Vol. 37, No. 5

Bar HR: Expert tips on how to get the most from your staff

by Marilyn Cavicchia

What’s the most important trait for any bar association employee? Many executive directors and human resources directors would probably agree with Karen Hutchins, who puts “flexibility” at the top of the list.

If your staff is relatively small, explained Hutchins, executive director of the Arkansas Bar Association, there will likely be times when you need to ask someone to step out of his or her usual role. That’s why, even for positions that require specialized skills, such as HR or finance, Hutchins always looks for someone who is able—and willing—to do a lot of different things if need be.

Hutchins spoke in Dallas this February at the Midyear Meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives. Joining her in the panel discussion were Frances Dujon-Reynolds, human resources director at the Washington State Bar Association, and Kelley Jones King, who recently retired as deputy executive director of the State Bar of Texas.

Don’t hire in haste

The panelists all agreed that making the most of the bar staff, whatever its size, begins by being very focused and careful during the hiring process. The WSBA has “gotten some real superstars” by holding out for just the right person, Dujon-Reynolds said.

“I’m notorious for not being pressured to hire,” Hutchins said, adding that this can be a problem at times. With a staff of 10 (including herself), she explained, if a hiring delay goes on too long, it puts a lot of stress on everyone else.

One key to finding that right person, Hutchins suggested, is to do a little thinking before you finalize the job description: Was there something that the previous person lacked, or other ways the description should be revised to target particular attributes you want the next employee to have?

Don’t speed through the interview, either, Dujon-Reynolds advised, noting that often, you’ll have a strong—but not necessarily accurate—impression of the candidate within the first 30 seconds. “When you feel that attraction,” she suggested, “challenge yourself to ask really tough questions.” If your first impression is negative, she added, spend some time building rapport with the candidate to see if things turn around.

It helps, too, Dujon-Reynolds said, to include in the interviewing process those employees who will be working closely with the new hire. That way, you’ll get more than one perspective on whether the candidate is a good fit for the bar.

With a staff of about 150, the WSBA has more specialized positions than at the Arkansas bar. Still, Dujon-Reynolds said, there are two qualifications that apply across the board: basic competence with technology, and the ability to interact with all different types of people.

Relationships key in employee retention

Studies have shown that relationships between managers and employees are a big determining factor in whether those employees stay or go, Dujon-Reynolds said. What are some ways to build those relationships?

One way, Hutchins said, is to show your confidence in employees by selecting them to lead certain projects. Just be aware of what else the employees already have on their plate, she added—you don’t want to add more stress while trying to show how much you value your employees’ expertise.

One great relationship builder at the Texas bar, Jones said, is a book club in which the selections have some connection to bar association work. No matter what their job title, Jones noted, all bar staff members are on equal footing when it comes to suggesting and discussing the books.

“The No. 1 thing you can do is say thank you,” Dujon-Reynolds believes. As is probably the case at most bar associations, there are times when WSBA staff members need to stay late. The bar will often buy dinner or give out gift cards to employees who go that extra mile, she said. At the Arkansas bar, Hutchins makes up for those occasional peaks in the workload by sometimes letting the staff leave early when the bar is in a calmer period.

Even during less demanding times, Dujon-Reynolds added, all WSBA managers have on hand a supply of gift cards in the $10 to $25 range to recognize employees’ extra efforts.

Along with saying “thank you” when things go well, it’s also important to be gracious when something doesn’t go so well, Dujon-Reynolds said, noting that the WSBA will sometimes hold a constructive debriefing after a big mistake, aimed not at blaming anyone but at figuring out how to prevent such an error in the future.

In a similar vein, Hutchins likes to build in safe “outlets for frustration” where the staff can talk about things that might be going wrong. One such opportunity is the weekly staff meeting, she said, adding that there are occasional staff breakfasts, too. 

Besides food, drink—of the nonalcoholic sort, that is—can be a great way to boost employee morale, Hutchins believes. “Our most successful perk,” she said, “is when Lorrie Payne, the associate director, comes around at 2:30 in the afternoon to say she’s making a Sonic run.” (The hamburger drive-in chain, also known for its slushy drinks, has a “happy hour” around that time, Hutchins explained.)

Dealing with discipline

Those positive relationships can break down, King noted, if there’s an employee who is not performing well. In a staff of 10, for example, “what about the other nine?” she asked, meaning that their productivity will suffer, too, if the problem is not addressed.

It’s important to handle any discipline—and even firing—with “dignity and respect,” Dujon-Reynolds said. To help an employee get back on track, she suggested, set a detailed timeline for the kind of improvement you want to see, and then check in with him or her along the way. That way, she explained, the employee will know whether he or she is improving and what else needs to be done.

But employees aren’t the only ones who need to think about what they could do better, Hutchins believes; managers need to ask themselves whether the employee who is having trouble was sufficiently trained.

Rather than a top-down discipline system where the obvious end point is firing, she said, it can often be productive for a manager to sit down with the employee and ask if there’s something he or she needs in order to do a better job.

The weekly staff meeting, Hutchins said, is a great opportunity to stay on top of who’s doing what, to spot possible performance problems earlier rather than later—and to clear up any gaps in communication.

“A lot of times,” she said, “people just don’t know what you expect from them.”