamic of a traditional firm means talent is often lost when an attorney coming up the ladder starts to present a threat to mid-level partners, he said.

“You worry about what kind of work to feed that person so they don’t grow big enough to eat you,” England said.

To protect their sense of utility, England says, high-level partners tend to insulate themselves by hyper-specializing in a certain type of practice, rather than leveraging their expertise down the ladder and growing the firm. But the risk of bringing people up is outweighed by the increase of loyalty and growth as a firm, he said.

“You’re fooling yourself if you think you’re creating a protective class that is indispensable because there is always another person that can do what you do,” he said.

England’s approach starts during the hiring process and hinges on bringing on attorneys current lawyers in the firm will enjoy working with. This helps to build a culture of mutual trust and respect that ultimately finds its way to the clients, he added, who will keep coming back if they believe their lawyers are being truthful, responsive and respectful.

For a traditional firm hoping to implement England’s approach, the change must start at the top, he said.

“Most people define leadership as nothing more than self management, (but) people who manage themselves can manage other people because others look to them,” England said.

“It requires a shift in thinking,” he added. “People say employees are our most important assets but they don’t treat them that way. If I can change what someone is doing into something they are motivated to do, they feel like they are in an environment where they feel cared for, even on the challenging days.”

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