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Law firm leaders must foster environments in which everyone feels secure and valued. 

This is the ninth in a series of sixteen articles that will explore the relevance and, for some law firms the existential importance, of W. Edwards Deming's Fourteen Points, especially for small and midsize law firms.

In his Fourteen Points, W. Edwards Deming presented an bedrock tenet that resonates across all industries and professional services: "Drive out fear." Fear can be an especially serious issue in law firms, even in ones that believe that they are financially successful.

Law firms, with their often hierarchical structures, demanding workloads, and intense client pressures, can inadvertently cultivate cultures filled with anxiety and apprehension. This fear may manifest as the fear of making mistakes, fear of missing billable hours, fear of speaking out about concerns, or even the fear of not advancing within the firm.

But what does a culture of fear mean for a law firm, and why should it be actively dispelled?

The effects of a culture of fear can become a permanent drag of performance, notwithstanding all the empty "happy talk" that law firm leaders promote in a well-intentioned by usually ineffective effort to boost morale. The effects are readily observable -- even measurable.

  • Inhibited innovation: When lawyers and staff operate under fear, they're less likely to challenge established norms or suggest innovative solutions, even ones that might obviously benefit the firm. Any suggestion for change or any questioning of the status quo is viewed as disloyalty -- She doesn't really fit in.
  • Decreased efficiency: An atmosphere of constant quiet dread can hinder productivity. Instead of focusing on tasks at hand, employees might spend undue time double-checking work or hesitating before making decisions -- I really need to cover my butt on this.
  • High turnover rates: A stressful work environment often leads to burnout, pushing the best talents out of the firm -- I don't need all this aggravation.
  • Compromised client service: When professional people are bogged down by internal pressures, they might not provide clients the attentive, proactive service that they need and expect -- My goal is simply to get through the day.

There is no "best practice" to drive fear from a law firm. Each firm is a unique combination of personalities, aspirations, goals, and experiences. There are, however, several broad strategies that, when tailored to the special circumstances and culture of each firm, can produce some good results. 

  • Open communications; This might be the most important strategy for most law firms operating in a culture of fear.  Law firms should encourage open dialogue at all levels. This includes regular feedback sessions, open-door policies, an other opportunities when everyone, irrespective of their position, can voice concerns and suggestions.
  • Learning: Instead of a perpetuating a culture of blame, in which every mistake is attributed to a personal shortcoming,  firms should emphasize learning. Senior lawyers should guide juniors -- and each other! --through challenges and should reinforce clearly that they view mistakes as learning opportunities, not something to be hidden.
  • Transparent evaluation metrics: Rather than vague performance evaluations, a firm should set clear, objective metrics for observable actions and behaviors. Everyone  should know exactly what's expected and is entitled to constructive feedback.
  • Respect : Recognize that lawyers are not machines. Respect for personal time, encouragement of breaks, and understanding during personal crises can significantly reduce workplace stress.
  • Recognition: Positive reinforcement, whether in terms of bonuses, promotions, or simple acknowledgment, can go a long way in making even the most senior lawyers in the firm feel valued and secure.

To what extent are each of these a part of your law firm's culture?

Our next post: Break down barriers between departments.

Norman Clark


W. Edwards Deming's Fourteen Points provide a framework for sustained growth, improved quality, and better client service. Their successful implementation will require commitment, leadership, and an ongoing dedication to improvement. The law firms that integrate these principles into their daily operations will be well-positioned for future success in the ever-evolving legal landscape.

To learn more about the Fourteen Points, consult W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis, (Massachussets Institute of Technology, 1982). Future posts in the Walker Clark World View blog, will examine the strategic relevance and practical application of each of the Fourteen Points to law firm operations and management.  

The members of Walker Clark have been guiding law firms, corporate law departments, and other legal services organizations to introduce quality management since the 1990s. For more information about how we can help you integrate the Fourteen Points into a strategy for sustainable success in quality management in your organization, contact us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.