May/June 2019

Editor's Note

Flexibility Is Key to Managing

Heidi A. Barcus

Last year we lost four associates. For a firm our size, that was roughly 20 percent of our lawyers. They departed for different reasons. One chose to leave the practice of law, one joined the federal court system, another took time off from practicing, and the last moved to a bigger city. Nonetheless, the departures caused the firm to look internally at our management styles. We wondered what we could do differently to keep good lawyers. We have made some significant changes and focused on what the firm might look like in the future.

For me personally, the departures had a huge impact. Three of the four were litigation attorneys, so I had to scramble quickly to get the work covered, knowing that plugging those holes inevitably would place even more pressure on the remaining lawyers. There’s no doubt that the life of a litigation lawyer is grueling and sometimes unrelenting. That’s true even when we aren’t in crisis. Despite the inherent demands on us, I paused and considered these losses.

I did a lot of soul-searching, trying to figure out what role I may have played in these departures. Some things I can control in litigation, but there are even more that I can’t. Deadlines, schedules and demands are set by the courts and the clients. And, overall, we are a firm that respects time off. No one in the firm raises their voice except to laugh. Our billable hour requirements aren’t the highest in our region. We have several part-time lawyers and accommodate lawyers who want to telecommute. We make a concerted effort to make sure the right people can work for us even if the demands of life keep them from working a traditional schedule. The firm has twice accommodated life-changing illnesses in my family.

Therefore I made a major change in my management style. I stopped searching for the perfect lawyer. Instead I spent the remainder of 2018 looking at the talent the existing lawyers had. I forced myself to accept and praise the exceptional qualities of the lawyers who were already on my team. No longer would I focus on what skills the lawyers didn’t have or hadn’t developed. Every lawyer on my team has unique skills. My shortfall was failing to match those skills with the projects I needed to cover.

The experiment isn’t over. We are still in the process of figuring out what we can do better as 2019 progresses. In the meantime, looking at the good in those I manage is much more enjoyable than focusing on perceived insufficiencies. This shift in perspective has had a positive impact on my work life. I can only hope that it has had a positive impact on my team.

Perhaps reading some of the articles in this issue will change your approach to management. We begin with Marcia Watson Wasserman’s roundtable discussion with five law firm leaders who supervise virtual law firms, some of which have brick-and-mortar offices and some that don’t, in “Virtual Is the New Law Firm Reality.” Thomas E. Schimmerling follows with some directions on how to handle attorneys who have become impaired by alcohol, drugs or mental health issues in “Addressing Impaired Attorneys.” He also advises us regarding how to promote lawyer wellness in your firm. In “Managing Harassment Complaints in a #MeToo World,” Karen L. Gabler addresses how to handle, remedy and end harassment claims if, or when, they arise in your firm. Michelle MacDonald, in “Risky Business: Misclassifying Gig Employees,” notes the differences between independent contractors who work by the “gig” and regular law firm employees—and how the differences may have been blurred by recent case law. Michael Downey follows with “Can Your Law Firm Work with a PEO?,” in which he considers how various ethics authorities have addressed the issue of whether law firms may contract with professional employer organizations to offer better health benefits to their lawyers and staff. Finally, in “Tracking Time to Save Time,” Laura Keeler talks about how tracking a firm’s billable and nonbillable hours can highlight inefficiencies and provide ways to streamline a firm’s operations.

I would also like to thank Thomas Grella for contributing the Highlights column in addition to his usual Managing column. He announces an amazing new opportunity for all ABA members to become members of the Law Practice Division at no extra cost.

Heidi A. Barcus, Editor-in-Chief

Thanks to our Issue Team: John Bowers, Cynthia Thomas, and Marcia Watson Wasserman

Heidi A. Barcus

Heidi A. Barcus is a partner with London Amburn, P.C. in Knoxville, Tennessee. She is a past president of the Knoxville Bar Association and certified by the American Board of Professional Liability Attorneys. Email her.