Conflict Resolution at Law Firms: A Juggling Act

  • August 14, 2014
  • Janet Ellen Raasch

Conflict is no stranger to a law firm. In fact, much of what a lawyer does is based on the avoidance or resolution of disputes, using a standardized set of skills and rules.

Given this environment, is it any surprise that conflict regularly “spills over” to affect the working relationships among lawyers, managers and staff? Unfortunately, the skills and rules that win in the courtroom differ significantly from the skills and rules that lead to good conflict resolution in the workplace. It can be hard for lawyers to make that distinction.

Many times, lawyers who are involved with a workplace conflict believe that resolution has to do with getting the other person or entity to change—a situation where you win and the other party loses.

“Part of reclaiming your life in a conflict situation is realizing that you do not have as much control in changing the world as you do in changing your response to the world,” says Kathy Stroh, a speaker, trainer and author on conflict management. “A person involved in a conflict cannot change the world (or conflict); he or she can only change his or her response to the world (or conflict).

“This is not easy,” says Stroh. “It takes courage for one party to stop putting the blame on the other – and focus instead on changing his or her own behavior in a conflict situation. However, this approach is the only one that works.”

For most people, “learned helplessness” is the greatest barrier to effective conflict resolution. Learned helplessness occurs when individuals feel they lack the knowledge or skills to change a conflict situation. It also occurs when individuals have fallen into a particular response pattern in a conflict situation.

To illustrate the first concept, Stroh asks her workshop participants to solve a problem involving electric lights. Typically, no one can provide a solution. When they are coached to consider a “common sense” rather than an “electrical” solution, the problem is easily solved.

To illustrate subjective patterns of behavior, Stroh asks audience members to recall the color of traffic “yield” signs. Almost everyone says “yellow and black.” In fact, yield signs have been red and white for more than ten years.

“Yet we have all internalized our perception of yield signs the way they ‘used to be’ – back when most of us got our drivers’ licenses,” says Stroh. “Similarly, we internalize old and often non-productive ways of reacting to conflict situations.”

The way to overcome these barriers is to learn new, objective ways of looking at a conflict situation and to break out of old patterns. “Objectivity is the essence of intelligence,” says Stroh. “Objectivity is the ability to see a situation for what it is in real time, not for how we’re interpreting it based on our previous experience.”

Skills and Practice

Before participants can successfully resolve any conflict, each party must be able to stand in the shoes of the other. “Unfortunately, conflict (and its accompanying emotions) is a distorting filter that prevents us from seeing the other side clearly, unless we discipline ourselves to do so,” says Stroh.

“It takes a lot of courage to be objective when someone has just blasted you,” says Stroh. “Generally, you will need to walk away for a while to let the situation calm down. Then, you need to go back to the person and say, ‘Before we can deal with this issue, we need to come up with a way that we can understand each other and rules we can use to talk to each other.’”

  • Each party must understand and acknowledge the position of the other, and do it so well that they could persuasively present the opposite side of the disagreement.
  • Each party must understand the underlying needs of the other. Conflict will diminish only when needs are met.

When needs are understood, it is time to invest time and energy into coming up with new, clearly defined ways to meet these needs.

For example, a secretary might express the need for more “respect” from a lawyer. What does this mean? To the secretary, it might mean a pleasant greeting when the lawyer passes her desk, a request about her availability before assigning a task, and making corrections to her work that address the project, not her personal character.

At least some of the needs of all parties must be met before a conflict can be revolved. “Each person must have the courage to stop what he or she has been doing,” says Stroh, “to drop old patterns and to roll with another plan.”

“I can almost guarantee that no conflict situation is brand new,” says Stroh. “Each of the individuals involved will have an entrenched pattern of reacting to conflict; a pattern that has theoretically worked for them in the past. Unless a person learns new skills and practices a new pattern of response, conflict will continue to surround him or her at your firm.”

Feedback is an essential component of practice. “Feedback must be directed at the practice of the new behavior, not at the person,” says Stroh. “Success will not come at once, and it takes courage to keep practicing what you are not yet good at, but the outcome will be well worth the investment of time and energy.”

Juggling Master

To illustrate some of her points about learning new skills and new patterns of behavior, Stroh often references her Juggling Master program.

“Research shows that 40 per cent of the population learns kinesthetically; they must move their bodies in order to learn,” says Stroh. “Another 40 per cent learns visually; they must see something done or illustrated in order to learn. Only 20 per cent of the population learns by hearing. And yet, 80 per cent of educational materials are based in auditory learning!”

Juggling involves all three methods—movement, sight and verbalization. Stroh’s workshop participants are given three juggling balls. Initially, they are asked to toss one ball from hand to hand.

With practice of their new skills, participants progress to two balls and then three. They advance from juggling by themselves (where they are 100 per cent responsible for the outcome) to juggling with a partner (where they are only 50 per cent responsible for the outcome). “Like in any conflict situation, each individual can only control his or her 50 per cent of the interaction,” says Stroh.

“From juggling, you learn that you have to start where you are, not where you want to be. You can’t juggle two or three balls until you can juggle one or two. You can’t juggle with a partner until you can juggle on your own. You must solve a conflict where you are, not by ‘wiping the slate clean’ or ‘starting on a new page.’

“You will only get better if you practice,” says Stroh. “No matter how good you get, you will sometimes drop the ball. That’s O.K. No one is perfect. Pick it up and keep practicing. With the right skills and practice, anyone can juggle, and anyone can deal with conflict in the workplace.”

Kathy Stroh discussed conflict resolution at a quarterly core competency session of the Mile High Chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators, held January 25, 2007 in Denver. Over the past two decades, Stroh has presented more than 1,500 workshops on conflict management ( – in locations ranging from corporate boardrooms to prisons.

Janet Ellen Raasch is a writer and ghostwriter who works closely with lawyers, law firms and other professional services providers – to establish them as thought leaders within a targeted market through publication of articles and books for print and rich content for the Internet. She can be reached at (303) 399-5041 or