Archive: Law Firm as a Circle of Peers

July 1, 2001
By Jane Seymour

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This month's circle tale comes to us from attorney Jane Seymour of Freeland, Washington. For the past several years Jane has run her law practice as a council of peers.

Our use and adaptation of The Circle Way circle has been evolving slowly over time. At first my paralegal staff was reluctant to participate in a process they feared would be too self-revealing, feeling safer with the familiar, more traditional law office hierarchy. At their request, we invited PeerSpirit to come and give us a "short course" in circle when we began this experiment, but since then it has evolved organically to fit the style of people in the office.

We tried circle many months, but when the most resistant one among us requested that we use the circle process to get through a particularly challenging time in the office, that was the real beginning. Now I don't think any of us would go back. New employees are especially impressed when they are invited to join the circle as part of their job interview and it helps them and us determine their ability to fit into the staff.

Nearly every business day begins with a circle. Each person does a personal check-in and a business check-in. The personal check-in isn't therapy or gossip, but a glimpse into the fullness of our lives so we each know what others are carrying beyond the workload itself. This helps us help each other during the workday, and integrates a sense of being able to be our full selves in the office. Sometimes, this check-in only takes a few minutes, sometimes longer. We try not to interrupt or make suggestions unless asked. Then the business check-in provides a chance for each of us to share the projects we're working on so we can better help one another at the work level.

During the time of our office circle no phone calls are taken and no client visits are scheduled. The gathering occurs whether I'm present or not. We don't use a talking piece or a center and the table is not round, but the intention is clear - to provide a flexible workplace with much autonomy where people understand one another's challenges and offer support as we can.

Our staff is growing steadily stronger and braver in their willingness to confront difficulties in a gentle way. They tell me they are happy to come to work and that our clients say we're one of the most unusual law offices they've been in. People can sense the commitment to teamwork. However, it's been a significant challenge to weave circle practice into a four person staff. Circle work is not just a magic thing. We have to work at it because life evolves and changes happen.

One of the biggest things I have been working on is to keep the circle alive and meaningful and not just a routine thing. At times I get frustrated with how superficial check-ins are and wish we'd go deeper. When we're in a period of superficiality, I try to focus on my own contributions and see what level of commitment I'm modeling. Sometimes I simply ask for more honest comments and if I find that is not enough, I lead the way. For example, if I sense any of my staff are angry at me or upset about something in the office I have found it effective to share my own feeling of tension in the air and invite others to speak of their feelings.

Not long ago I was feeling left out of things in my own office. I asked the group to light a candle at morning circle. I told them I could feel all kinds of anger towards me and I wanted it out so I'd know what was going on and could clean up my part of the problem.

Once the candle was lit, and I shared my own feelings, people proceeded to be very honest. They told me some things that it took many hours of weeding in my garden for me to sort through. The moment made me realize once again the power of ritual and the importance of shared leadership. Now, if anyone is feeling tension, they can light a candle to signal the rest of us to listen carefully and speak courageously.

Since we live near each other, my office enjoys occasional short consultations with the PeerSpirit office, and once a year I participate in one of the PeerSpirit wilderness adventures which helps enormously to replenish me, while deepening my own sense and practice of circle.