Lawyer life
October 10, 2023

The Power of the Human Lawyer: Removing the Mask at Work

Authenticity. It’s the goal of many - achieved by few - evading clasp in personal relationships, social spheres, and the working world. To be authentic is to be unabashedly true to your sense of self. To be inauthentic, however, is to feel like a stranger in your own body.

While authenticity as a concept is deceptively simple, the reality is that most people struggle to achieve authenticity in countless parts of their lives - to harmful effects. Plummeting confidence, growing apathy, bubbling rage, or total detachment: for many, concealing your true self comes at a cost.

However, few environments are so challenging in the search for authenticity, as the workplace. In fact, just 16% of the global workforce feels like their authentic selves while at work.

Why so few? What does this mean for the working world itself? A more efficient team? Or a detached and disengaged workforce? The answer is printed in the headlines, with the rise of “Quiet Quitting”, evidenced by the 55 million discretionary hours annually lost to the UK labour market between 2019-2022.

However, this problem drives deeper than lost labour. For industries where being stifled is the norm, retention rates are bleak, talent leaves the profession in droves, and customers experience a deteriorating service that destroys the reputation of the industry itself.

Few industries exemplify this so clearly, as the legal industry.

Known for its staunch traditions, its rigid formalities, and its cookie-cutter standard for “the Perfect Lawyer”, the legal profession has struggled with the growing pains of an old industry.

Racial and ethnic groups find themselves underrepresented in the UK legal industry, triggering a lonely journey through the profession.

LGBTQIA+ professionals feel pressured to conceal their identity where possible - and targeted when it is not.

Women battle against the assumption they’re the secretary, the assistant, or the glorified barista.

Men disconnect in an environment that gives them just one way to be: slick, suited, and dominant.

While members of the working class struggle to enter the profession at all - too poor and “too different” to fit into a mould that’s unwelcoming by design.

So, is this it? The destiny of the legal profession? Or is there something more?

In this article, we discuss authenticity, the dangers of conforming workplaces, and the power of the human lawyer in the contemporary age.

So, let’s get started, by tackling the “mask at work.”

The mask at work

In a 2022 UK YouGov poll, just 17% of British workers claimed to love their job, with 84% of working professionals feeling they have to hide parts of themselves. In another study, 3 in 5 employees felt pressure to conceal parts of their identity because they:

  • don’t want to make people uncomfortable (49%),
  • fear being stereotyped (43%),
  • don’t want it to affect their career advancement (41%),
  • fear discrimination (41%),
  • don’t want to damage connections with coworkers (40%).

This pressure to conform and conceal is heightened in women and minority groups, with an American study revealing that 83% of LGBTQ+ employees engage in “covering behaviours” in work, followed by 79% of African Americans, 63% of Latinos, and 60% of women.

In many respects, this pressure to conform is a global phenomenon, establishing a norm whereby to work, is to leave a bit of you at home. So what’s the impact of this?

Overwhelmingly, it’s not good news. Countless studies reveal that conforming workplaces result in more flawed decision-making, less risk-taking, and less innovative ideas overall. In stark contrast, work environments that promote diversity in all its forms enjoy more creative decision-making and better revenue overall. In fact:

  • companies with gender diversity earn 41% more revenue,
  • ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to perform better,
  • and diverse teams are 70% more likely to capture new markets.

Perhaps one of the most stunning reveals is that when people are actively empowered to be their authentic selves at work, their performance can be beneficially impacted by up to 85%.

So, what does this mean for you?

Unearthing the human lawyer

Self-discovery is no easy task. In fact, in a study conducted by psychologist Tasha Eurich, of 95% of respondents who indicated they were “self-aware”, just 10-15% truly were. For those who had achieved an intimate sense of self-awareness, a continued interrogation of personal values, passions, and aspirations was apparent.

In the context of authenticity in the workplace, this takes a willingness to confront yourself with the hard questions.

  • Am I pursuing my own goals or the goals of another? Why do I do the things that I do?
  • Am I fulfilled? Do I even know what it is to be fulfilled?
  • Am I content? Or am I simply fearful of change?

In the legal profession, there are waves of real change, driven by lawyers weary of rigid norms - and asking the hard questions.

People like Claire Sanders, an experienced General Counsel and the Founder of Being Human, who campaigns for the crucial importance of being human in the workplace.

Or, Dan Kayne, the Founder of purpose-led O Shaped Lawyer, an initiative designed to create a more human legal profession.

Both of these lawyers - and many others - have broken out of the traditions of the legal industry. They’ve campaigned for change, platformed difference, and reaped the rewards that come with being authentically yourself. And, they’re not the only beneficiaries.

By discovering a more authentic, fulfilling, and sustainable means of being a lawyer in the modern age, they’ve honoured their clients and colleagues with a more empathetic,  thoughtful, and ultimately human experience. And, you can too.

Crossing the barrier from personal to work

You don’t wake up one day, become a lawyer, and trade in your “human card”. You watch your leaders, absorb their actions, and learn over time that to succeed is to blend in. And, sometimes without quite knowing it, you begin to quietly chop away at the things that make you stand out.

The problem here is twofold. First, you are, naturally, less happy and more disconnected from what you do 40 to 50 hours a week.

Second, you continue the cycle whereby to succeed, is to blend in. Poet, Shel Silverstein, best summarised this conundrum with his poem titled, “Masks”.

It’s crucial to remember, that there is no “right” way to be professional, there is no “right” way to be successful, and for those that try to suppress the quirks of who you are, recognise that these people have valued themselves so little, they traded an authentic life for a mute one. And, in doing so, they may have inadvertently denied themselves the career success they have fought so hard for. In fact, research from MIT Sloan Management has revealed that conformity and compliance don’t drive achievement… unlike nonconformity, which unlocks your potential, and places you, exactly where you need to be.

Living authentically, particularly in a professional context ultimately comes down to conviction, commitment to boundaries, and a steadfast refusal to sacrifice who you are, for anything. This involves taking a stand and refusing to place a price tag on your beliefs. It also relies on discovering your voice, using it, and never, ever betraying it.

Despite this, it’s easier said than done to embrace being a “human lawyer”. Depending on your place of work, this self-expression can come at a cost - without reward.

For some, it can result in discrimination and prejudice.

For others, it can be - quite literally - against company policy.

And for many, it can unfairly erode your credibility and opportunity as a lawyer.

So how can the power of the human lawyer be realized?

Bringing the human to work

We’ve established that the working world at large is shrouded in pressure to conform. We’ve also established that, aside from increased engagement and satisfaction, authentically empowered employees can be 85% more productive. Finally, we’ve established that the legal industry is clinging to tradition - at the detriment of its people - and its profits.

The truth is that to be authentically you at work, change needs to happen at every corner of the working world. Employers need to vocalise their commitment to diversity, employees need to step out of the shade, and clients need to vote with their wallets - to back businesses that back people.

While initiatives like BCORP and Good Business Charter exist to formalise this commitment on behalf of businesses, more needs to be done to create working environments where individuals can truly flourish.

While lawyers need to discover their own voice, their ability to use it ultimately comes down to their working environment. To truly thrive, an investment needs to be made to create psychologically safe workplaces, which prioritise transparency, respect, clear expectations, and a fail-first culture that won’t punish mistakes, but rather will view them as opportunities for growth. Similarly, a psychologically safe environment should encourage staff to express their thoughts without fear - and in turn, encourage others to do the same.

While team members can help drive this goal, psychologically safe environments are ultimately the responsibility of a law firm’s leaders. And yet, a McKinsey survey revealed just 26% of leaders created psychologically safe environments for their teams.

As lawyers continue to leave the industry in droves, there’s never been a more crucial time to invest in psychological safety at work - for employees, their leaders, and the industry overall. For those that realize this, a 27% reduction in staff turnover, and a 12% increase in productivity awaits.

Put simply, the age of the “human lawyer” isn’t just a movement - it’s statistically the brightest future ahead for the legal industry.

Those with opportunity, need to take it, whether that’s to create room for humanity in work, or to be an example of a lawyer with expression, flaws, and, well… authenticity.

And, for those just on the precipice of change, it might just help to remember the words of Carl Jung,

“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”

Join a community of human lawyers

The strength of the legal industry lies in its diverse, disparate, and colourful people. That’s why I set up the In-House lawyer community, which connects scores of lawyers navigating the In-House world. This includes biweekly legal sessions on life in law, legal updates, and industry expertise, in addition to podcasts, articles, newsletters and access to like-minded legal professionals seeking something different.

If you're looking for something a little more personal, consider joining Lawscape, a peer-to-peer community for the next generation leaders of law firms. This includes monthly masterclasses and a network of likeminded leaders seeking to reshape the legal industry as we know it.

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