The management of happiness in law firms

With happiness being such an important aspect of everyday life, we then wonder, do law firms have a social obligation to ensure their lawyers are happy? How effective are roles like Legal Project Management in creating a positive working environment and happy employees?

By Anna Marra,  Project Manager, Consultant and Trainer. Director of IE Law School´s Executive Education Management for Lawyers programs

In his book Manufacturing Happy Citizens, Edgar Cabanas (PhD in Psychology) argues that our lives are controlled by the science and industry of happiness. But experts in this field have been unable to either define or measure exactly what happiness is. After 64,000 studies, the results are contradictory—it seems positive psychology does not offer the key to happiness.

Despite this, happiness has become an economic sector in itself. According to British sociolist, William Davis, the so-called “happiness industry” is even influencing our work. New algorithms put our emotions at the forefront of the market and they are being used for economic and political interests. This is leading to emotional hypochondriacs who are seeking a type of happiness that solely depends on us, without considering any external circumstances. Essentially, they are chasing the unattainable.

In companies, we often promote happiness due to the related increase in productivity. Companies such as Google have even created positions like “Director of Happiness” for this exact purpose. However, the important question still remains: does happiness increase positivity?

According to the iOpener Institute in Oxford, happy employees can be up to 65% more productive. While other studies have produced conflicting results, there seems to be a general consensus among companies of the benefits of happiness. It guarantees higher levels of productivity, higher attendance, and lower labor losses.

Due to this, applications that measure employee happiness have been developed. For example, Happyforce is a mobile app where employees can provide feedback in a transparent and anonymous way. It also features an easy-to-use dashboard for companies to analyze and follow up on the information they receive. But, how does it work?

It’s actually simpler than it seems, and it can even be set up with just a few steps:

  1. Invite employees to register, vote, and comment each day (this takes just a few minutes and can be done with a few taps on the screen)
  2. Analyse their answers to get a sense of what worries them and what keeps them motivated.
  3. Use the tool to ask questions about specific topics and create company-wide announcements.
  4. Take action! By answering your employees’ queries, listening to ideas, working alongside different teams, and keeping communication flowing, you’ll soon begin to see improvements in mood across the entire company.

Alex Ríos, CEO of Happyforce, suggests that the conversation that takes place within the platform is like having a camera in the coffee machine. However, it has the advantage of anonymity, so employees feel more comfortable to participate and offer their opinions.

Happyforce captures the essence of day-to-day lives within the different teams of an organization. It allows you to identify what is causing the most concern and offers solutions to the areas which require the most attention.

The main idea is to increase productivity within teams and improve your company’s work environment as a whole. This will reduce your employee turnover rate and improve employer branding.

How does happiness work in law firms?

Since law firms are structured around human capital, the mood of it is the most important asset—its employees—directly affects performance and quality. So, whose role is it to ensure lawyers at a firm are happy? And can a work environment actually have an effect on employers happiness levels?

I find it hard to believe that a law firm, or any company for that matter, is the sole factor affecting someone’s happiness. Happiness is highly subjective and cannot be measured in such simple terms. However, we do spend almost three quarters of our day in the office or a similar environment, so its dynamics must have some influence on our mood, behavior, and relationships.

While traditionally we believe that higher salaries and promotions tend to increase happiness among lawyers, the theorist Richard Easterlin argues otherwise. The “Easterlin paradox,” as it’s known, says that higher incomes do not necessarily make people happier. In his 1974 article “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence,” he outlines his reasoning.

Easterlin argues is that happiness is comparative. For example, buying a flat in Manhattan does not increase satisfaction if everyone at a company has one. This means that increased economic possibilities only temporarily increase satisfaction and happiness. Essentially, as your status increases, these goods become necessities and if you lose them, you feel deprived.

Easterlin’s theory suggests that, once primary needs are met, policy measures should focus on increasing the satisfaction of individuals. This should be done through Gross Domestic Happiness rather than its economic counterpoint, Gross Domestic Product.

Applying this concept to the legal sector, do law firms have a duty to contribute to the gross domestic happiness of their lawyers? Given that increasing income only works to a certain extent, I believe firms should focus on other factors that generate happiness among their employees.

So, what makes lawyers happy? Generally, lawyers “are like everyone else in terms of what they need to feel satisfied and happy at work, but their training can interfere with their capacity to meet these needs of autonomy, connection, and mastery.” (What Makes Lawyers Happy? It’s Not What You Think, Paula Davis – Laack, Forbes.)

A study by Larry Krieger and Ken Sheldon, titled What Makes Lawyers Happy? A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success, and published by the Florida State University College of Law, explored this further. They found that what lawyers think will make them happy long-term—such as money, prestige, making partner, or status—are the exact opposite of what actually does. Scientifically speaking, these have little to no correlation with happiness.

Long-term well-being is more closely related to autonomy, mastery, and relatedness. Lawyers who are highly autonomous feel like they can make their preferred choices and can express themselves authentically. Being encouraged to work in this way is strongly linked to increased well-being; while working with a partner who is more controlling is de-motivating.

Furthermore, lawyers are happier when they feel they are competent and successful at managing difficult tasks. This concept is known as “master of a domain”. Finally, relatedness refers to how a lawyer connects and relates to others, and whether they have a strong sense of belonging at work or not.

Within a law firm, the Legal Project Management is a key player in promoting happiness.

How does the Legal Project Management foster lawyers’ happiness?

There are certain tools and techniques we can use to promote well-being within a law firm and foster a positive working environment. This will help lawyers to feel more appreciated at work, and consequently increase productivity throughout the organization as a whole. These techniques have been proven to produce significant results.

I have spent many years dedicating myself to legal project management, as a tool for improvement within organizations and for improving the work environment as a whole. In this time, I have been able to witness first-hand how certain aspects within the legal sector can promote a better work environment. They are as follows:

  • The ability to define the scope of a project, knowing what they are going to do, and effectively communicating this to the client and the team. This generates a sense of belonging and a sense of pursuit for the task ahead.
  • The ability to define roles and responsibilities within a team, so people are aware who they are working with. This helps to avoid misunderstandings and reduce any stress that may be caused from uncertainty.
  • The ability to assign tasks so team members are aware of the timeframe.
  • The ability to communicate and keep team members informed with the proceedings.
  • The ability to identify stakeholders so team members are aware of the risks and opportunities which may arise during the project.
  • The ability to identify risks so that team members feel comfortable managing any possible changes.
  • The ability to work as a team—collaborating and not competing—within in a safe environment.
  • The ability to negotiate and resolve conflicts within the team, and with external stakeholders, by viewing the conflict as a way to improve.
  • The opportunity to have a Project Director, who is there to facilitate, protect, coordinate, resolve doubts, empower the team, and manage changes.

Happiness is a way of doing things and an attitude towards life. Although we cannot control everything in our lives, we do have control over more aspects than we think. By accepting this, we are able to become happier while increasing our productivity and performance at work.

Anna MarraAnna Marra is a PM trainer and consultant for private and public organizations. Anna was a pioneer in proposing the discipline of Legal Project Management to improve performances in law firms and in-house legal departments. In 2017 she became Councilor of the LPM Global Advisory Council of the International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM). Presently she is IILPM Accredited Training Provider (ATP). Anna is author of various publications on legal project management, corporate social responsibility, and strategy for law firms.

Note: The views expressed by the author of this paper are completely personal and do not represent the position of any affiliated institution.