For a lot of long-time legal professionals, the concept of psychological safety is new. Law firms are not generally known as places where disagreements are respectful and it’s okay to announce your mistakes without fear.

That’s a problem, and it goes far beyond burnout.

Understanding and fostering psychological safety isn’t just about creating a pleasant workplace — it’s about building a foundation where innovation, productivity, and well-being thrive. Nobody can do their best work or come up with their best ideas when they’re mentally on the defensive all the time.

It’s time for legal professionals to pay attention. Start by understanding what it means to have psychological safety, then we can give you some strategies to create that kind of environment.

What is psychological safety?

Coined by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, the term psychological safety describes a work environment where individuals feel confident voicing their opinions, asking questions, or admitting mistakes without fear of reprisal or ridicule.

That means that everyone in the firm is comfortable speaking up and being themselves. It’s okay to disagree. Conversations are respectful, and new perspectives are welcome.

In these environments, your team feels confident that they can be totally honest. Confessing when you don’t understand something, pointing out errors, or questioning decisions are all considered positive habits because they’re opportunities to make things better.

Psychological safety is easier to understand by the things that you don’t have.

There are no loud disagreements, no rolled eyes when someone chimes in during a meeting, and no pressure to show support for ideas you don’t like. Nobody is considered difficult because they speak up and point out flaws in popular plans.

Most importantly, you don’t have a bunch of people who always agree with the boss, and you don’t have leaders who throw their weight around to force agreement.

Why does psychological safety matter in law firms?

Looking at the definition above, it’s obvious that there’s a business benefit to psychological safety. If your colleagues don’t feel safe expressing ideas, you’re a lot more likely to head down the wrong path without anyone pointing out the risks.

Moreover, the legal industry’s traditional emphasis on hierarchy can sometimes inhibit open dialogue and innovation. In such an environment, the fear of making mistakes or challenging the status quo can prevent the sharing of new ideas that could potentially lead to better outcomes.

Diversity of thought and background within a law firm’s team can be a tremendous asset, but only if each member feels their contributions are welcomed and valued.

There’s even more to it, though.

The stakes in law are invariably high; outcomes of cases often have profound impacts on the lives of clients.

This responsibility weighs heavily on every team member. Without psychological safety, the constant stress can erode mental health, stifle productivity, and ultimately, diminish the quality of service offered to clients.

By prioritizing psychological safety, law firms can break down these barriers, encouraging a culture of continuous improvement and adaptability.

When people feel like they’re actually making a positive impact at work, they’re a lot more likely to stick around and do their best work. Instead of hopping from law firm to law firm when things get tough, your team gets better together.

In essence, fostering psychological safety within a law firm is not merely about mitigating stress, though that’s an important part of it. It’s also about unlocking the full potential of people, while at the same time promoting a culture of excellence and integrity.

Spotting the signs of a psychologically safe workplace

So, how do you tell if your law firm is psychologically safe?

We’re glad you asked.

Identifying whether your law firm embodies the ideal of psychological safety involves more than just observing surface-level interactions. It requires a deep analysis of the fabric of your organization’s culture and practices.

Here are the hallmarks to look for:

Open communication

At its core, psychological safety is all about open communication.

We’re not just talking about positive feedback or success stories, however.

It’s about having a space where concerns, questions, and even dissenting opinions can be voiced without fear.

A sign of a healthy work environment is when these discussions lead to constructive outcomes rather than conflict or dismissal. If you see people bringing up their own mistakes and trusting that the team will help them work forward, that’s a good sign.

Failure as a learning opportunity

In our industry, mistakes can have significant consequences.

Unreturned phone calls can equate to lost clients. Inaccurate citations within a brief can lead to sanctions.

The pressure for perfection is very real, and very constant.

A psychologically safe workplace, however, is one that views errors as opportunities to learn. Simply put, if your firm treats errors as chances to grow and improve without stigmatizing the individual responsible, you’re fostering a culture of safety.

You’re also promoting continuous learning and improvement, which is especially valuable in the legal industry.


Another indicator is the variety of perspectives present and valued within your firm.

Does your team feel comfortable sharing unique ideas, or is there a tendency towards conformity?

Psychological safety flourishes in an environment where diversity of thought and culture is celebrated, and innovation and ideas are nurtured. People should not agree about everything, all the time.

Support and wellbeing

Look for signs of proactive support for individual wellbeing.

This includes access to mental health resources (see below), flexible work arrangements, and a genuine concern for the work-life balance of team members. Sure, late nights might come up in a tricky case, but it shouldn’t be the norm to get things done.

When a firm actively supports its employees’ well-being, it signals that it values them as individuals, not just as contributors to the bottom line. This is necessary for psychological safety to exist.

Leadership accessibility and empathy

The approachability and empathy of leadership are critical.

Leaders in a psychologically safe firm are accessible. They understand and have compassion when their teams face challenges.

Importantly – and this may take some work in many firms – partners and other leaders in a psychologically safe law firm lead by example.In other words, they themselves need to show vulnerability and actively encourage others to do the same.

Building blocks for psychological safety

Let’s talk about how you can build psychological safety within the four walls of your firm.

To construct the proper foundation, consider these essential building blocks:

Leadership buy-in and engagement

Look, this concept isn’t going to take hold in your law firm if the top-tier partners don’t believe in it.

As noted, the journey begins with leaders who practice what they preach.

This means partners have to be visible in their commitment by actively listening to team members and showing empathy. The actions of the partners set a precedent for the entire firm’s culture.

Leaders must be open to feedback, too. Anyone in the firm should be able and encouraged to point it out when a partner falls short of their commitment to psychological safety.

Structured feedback mechanisms

Implement mechanisms for feedback that are both regular and structured. This allows for continuous dialogue between staff and management.

First, the firm’s leaders need to provide feedback to junior associates and staff in a way that feels safe to the listener. The days of tough love and harsh criticism have no place in modern, innovative firms.

Furthermore, concerns and suggestions brought to leadership by staff must also be heard and addressed – not ignored or glossed over.

In other words, giving feedback is important, but receiving it is the real cornerstone.

Training and development

Invest in training programs that focus on emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, and active listening.

In other words, you don’t just announce that the firm is suddenly “psychologically safe.” Rather, you need to equip your team with the skills necessary to navigate the complexities of interpersonal dynamics within a high-pressure environment.

Training is for you, too, leaders.

All these new skills and principles won’t stick right away, so one training course isn’t going to transform your law firm. The most effective development programs are ongoing.

Recognition and appreciation

A culture of appreciation is a key pillar of psychological safety.

This makes sense: if you want people to feel safe owning their mistakes, that means you should encourage them to own their successes, too. Nobody wants to focus only on the things they do wrong.

Recognize and celebrate achievements, both big and small. This can significantly boost morale and encourage a sense of belonging and value among team members.

Take this opportunity to appreciate and praise people for all the little and big things they do right.

Thank them for honest moments.

Call out their efficiency when everything is running smoothly.

Build this habit so that people feel seen, especially when everything is going right. We often speak up only when things are going wrong or were particularly difficult to get through, so break that cycle now and notice the everyday victories, too.

Mental health resources

Here’s a bonus tip to help all your work stick: make mental health resources readily accessible.

This includes offering counseling services, stress management workshops, and promoting a culture where seeking help is normalized and encouraged.

Once there’s a system in place, use it yourself. Talk about it. Prove that you believe in it.

This is hard for a lot of law firms, largely because there’s still a stigma around seeking help. People think (perhaps correctly) that using a mental health resource will make others think they’re weak or unreliable.

That’s why the mental health crisis in law is stubbornly continuing despite increased awareness and initiatives.

Moving from a typical culture to a psychologically safe workspace is tough, and there are going to be some difficult growth moments for the people on your team. A few people might need to work through some personal challenges before they can participate in such an open and transparent team.

Offering resources, then setting the example by using them, makes the transition more effective.

The one thing you must do: lead the way

Leading by example is definitely not a new concept. You already know that your actions, not your words, are the most powerful way to create change.

In the case of psychological safety, though, it’s a make-or-break practice.

As a law firm leader, you cannot create a psychologically safe workplace unless you fully immerse yourself in those practices. You have to be the safe person, even if nobody else is there yet.

Imagine how you would feel if your boss wanted you to practice openness and admit your mistakes, only to flatly deny her own errors a few days later.

Creating a safe work environment is well worth the effort.

If you don’t do it, your competitors will, and you’ll have a hard time keeping your best employees on board when they can find a safer workplace somewhere else. Build your culture now so that your firm is the place where people want to end up.

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