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Navigating disagreements amid power dynamics in virtual working environments

The pandemic has demonstrated that we are stronger when we have a community to draw on, and that co-opetition, a sort of cooperation among rivals, can be a better approach to building relationships for success in business.

Within the practice of law, competition is multi-faceted — among firms, among practice areas within the same firm, and among associates on their way to promotion — just to name a few. So, the idea of co-opetition can come up often.

At a recent event sponsored by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) and Thomson Reuters, we asked a panel of legal leaders whether it was wise to pursue co-opetition within a culture that promotes sharp competition and how best to navigate internal organizational politics, especially as lawyers from under-represented communities.

Balancing value and investment

It is no secret that to build effective connections, lawyers have to balance between assessing how much value the connection can offer and how much effort to invest in building the connection given time constraints. Through building trust, taking an interest in the other person, and focusing on what you can give first, the panel discussed how lawyers can strike the right equilibrium.

Identify your most important internal relationships — Panelist Justin Pierce, a partner at Venable, highlighted the need to analyze who each person is and where they sit within the organization. As an associate, he said he knew the most important relationships were with partners and the leader in his practice area, so he focused efforts on investing in these connections as a top priority. He engaged them by asking what they did to earn promotion to partner, and on his own time, improved his craft and found ways to ensure he made the leaders of his practice aware of his progress.

Think and behave like a partnerJennifer Wu, another panelist and partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, said she prioritized ways she could think and behave like a partner even while she was an associate. She familiarized herself with the performance of the practice area and investigated how to solve problems for the client and within the practice itself.

Solve problems for business people — Panelist LaTasha Rowe, General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer at NFM Lending, explained how resolving issues for people in the business should be a top priority for both in-house lawyers and law firm attorneys. Through her in-house compliance role, Rowe said she was proactive in informing her internal clients about new compliance requirements along with recommendations on how to address them.

Be generous — One of the most consistently beneficial tactics for successful people in the law is prioritizing generosity. Wu noted that one of her most reliable client relationships started as a friendship over food and later evolved to include career assistance.

Lawyers face many challenges, and one of the most stressful can involve relationships with senior people or influencers internally within an organization, as well as communication issues with clients. Despite the added complexity that most lawyers are still working remotely because of the pandemic, the fundamentals of relationship-building are still the same, Wu said, adding that to deal with any tricky situations, lawyers should follow key guiding principles — be yourself, be helpful to people (even if it has nothing to do with the job), and go into interpersonal interactions with gratitude.

Growing in perception from junior attorney to peer — Part of the challenge many junior partners deal with as they grow in seniority is managing the changing  relationships with long-time partners who were once mentors, helping them develop as associates and then championing their promotion to partner. To establish herself as a peer, Wu brought in new clients and noticed how quickly she was perceived more strongly when she was able to say to more senior partners, “I have this case… do you want to work on it?”

Pushing back on a potential decision in a group setting — Another situation that can fraught for younger attorneys — especially those from under-represented groups — is disagreeing alone when the rest of the room supports one possible resolution. Given these power dynamics, Venable’s Pierce suggested turning your difference into an asset and manage the situation from place of empowerment by saying, “Look, I understand your viewpoint, and the reason why I am here is to offer a different perspective Here is why I think” going a different route is best.

Handling one-on-one disagreement — Rowe, of NFM Lending, agreed, advising lawyers in these circumstances to express themselves, focus on the facts, and listen carefully. In addition, it helps to ensure these encounters occur over video, preferably, with cameras on (more easily done now, thanks to Zoom.) Remember, mutual understanding on both sides is key, she added, and to come to a solution that both parties are satisfied with by focusing on the common goal is the best possible outcome.

Generating positive connections virtually

Operating successfully in a virtual environment months into the pandemic has become standard practice for many lawyers, and everyone has been forced to change tactics in order to build quality relationships differently. Generally, Rowe said she advises lawyers of color to remain aware of the lack of diversity and inclusion in organizations and, if need be, use that deficiency to better forge strategic connections.

Rowe said she makes important connections by attending virtual events and using LinkedIn much more to initiate a personal connection. For example, when she hears a speaker say something that intrigues her, she immediately sends the individual a personal message on LinkedIn adding, “I love what you said about that topic. Could we set up a 15-minute Zoom chat?”

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