Best Friends at Work: Can They Transform the Legal Workplace?

By: Michael A. Ellenhorn, Founder & CEO – Decipher Investigative Intelligence

Old joke: “Making partner is like winning a pie eating contest, where the prize is more pie.” (sigh.) (Greene, J., 2022, January 19 ’Soul Suck’: Ex-lawyers dish on why they ditched their jobs. Reuters Legal) We’ve heard it our entire professional lives: the legal workplace is a pressure cooker, it’s soul-destroying. You go in with the best of intentions, but the sheer volume of work is just crushing. It defines your identity from day one, and once you get accustomed to the money, there’s just no way out. At my old firm, you couldn’t even make partner if you didn’t have at least one failed marriage.

The legal workplace (much like its counterparts in the financial services sector) has long been known for its overtly competitive environment. Lawyers and business professionals alike receive signals early on in their careers that their upward mobility is a zero-sum proposition. It starts in law school and continues in the legal workplace. There are only so many slots available at the top, whether that’s partnership or the c-suite.

While the legal workplace may seem an extreme example, it is only a reflection of the larger global workplace landscape. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report tells us that only 23% of the world’s employees are engaged and thriving at work, while 77% are either not engaged (“quiet quitting”) or actively disengaged (“loud quitting”). Employee stress remains at a record high, and over half of all employees expressed some level of intent to leave their job. (State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report,)

Does it have to be like this? Maybe not…..

What do we know about best friends at work and workplace engagement?
Gallup’s Q¹² Employee Engagement Survey is often cited as the gold standard for assessing the workplace environment. Studying over 2.7 million employees and more than 100,000 teams, Gallup has identified the 12 employee needs that drive engagement, ranging from expectations and resources to development and recognition. There is one question in the Q¹² , though, that stands alone – Q10 – “I have a best friend at work.” (Gallup,

Gallup admits that it has received quite a bit of pushback on this item over the years and that the temptation is always there to remove it from the assessment. There’s just one small problem – it turns out that “best friend at work” is a key determinant of high vs. low performing teams and engaged vs. disengaged employees. (Gallup,
So, what have we learned from years of Q10 data?:

  • If you have a best friend at work, you are seven times (7x) more likely to be engaged at your job. (McDonald, D., 2018, Season 6, Episode 41, Gallup Called to Coach Webcast Series, How Having a Best Friend at Work Transforms the Workplace)
  • In the U.S., only 2 in 10 employees strongly agree that they have a best friend at work. By moving that ratio to 6 in 10, customer engagement increased by 7%, profits increased by 12% and safety incidents decreased by 36%. (ibid.)

“Having a best friend at work is strongly linked to business outcomes, including improvements in profitability, safety, inventory control, and employee retention.” (Clifton, J. 2022, The Power of Work Friends, Harvard Business Review, ). “[A]ccording to a global study by the International Social Survey Program (ISSP), ‘Interpersonal [work] relationships have a sizeable and significant positive effect on the job satisfaction of the average employee. [Relationships] rank first out of… 12 domains of workplace quality in terms of power to explain variation in job satisfaction.’ (ibid.).’” And, unsurprisingly, the two largest determinants of retention are (1) I like my boss; and (2) I have a best friend at work. (Gallup,

Gallup observed that employees who have a best friend at work were:

  • Forty-three percent more likely to report having received praise or recognition for their work in the last seven days
  • Thirty-seven percent more likely to report that someone at work encourages their development
  • Thirty-five percent more likely to report coworker commitment to quality
  • Twenty-eight percent more likely to report that in the last six months, someone at work has talked to them about their progress
  • Twenty-seven percent more likely to report that the mission of their company makes them feel that their job is important
  • Twenty-seven percent more likely to report that their opinions seem to count at work
  • Twenty-one percent more likely to report that at work, they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day

(Moss J. (2021), The Burnout Epidemic, Harvard Business Review Press)

Often lawyers and business professionals alike experience a legal workplace that is punctuated by stress, competitiveness, poor health, lack of engagement and overwhelming, time-sensitive work volume. These same workplaces often lack an emphasis on mental health, engagement, stress-management and overall fulfillment. And, it turns out, that the benefits of a workplace best friend are largely related to… you guessed it…. engagement, stress management, health and fulfillment.

What can organizational leaders do to encourage workplace friendships?
So, what can legal workplace leaders do to encourage and promote a culture of workplace best friends? (McDonald, D., 2018, Season 6, Episode 41, Gallup Called to Coach Webcast Series, How Having a Best Friend at Work Transforms the Workplace)

  1. Promote intentionality – starting with leaders. All stakeholders assimilate behavioral norms from their leaders. They need an “OK” from their leadership that developing professional friendships in a close-knit legal work environment is encouraged and an important part of a high-functioning team.
  2. Create interactive opportunities for friendships to blossom. Leaders at every level need to (1) voice their support for the importance of professional friendships; (2) promote a team atmosphere that encourages trust and collaboration; and (3) create time and space for these relationships to flourish.
  3. Communicate frequently. Leaders should create a culture where free-flowing communication is expected and encouraged. Share ideas. Encourage recognition. Celebrate personal milestones and successes.

By focusing on this one element of workplace wellbeing (having a best friend at work), we may well be able to transform the legal workplace for the better – one friend at a time.

Michael Ellenhorn is a lawyer, solicitor (England & Wales) and the Founder & CEO of Decipher Investigative Intelligence. Michael was recently appointed to the IWIL Board of Directors. As founder and CEO of Decipher Investigative Intelligence, Michael Ellenhorn helps his clients create safer, more productive, and more profitable workplaces by equipping them with the investigative intelligence that drives successful talent strategies.

Michael believes that empowering leaders to make more insightful and successful talent decisions, based on intelligence-driven transparency, is both the right thing to do and one which will change workplace culture and performance for the better.

With more than 25 years of experience in the legal industry, first as a trial lawyer and then as a leader in the international legal talent space, Michael and his team are well-positioned to counsel clients on winning talent strategies.

Michael earned his B.A. from the University of Washington, his J.D. from Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, and studied business at the Cass Business School, City University of London. Michael is committed to community investment and serves on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Wellbeing in Law.