Small law firms will often tell me they feel like everyone is family when we begin to discuss Ombuds services.

And, that sounds right since family counselor John Bradshaw believes that a whopping 96% of families suffer from some type of dysfunction.

I want to talk to you today about what makes a small law firm toxic for employees and what to do instead.

What is a toxic workplace?

A toxic workplace is one where there is significant fighting, bullying, gossiping or other negative behaviors that impact the employee’s ability to be productive as well as their well-being.

As an Ombuds, the word that comes to mind for me is suffering. People are silently suffering and there’s no hope for change. People become resigned to being mistreated and spend most of their energy on the lookout for the next attack.

I wish I could share stories about the firms I’ve worked with to illustrate my point, but that is against the International Ombudsman Association rules.

Big law comes easily to mind when you think of the toxic workplace, but small law firms also suffer from this problem, sometimes unknowingly.

When you started your firm you knew you wanted to practice law a different way. What you might not have considered is that your point of view, assumptions and bias would also be part of your new firm culture. You have what I call a default culture. Your culture wasn’t designed; it grew organically from who you are.

Default culture isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You’ll have better results onboarding and training when you define and codify your culture for new hires, of course.

Default culture becomes toxic

Default culture turns toxic when your unexamined beliefs, assumptions, and inferences have unintended consequences in your workplace.

For example, you hire a new paralegal who is an amazing writer with 20 years of experience working for a solo. She struggles with learning your systems and tech during training. The more help she gets, the worse her performance. Six weeks in and you’re ready to fire her. Why? Fill in the blank

If you thought OK Boomer tech isn’t for you. Or, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, you created a toxic moment. Other employees will see that and act accordingly. They will lower the expectations for that person and be less tolerant, too.

10 signs your small firm is toxic

  1. There are no firm values in written form.
  2. There’s a disconnect and little interaction between firm leaders and staff
  3. Employees have no way to give feedback or make suggestions
  4. Suggestions are ignored
  5. People are quick to assign blame
  6. There’s little or no collaboration
  7. Gossip and/or bullying are commonplace
  8. There’s favoritism
  9. There’s a high turnover rate
  10. Punishment is swift or there’s none at all

See your firm on that list? Don’t worry. It’s possible to reset a toxic workplace so it returns to well-functioning.

The first step is to stop and evaluate your current culture. The second step is to articulate how you want your legal staff, paralegals and associates, to interact with each other, you and, most importantly, clients. The third step is to decide how you want people in your workplace to feel-empowered? Happy? Satisfied? Loyal?

Want some help figuring it all out? Book a free consult


Dina Lynch Eisenberg, JD, is the CEO of, an outsourcing training/consulting firm for successful lawyers and entrepreneurs based in Oakland, CA.

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