Posted Apr 21, 2006 11:47 am CDT
Jeff Norman still has fond memories of his days as a younger associate–or, more accurately, nostalgia about all those “happy hours.” But he’s gotten older, started a family and climbed the law firm ladder, and he’s doing far less toasting these days.
An attorney at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, Norman exemplifies the social sea change typical at most firms as associates begin to devote more time to family activities and, increasingly, to business commitments. That means they cut back on–or even cut out completely–those once regular “bar meetings.”
“Socializing at a senior level is nearly always in some way business related,” Norman says. “Usually, it’s either with clients or part of recruiting.”
Because Norman socializes with his colleagues less often, he admits that the group dynamic is different than it once was. “It’s less jovial,” he says. “When you’re a younger associate, you don’t have the same types of pressure, and you can be more casual and social.”
In light of such different levels of social interaction, some firms are encouraging social bonds through events that all can attend because they include family members or don’t eat into family time. The idea is that socializing will help foster solid teams in the office.
At Minneapolis-based Meagher & Geer, for example, gatherings involve everyone at the firm, and they usually center around a single activity. Case in point: a recent “bowl-a-rama” potluck that pitted partners against mailroom staff and associates against paralegals. The event, held at a bowling alley one evening, included spouses and guests–but no clients.
“I called it the great equalizer,” says Mary O’Brien, a partner in the firm. “Having everyone try for a strike, and pairing it with [a] hot dish and Jell-O salad, really erases the boundaries between people.”
The main benefit to structured gatherings is that attorneys aren’t at yet another networking gathering, but actually have something to talk about, notes Denise Kettelberger of Merchant & Gould in Minneapolis. Recently, Kettelberger helped organize a brown bag lunch for the Minnesota Women Lawyers Association that brought together the women attorneys at her firm with others in the city. The topic: “Avoiding dinnertime chaos: Share your secrets for evening meals.”
“Like at any company, you tend to gravitate toward the people you started with for socializing, or whoever has the office next to you,” she says. “But planned events bring together a range of people and then give them something solid to discuss while they’re getting to know each other.”
Of course, much hinges on whether the lawyers actually enjoy socializing. At Greenberg Traurig, the hope is that they do: Associates are chosen not just for professionalism, but also for their attitude, says chief recruiting officer Carol Allen, who works in the New York City office. “We like friendly people who are comfortable engaging with others, whether in a social setting or in a professional challenge,” she says. “Our associates–and everyone else at the firm–have a great time because of it.”
Those attending social events are wise not to lose sight of professional demeanor, even in the midst of a 2-for-1 martini special. “Anyone, no matter what their level, does need to be conscious of their behavior after a bit of alcohol,” says O’Brien. “People form impressions and often think that how you behave with colleagues is how you’ll behave with clients.”
The happy hour caveat aside, though, O’Brien does believe it’s worth the time and effort for those at a firm to forge social connections at the office, whether through attending arranged events or just going out to lunch more often. “Everyone likes a happy workplace,” she says. “When there’s more socialization among co-workers, that tends to lighten the feeling of the firm.”