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It’s time to ‘change the conversation’ around toxic competitiveness

Within the right firm structure, collaborative practice can exist alongside competition, according to four legal executives. 

user iconLauren Croft 14 September 2021 Big Law
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While overly competitive attitudes and bad behaviour need to be called out in the profession, training and working environments play a key role in making sure healthy competition doesn’t become toxic.

Lydia Shelly, principal solicitor at Shelly Legal, said that healthy competition can be “transformative” when combined with collaboration.

“Competition is not at the opposite ends of collaboration – it can be healthy having them sit side by side. I think this is a mistaken belief held by some practitioners and the community at large. The best creative outcomes for me personally, have been when competition and collaboration collide.


“The difficulty arises when the competition impacts negatively on a lawyer’s conduct and the cultural “norms” of our profession,” she said.

“When competition becomes toxic, I believe it can poison the collegial nature of our profession. It also risks placing ‘blinkers’ on the way you perceive risk, how you provide your legal services and your overall contribution not only to the profession, but to the communities that we live and work in and which we ultimately serve.”

While lawyers are generally competitive, this can occasionally become “severe and unpleasant”, according to Bartier Perry CEO Riana Steyn.

“I have however seen some unhealthy competition not only in law firms but also in other professional services firms, and these undesirable behaviours negatively impact not only the individuals involved, but often their teams, the broader firm, and the clients. In the long-term there are no winners.

“This level of unhealthy competition in my experience is not the norm but the exception. Perhaps because I have been fortunate to have worked in organisations where collaborative effort trumped silo behaviours,” she said.

“The impact of unhealthy competition left unchecked however can be severe and unpleasant. I have seen relationships crumble, the confidence of strong professionals shaken, and clients caught in the middle of a war between two professionals in the same team claiming that it’s their client. And let me be clear on this – it’s not your client, it’s the firm’s client.”

Often the very nature of the profession means lawyers are hired to compete with one another, Baker Deane & Nutt partner Tanya Nadin said.

“Lawyers find themselves in a situation where they are being asked by their clients "to fight for me" and their clients want to see that they are fighting for them. The way that many lawyers do this is by writing in an aggressive and combative fashion with their colleagues,” she said.

“In my view the tone and manner in which many lawyers’ correspondence between themselves can undermine the purpose of the correspondence entirely. So, it is not necessary that the lawyers are being competitive with each other, it is that they need to learn a better way to communicate.”

The competitive nature of lawyers can sometimes serve to “diminish or undermine” the success of others, added Perpetua Kish, principal lawyer at Balance Family Law.

“I’ve seen talented people leave the law (or at least the private sector) because of the pressure to compete and perform. I’ve seen others miss or reject opportunities at the hand of their own insecurities,” she said.

“At law school, the focus is on the theory, the legislation, the case law, the history. There is little, if any, real exploration around understanding our own behaviour generally and within the context of our interpersonal relationships. Given that we are in a service business of sorts, I find this extraordinary.”

Ms Kish added that for the profession to move away from toxic competition, collaborative practice training is key as a form of early intervention, a notion that was recently discussed on the Boutique Lawyer Show.

“Foundational training that helps students and young lawyers to find their intention and purpose, may see a shift from lawyers measuring their own success by comparing themselves with others, to measuring success by comparing where they were when they started to how far they’ve come,” she said.

“Behaviour follows a mindset: lawyers with a healthy sense of purpose, often have a healthy sense of competition, and understand the utility and power of working collaboratively to reach common goals such as improving access to justice and progressing the reputation of the profession.”

Similarly, Ms Steyn said that further training was “certainly part of the solution”, as well as business development training specifically, to assist lawyers in building practices in positive ways.

“Firm structures are a critically important factor to ensure healthy competition and strong collaboration. It is important to have policies and processes in place that encourage collaborative behaviours,” she said.

“More important though is the culture of the place – the tone is set at the top. What behaviours are the leaders displaying? What behaviours are encouraged and rewarded? What are the consequences of displaying undesirable behaviours? These symbols are more powerful than the best policies and processes. And finally, are the remuneration and incentive structures encouraging the right behaviours?”

Training younger lawyers in collaborative practices can “change the conversation” from the outset, added Ms Nadin.

“It is time to change the conversation. This needs to begin with teaching our law students that aggressive and rude correspondence is not necessary. The same message can be delivered in a kind and respectful manner,” she said.

“Lawyers need to learn how to bring kindness into the practice of law. Kindness does not equal weakness. Lawyers can act on the best interests of their client and can do so in a respectful and kind fashion.”

As well as training in collaborative practice, legal leaders need to foster better attitudes and working environments, according to Ms Kish.

“An environment where people know what is expected of them, and what to expect of others, can bring out the best in people. When we know what we own and what we can control — we feel safe. From this safe place, we feel less threatened and more willing to take responsibility,” she said.

“Creating a positive environment is to model the types of behaviours we expect of others. Be the change, and you will see the changes. We are more likely to create an environment where people work in genuine collaboration and harmony, when we consistently lead with the spirit of genuine collaboration and harmony too.

“We can tell people how to behave and we can also design courses to teach them. But it’s when we involve them and help them feel supported and valued, that they will truly understand and learn,” Ms Kish added.

Ms Steyn added that firms with positive working environments will be more sustainable long term.

“Firms that are able to harness the (healthy) competitiveness of lawyers and foster a culture of strong collaboration will have a more sustainable business over the long term,” she said.

“A working environment that is collegiate and conducive to collaboration is attractive to most lawyers, and lawyers working together to achieve the best results for clients must culminate in job satisfaction for lawyers, stronger client relationships, increased workflow, and ultimately increased revenue.

“A collaborative culture is attractive to existing and prospective staff and assists organisations to recruit and retain talent. It also creates a positive work environment where lawyers can really thrive. An environment where lawyers can build meaningful relationships with colleagues, and work together to achieve the best outcome for clients. And better outcomes for clients must lead to better client satisfaction,” Ms Steyn added.

Ms Shelly said that these types of environments can also teach younger lawyers how collaboration and competition can go hand in hand.

“Understanding the role of competition and collaboration is something that can’t be taught from a textbook – it is having the opportunity of seeing it in action by colleagues,” she said.

“I remain indebted to the many senior practitioners that took the time and energy in supporting and nurturing me when I was a young practitioner – and who still invest their time and energy.”

In the long run, a collaborative and positive working environment will mean more success for a firm and its employees, Ms Kish added.

A unified collaborative team will bring about success. Not just in terms of profit but the success that makes you smile and laugh, experience a strong sense of bonding and ‘feel all the feels’ about your accomplishments as a team and as an individual.

“When we are winning, it feels fantastic and it can really propel a team forward. But we also need to reframe how we think and feel about losing. It’s not about finding fault or laying blame,” she said.

“When we lose, we are presented with an opportunity to learn, empower others with our experience, grow and prosper. Competition can make us bitter or better, it’s our choice.”