Volume 19, Number 3
Keys to Success
Leadership, Attorney-Staff Relations, and Simplified Action Planning
By Nancy Byerly Jones
Are employee bickering, low morale, and/or low productivity dragging down your office? Are you tired of failing to accomplish your goals year after year? Do you feel you could be a more effective leader? Would you like someone like yourself to be your supervisor?
In short, are you in control of your work, or is it in control of you? Talk is cheap-it's easy to sound good discussing our desires to be excellent leaders, the benefits of organization and efficiency, our pride in timely and excellent work product, and other lofty goals we'd like to achieve.
However, turning our "talk" into actions and our good intentions into positive, productive steps is much easier said than done in our 90-mile-per-hour lives. Just surviving yet another chaotic day is a worthy accomplishment itself in today's ever-changing legal system. Unfortunately, living in survival mode means that many-if not most-of our goals will remain just that-mere aspirations instead of solid achievements. As a result, our stress levels soar while our morale and our productivity spiral downward.
This article offers an overview of three areas-leadership, attorney/staff relations, and simiplfied action planning-that usually need significant attention in offices where goals remain unattained year after year, risk management flounders, stress soars way too high, and morale plummets.
We are all leaders, whether by formal title (Managing Partner) or by actions such as supervising and training associates and support staff, setting a good example, handling conflict, etc. Unfortunately, some people lead in name only. They like the title but do not manage the responsibilities a true leader must bear. Sometimes it's just easier to put our heads in the sand than it is to face the anguish and exhaustion of making tough decisions (whether to terminate an unsatisfactory employee, for example). The cost of not facing responsibility is high and includes lower productivity, increased malpractice risks, and poor office morale.
Leaders and managers. Leadership and management differ from each other. A manager oversees and handles day-to-day issues that must be addressed in order to carry out the firm's objectives: personnel, financial reports, computer and other technology requirements, ordering office supplies, etc. A leader plays the role of visionary, planner, motivator, negotiator, and final decision maker for an office. Leaders are responsible for creating short- and long-term action plans for the firm, developing constructive and realistic marketing plans, and delegating as appropriate. If they try to take on the manager's role as well, they risk not having the time or energy to be effective.
Changing times. It wasn't that long ago that one of the biggest challenges facing firm leaders was how to divide the pie fairly. We now have a greater diversity within the profession than ever before. Female law school graduates outnumber males for the first time in history, and the profession reflects the multicultural and multiracial makeup of our population. Lawyers in active practice range from newcomers in their mid-20s to old-school traditionalists in their 80s, and they may work in a solo practice with one assistant or be one of more than 1,000 lawyers at a sprawling mega-firm. The age and wage gaps can sometimes produce misunderstandings and tensions.
Other high-pressure issues that lawyers did not face in the past may include the following: more competition-externally and internally; marketing and rainmaking pressures; realities of today's buyer's market; client expectations and demands for immediate turnaround; decreased loyalty of employers to employees, and vice versa; and media-influenced "me-only" attitudes instead of team spirit and collegiality.
Look in the mirror. We all think we know how others could improve their personal interactions, communication, and leadership skills. But it is a good idea to stop the world long enough (at least once a year, preferably oftener) to conduct self-audits regarding our own skills. Questions you might ask yourself in order to decide what you can keep on doing and what you should change include:
o Do I have a realistic long-term plan for my firm, and has it been communicated clearly to all employees?
o Do I set examples with my habits and behavior that are consistent with what I demand from others?
o Am I keeping my employees motivated?
o Do I adapt well to change, or do I cling hopelessly to worn-out systems and traditions?
o How would my peers, staff, and clients describe me as a leader?
o When I leave the firm, will I leave a realistic and attainable plan for future growth and prosperity?
Motivation. Being truly happy with what you do will radiate and affect all those with whom you work. If you are fighting burnout, unsatisfied with the practice of law, and more frustrated than not with most of your clients, this, too, will be felt by your peers and staff-and such feelings can be highly contagious. Motivating others is not difficult, so long as we have a good assessment of the pros and cons of our own work and the positives outweigh the negatives. If this is not the case, motivating others is next to impossible because our actions speak so much louder than our words.
Another factor that can influence morale is inconsistent management. Make sure you have clear rules and procedures within your office that are enforced consistently and fairly. Nothing lowers morale quicker than different rules and privileges for certain employees, for example, arriving and leaving at specific times. Preferential treatment does not sit well with those who make the effort (or, in many cases, special arrangements for child care) to be on time.
There's an old saying, "When I'm right, who remembers, and when I'm wrong, who forgets!" When constructive criticism is needed, discuss the issue in private. Conversely, be public with praise. A simple "thank you, great job" goes a long, long way.
Strive to be aware of and resolve underlying tensions among the partners or shareholders. Lawyers often say they have an unresolved "issue" with a partner or associate but no one else in the office is aware of it. Not so! Others may not know the details of the dispute, but they indeed sense and suffer from the tensions emitted by feuding colleagues. We humans always will have our differences and opinions, but we can learn how to deal with disputes quickly and in a spirit of compromise. Putting our heads in the sand only aggravates the problem and sends the message that childish and destructive grudges are acceptable.
Self-care. Perhaps the most important and most often ignored adage in the legal profession is "Take care of yourself!" We all know that without our good health nothing else matters, so why do lawyers so consistently put ourselves last when it comes to healthy diets, time off, and exercise? It just makes sense-physical and financial-to take good care of ourselves and encourage coworkers to do the same. Yet some folks never take a break from the office and-worse-try to make colleagues feel guilty for taking sick or vacation time. Lawyers who act that way hurt themselves as well as their firms; the best employees are those who maintain a healthy balance between their personal and professional lives.
The lawyer's role. Lawyers often are stunned to receive a highly valued employee's unexpected resignation, but, in many cases, the departing staff member sent out numerous warning signals. They requested more time off, were irritable, and showed signs of exhaustion from the demanding and overwhelming workload; but the responsible attorneys did not take the signs of burnout seriously enough. The risk of such surprises, however, is significantly reduced when lawyers promote open and constructive communication with staff members and treat each employee as a valued and respected member of the office. Similarly, staff members help ensure better attorney/staff relations when they disclose and handle problems quickly and professionally rather than gossiping behind the parties' backs. Good team players work with the firm's best interests at heart.
The following outline offers guidelines for lawyers who want to establish and maintain good working relationships with support staff. Use it to review strengths and weaknesses of attorney/staff relations within your firm.
The lawyer's duty to instruct and guide staff is ongoing. You may do the teaching yourself or delegate this task to an experienced trainer. When new employees start, and periodically thereafter, set aside time for them to learn and periodically review the following essentials:
o The ins and outs of their job responsibilities and duties. Create written job descriptions and give one to every employee; revise them on a timely basis when duties change.
o The Rules of Professional Conduct. Each employee should read the Rules and have opportunities to ask questions about them.
o The ability to distinguish what constitutes "offering legal advice"-which, of course, only a lawyer is permitted to do. Staff can explain legal processes to clients but cannot advise clients about rights and duties in relation to another; represent clients in court; or select the legal documents that are appropriate for a client's legal situation.
o Office and risk management policies and systems. These may include docket/calendaring control, checking for conflicts of interest, file management, firm security, documentation essentials, proper use of checklists, current software programs, telephone procedures, etc.
o Confidentiality. You cannot stress too often that all client matters must be strictly confidential, both within and outside the office. Employees should sign a firm confidentiality form that documents confidentiality standards and procedures and clearly states that a breach of confidentiality may result in immediate dismissal.
o The importance of excellent client relations. Be sure you set a continuous good example by returning telephone calls promptly, keeping clients regularly informed, being on time for appointments, etc.
Additional ways to establish and maintain good working relationships with support staff include the following:
o Regularly provide assistants with feedback regarding the quality of their work through scheduled staff meetings and work evaluation sessions.
o Encourage membership in legal assistant associations.
o Offer financial assistance for continuing education opportunities.
o Include books and articles on ethics, malpractice prevention, and relevant areas of law within your firm's library, and encourage staff to read them.
o Provide a positive work environment. Keep in mind the responsibilities and pressures that accompany staff work.
o Avoid too-busy-for-you, better-than-you, and similarly arrogant attitudes that promote low office morale, disloyalty, and costly mistakes.
o Have and share a good sense of humor!
o Be alert for signs of staff disgruntlement, conflicts, or other problems. Provide procedures for anonymously reporting suspected substance abuse, ethical violations, or mental health crises.
o Respect your staff, and thank them often for their contributions to jobs well done.
The staff's role. Office staff play many integral roles within a law practice. They assist with administrative and clerical tasks, marketing, good client relations, avoiding malpractice, handling client complaints, and potential conflicts of interest. A lawyer's success can be highly dependent on the ways staff function, doing their part to promote a positive working environment. On a personal or firm-wide level, success goals can be incorporated into daily routines:
o Seek out and welcome educational opportunities.
o Share personal knowledge and experiences that can benefit the office.
o Empathize with supervisors' and coworkers' pressures from and responsibilities to clients, the office, and the legal system.
o Avoid office gossip like the plague.
o In addition to raising matters of concern, propose possible solutions.
o Join legal associations.
o Know the firm's risk-management policies and systems, understand them, respect them, use them, and offer suggestions for improvement.
o Avoid "I'm just here for the paycheck" and other unprofessional attitudes.
o Maintain a good sense of humor and a positive attitude. Balancing professional and personal commitments equally helps.
o Express your respect for and appreciation of coworkers' assistance, guidance, and support, and acknowledge their successes.
Everyone's responsibility. Although successful attorney/staff relations depend on many factors, these can be summed up in just a few words-mutual respect and effective communication. If attorneys and staff have genuine respect for one another and communicate clearly and effectively, most of the other essential elements of good employer/employee relations fall naturally into place. Conducting regular self-audits helps everyone stay in touch with how they are doing, whether managers, leaders, or support staff.
Each person within a law firm, whether practicing law or sorting the mail, is responsible for building and maintaining healthy, respectful, and productive relationships. When office leaders don't set a good example, the ripple effect within the office can be devastating. When everyone takes this responsibility to heart and puts it into actual practice, however, a win-win situation for everyone results.
Simplified Strategic Planning and Goal Setting
More often than not, our list of desired objectives remains just that-possibilities rather than accomplishments. Our intentions may be good and determined, but life has a way of hitting us with so many unforeseen events that it seems we struggle just to put out the resultant fires. This leaves most people with little time for reaching their preferred objectives.
Based on my experience as a law office manager, a practicing attorney, and now a legal management consultant, I believe three things are critical to increase the odds of reaching our goals:
1. Make a written list of objectives.
2. Map step by step what needs to be done, by whom, and when.
3. Monitor your progress and hold yourself and others accountable to your commitments.
Keeping this formula simple works best. Although some firms pay a lot of money to have complex and voluminous strategic plans prepared, most of those plans go unread. Our good intentions to plow through the material somehow never seem to translate into action. On the other hand, when strategic plans are written in a simpler and shorter manner (I call these "action plans"), office leaders are much more apt to review and assist in monitoring them. A sample of one possible simplistic format is included in the appendix of my book, Easy Self Audits for the Busy Law Office (ABA 1999).
In my experience, building a successful law practice takes courage, foresight, an open mind, and time to come to full fruition. Fortunately, however, with a heavy dose of patience and determination, you can indeed make many positive changes for your offices, your clients, and yourselves. Best of all, they last. Doing so sure beats living with the constant chaos and stress of a disorganized, poorly managed office that seems to survive only on a day-by-day basis.
Nancy Byerly Jones is an attorney, certified mediator, legal management advisor, and author of Easy Self-Audits for the Busy Law Office (ABA 1999). She can be reached by phone at 828/898-9600 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her company's website is www.nbjconsulting.com.