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Hyper-productive, overconfident lawyers could be ‘toxic workers’, study suggests

While most law firms actively reward lawyers who smash billable hour targets, self-centred overachievers can poison office culture and cost firms money, according to a new study.

A recent study by Harvard Business School identified the key traits of ‘toxic workers’, drawing on a pool of 50,000 workers across 11 companies.  

The researchers found that toxic workers, which ranged from colleagues who were simply annoying through to bullies, had four main traits.

These included over-confidence, self-regard and a tendency to insist that rules should be followed.

Toxic employees also tended to be much more productive than the average worker. “This could explain why toxic workers are selected and are able to remain in an organisation for as long as they do,” the authors wrote.

However, the study also found that toxic workers induce significant costs through attrition and reduced employee morale – and can cause workers around them to become toxic.

"Even relatively modest levels of toxic behaviour can cause major organisational cost, including customer loss, loss of employee morale, increased turnover, and loss of legitimacy among important external stakeholders," the authors wrote.

Speaking with Lawyers Weekly, legal consultant John Chisholm said this study was relevant for law firms.

“[In the legal industry] there are all these in-built factors that almost work against collaboration and, in fact, almost promote some toxicity within the firm,” he said.

Billable hours, which measure lawyers’ output over a short period of time, are not conducive to teamwork and innovation, according to Mr Chisholm.

“If I am measured on my own individual performance, it is my individual billable hours, not yours. So what is my incentive to share and collaborate?” he said.

Mr Chisholm said the rewards structures in law firms can breed toxicity.

“[That is,] the longer I work, the harder I work, the less I engage with others, the more I am rewarded and the more money the firm makes,” he said. “There is not always an incentive to stamp it out.”

There is also a pervasive belief within the legal profession that the damage caused by toxic workers “is just the cost of doing business”, continued Mr Chisholm.

“[Firms might] take on 20 grads or 20 trainees and know that only five are going to survive,” he said.

While law firms might benefit financially in the short term from a competitive culture, those gains will drop off in the long term, according to Mr Chisholm.

Clients will notice if a partner has a high turnover of associates: “I think clients pick up whether they are working with a lawyer who has those [toxic] traits, even if the legal and relationship skills [are there]” he said.

The researchers suggest that the best way to deal with toxic workers is to avoid them or not hire them in the first place.

Mr Chisholm said lawyers that can’t stomach the toxic cultures in some law firms will simply quit.

“Either you join them or get out,” he said.  “That is, either you turn into one of [the bullies] or you find a different environment either within the legal profession or somewhere else.

“[Toxicity] it is the reason we get a lot of good people leaving our profession,” he said.  

However, an increasing number of firms are making genuine endeavours to eradicate bullies and improve their culture, according to Mr Chisholm.

"More and more firms are realising that a toxic culture can be highly detrimental to their people and therefore the long-term success and sustainability of their practices," he concluded.

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