Until a couple of years ago, I was paralegal. Burned out, I left the field to pursue a happier and more satisfying career. After nearly 13 years of studying and struggling to become a respected legal professional, I came to believe that achieving true professional status in the eyes of lawyers was impossible. I was not alone in my frustration.
A legal secretary once told me about a new associate in her firm who resented having to park farther away from the building than some of the senior staffers. "If they want the good parking spaces," he spouted, "they need to go to law school!" In the young lawyer's defense, it's likely that he simply learned that reaction from more senior practitioners. In my many years in the legal field, I ran across multiple examples of what those in legal support call "the lawyer attitude."
I once, for example, sat in on a conference call with a couple of partners and a clerk where the lead lawyer identified everyone in the room to the person on the other end of the line--except, that is, for me. On another occasion, I sat in a roomful of lawyers as a summer clerk was introduced to everyone--except for me. Yes, it's important for future lawyers to become acquainted with other lawyers. But two seconds of common courtesy to a staff person is not too much to ask.
With the example set for them, is it any wonder that young lawyers come into firms with the attitude that staff people are beneath them, that "no law degree" equals ""no respect required"? And as these young lawyers become senior partners who dictate firm standards, the situation grows ever more serious, translating into increased staff turnover and lowered firm morale.
Regardless of how big the paychecks and how good the benefits, good employees will leave environments where they feel disrespected and unappreciated. Lawyers are costing themselves and their firms money, time and efficiency by not understanding and practicing good staff relations. Here are suggestions for improvement.
Respect Everyone's Intelligence
Realize that staffers may be-even without a law degree--intelligent and educated people. Treat them as such. Most are not lawyers because (surprise) they don't want to be lawyers. Respect them for who they are and what they choose to accomplish.
At the same time, pay attention to the individual's education and years of experience. Don't insult senior staffers by putting everyone on the same level work-wise. You will benefit in the long run.
LISTEN UP, FOLKS
Be aware that staff people have a different perspective than you do. They see and know a lot of things about the firm's culture that lawyers are not privy to. Listen to and take advantage of their knowledge.
New associates especially need to listen to their staff. Experienced staffers have a wealth of knowledge about the everyday nuts-and-bolts of practicing law--things that law school can't teach you. They know details about firm workings and court procedures that can take years to learn. Even if they don't know the answer to a question, they'll know where to find it. Again, you'll reap the benefits.
Help People Grow
Stagnation is a major cause of job turnover. There's no one more restless and ready to hunt for another job than a smart, energetic worker who is bored. A chance to grow professionally in the firm encourages staffers to stay.
Help yourself by giving willing staff people the opportunity to stretch their limits. Their jobs will be more interesting, and your load will be lightened.
Trust Staff to Do Their Jobs
Not trusting competent staff people to do the jobs they were hired to do is a formula for disaster. Confusing job duties and crossing back and forth over the boundaries of "who does what" leads to a lot of dropped balls. When that happens, the accusations start to fly and everybody winds up being mad at everybody else.
These situations occur when lawyers have no control over their practices, or when they're afraid to give up the least bit of control and get worked into a frenzy trying to oversee every little detail. Assign tasks and trust that they will be handled. Trusted people become responsible people. If you find you can't trust them, you need to hire new staffers.
Demonstrate Your Esteem
Above all, let staffers know that they are needed and appreciated. Cultivating good staff relations can only enhance your law practice. Good employees will become better employees and will be happy to stay with you for the long haul. Ask your staff what matters to them. Learn if things about your workplace bug them. You'll probably learn that big raises and benefits are not the only things on their minds.
June Mathews ( firstname.lastname@example.org), a former litigation paralegal, is now a freelance writer who lives and works in Trussville, AL.