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What’s The Matter (With Associates)?

by John Hensley


Frustrated college student studying at computer face palm, d’oh, sad, embarrass, stress

What does “matter” mean?

How to define the word “matters” or “matter.” There are all sorts of definitions, depending, of course, on context.

As a noun, it can mean a subject under consideration, a basis of disagreement, or a particular situation. The word also can be defined in physical and biological terms. As a verb, it’s defined as having significance, having meaning.

One of the issues confronting employers, who want their employees to return to work, is the issue of matter. A junior associate, pouring over documents, propounding or responding to discovery, or similar drudge work wonders whether the work she is doing matters. The answer is maybe. It could be busy work for that associate to justify her hire, satisfying the anxious senior associate or junior partner that no stone has been left unturned, or any other reason that someone involved in the matter (noun, not verb) feels must be done. That leads to the ultimate question: does she matter?

As we all know, crap runs downhill, and so that person at the bottom of the hill feels like crap because, often, there’s no appreciation shown for the work done, even if it is busy work in a superior’s eyes. But it is not busy work for that junior puppy who is trying to learn, to fit in, to understand the issues, to understand what is expected, in other words what matters (verb, not noun). And let’s not forget pleasing those above her, those who matter to her career.

If it doesn’t matter to the powers that be, why should it matter to the junior lawyer? That’s one of the reasons why pulling people back into the workplace is like pulling teeth, never a pleasant experience. It’s going back to the days of “command performances,” in Disney’s case, at least four days a week.

Lots of people, especially younger ones, have fallen in love with remote work, with working from home, and the attendant reduction in costs, especially childcare and, yes, elder care, too. There can be fewer expenses such as commuting costs, weekday lunches, and other things that you shell out for in a work week.

Everyone wants to think that they matter, that they are not just cogs in a wheel, that they are not just hamsters spinning mightily on that treadmill, that what they do matters, and who they are matters. These are not just platitudes.

There’s a strong correlation between mattering and mental health, and if we have learned anything these past three years, mental health is a huge issue for all of us. Surgeon General of the United States Vivek Murthy has emphasized the importance of mattering at work:

People want to know that they matter to those around them and that their work matters. Knowing you matter has been shown to lower stress, while feeling like you do not can increase the risk for depression. To better assure a culture of mattering at work, workplaces can (1) provide a living wage, (2) engage workers in workplace decisions, (3) build a culture of gratitude and recognition, and (4) connect individual work with organizational mission.

None of these are hard to do if people are willing to take the time and effort to invest in their employees at all levels. No one is exempt from the various forms of depression, anxiety, and stress that pervade the workplace. A 2020 Cigna survey estimated that loneliness is costing companies more than $154 billion annually in “stress-related absenteeism alone.” How high are your workers’ compensation premiums?

Everyone likes to be involved in decision-making. Everyone likes to understand how the work that they are doing connects to the case at hand. No one likes working in a vacuum. Who knows, some people might well have insights that make the job easier, or spot an issue that no one has thought about, in other words, improving the wheel without reinventing it. No one ever has all the answers, not even you Harvard and Yale grads, and, as you’ll learn, the longer you’ve been out of law school, the less your pedigree means to those you need to help you get the work done. The less it’ll mean to clients. They don’t care where you went to law school. Even if initially impressed, that impression fades fast. Trust and respect matter. Everyone likes to be recognized, to think that they make a difference. Meaning means different things to different people, but everyone strives for it.

It’s not just showing employees that they matter; it’s also good for the bottom line. And simple things, such as manners, “please” and “thank you,” can make all the difference; those words are very hard for some to say. It’s valuing contributions made towards the goals, it’s telling people, even if they didn’t get much of a raise or a bonus, that their contributions matter.

Here’s Exhibit A for how not to behave, how not to show trust and respect toward your colleagues, especially those on protected leave, how not to show that people in the firm matter. Maternity leave is definitely not “sitting on your ass.” Either this lawyer has no kids, or his spouse has total responsibility for newborns. He and his firm have parted ways. His tirade doesn’t matter any longer, and neither does he.

old lady lawyer elderly woman grandmother grandma laptop computerJill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers practicing law in a kinder, gentler time. She’s had a diverse legal career, including stints as a deputy district attorney, a solo practice, and several senior in-house gigs. She now mediates full-time, which gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in-between interact — it’s not always civil. You can reach her by email at [email protected].


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