October 23, 2012


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Shape Up! Practice Management Tips for 2010

 Table of Contents | Features | Frontlines | Technology | Business

November/December 2009 Issue | Volume 35 Number 7 | Page 62



If the economic turbulence of recent months has taught us anything, it is that we don’t always know what the future will hold—including who among the people in our organizations will still have a job come tomorrow. The adverse effects of this uncertainty need immediate attention by law firm supervisors at every level.

We are still living in the midst of the most drastic transformation of the legal marketplace in the modern era, so we can’t possibly know all the effects yet. But one particular effect that is known by many is the dramatic decline in workplace morale, which is something that requires thoughtful intervention by supervisors if the firm hopes to survive and thrive.

In a recent American Lawyer survey of midlevel associates, over 80 percent of respondents felt some level of stress about the potential of losing their jobs. And for many, they are living with this stress every day. However, even if your firm has not been adversely affected by the country’s financial woes, don’t think that your work environment is immune to low morale.

Remember that your lawyers, staff and even clients are likely to have spouses, friends, family or other loved ones that have been affected either through layoffs or the inability to find better jobs in this economy. Add on to those fears the constant barrage of depressing news about how long it may really take the market to recover. This high level of anxiety all too often has a negative impact on the work environment.

This begs the question of what managers can do to boost morale in such a discouraging climate. But disheartening as this may seem, be assured that you can improve workplace morale through some simple, and important, steps that center on communication.

Be Open and Honest
It is best to start our discussion about communication by highlighting one of the main causes of workplace stress. This occurs when employees feel as though they are being kept in the dark about the direction and future of the firm. The looming fear of layoffs, pay cuts, and losses of benefits are demoralizing in and of themselves, and this fear is only enhanced when your associates and staff feel as though they do not know what is going on in the firm.

There is a straightforward solution to this problem: Make it a habit to frequently communicate with those you supervise using honesty and openness. This will help to relieve some of the tensions and uncertainty. Keeping your employees in the dark in order to save face is just too high a price to pay when you look at the detrimental impact it has on your people.

No one is advocating that every staff person be privy to your budgets and balance sheets, but it will go a long way with your employees if you are honest about the financial condition of your firm at this time. And it may also have a noticeable effect on improving that condition, too. Open communication creates a feeling of community, and in a community, members work together to improve the situation for everyone. An environment in which information is not shared, on the other hand, causes individuals to retreat from the community and the work it does, which impacts productivity and the long-term financial viability of your organization.

Convey the Going-Forward Strategy
Another key to raising morale and bolstering confidence is to thoughtfully communicate the firm’s plan of action and your strategy for getting through these trying times. Even if your firm is doing well, it is still important to communicate a vision that everyone can get behind and to allow for employee input on the strategic steps for reaching this vision.

For firms that have been hit harder by the downturn, it is even more important to convey a strategy for the future. Fear of the unknown cannot be underestimated. Remember, it causes people to think that things are worse than they really are, whereas providing your employees with a plan allows them to take the negative energy of anxiety and direct that energy instead toward being proactive in participating in the firm’s recovery plans.

Should your current strategy involve calls for more layoffs or eliminating benefits like health insurance for employees, consider other options. Be sure you have thoroughly examined all the other possibilities, such as reducing facilities costs or cutting overhead in other ways that will allow you to keep people employed. Alternative work scenarios in particular, including reduced hours for reduced pay and benefits, may actually save more money than using layoffs as a way to reduce costs.

Taking a creative approach to cutting costs not only allows you to save jobs at a time when new jobs are hard to come by, but it also makes a loud statement to your employees that the firm is willing to be inventive in its strategy to get through these difficult times. It is not all about profits per partner—it should instead be about the survival of the firm as a team. You will find that your employees will stand by you if they feel you are doing your best to care for them.

Spread Whatever Good News You Can
Another idea is to communicate the successes your firm may be having right now. For example, if you have gained good coverage from the media for representation of a specific client or matter, make sure everyone in the firm knows about it. Perhaps even more important is to highlight new or increased business. Whether the firm has landed a brand-new client or gained significant additional work from an existing client, spread the news about it to your people.

Now more than ever, clear examples of incoming business and financial strength will go a long way in relieving the tensions that arise among your people regarding the down economy and show them that there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel.

Keep Communications Flowing
Finally, strive to provide employees with new team-building opportunities designed to promote your firm’s values as well as the free-flowing communication of ideas and information. If you structure these activities in such a way that you, as a firm manager, acknowledge and address their concerns, it will be even more beneficial to your firm’s culture and help to improve office morale. Giving individuals the opportunity to voice their concerns and anxieties, as well as their “own” strategies for improving the firm’s well-being, will create an environment where people want to stay, build and meet goals together.

The positive outcomes of effective communication in the workplace may well be limitless. Platitudes aside, the old saying that “you reap what you sow” could not be more applicable to the idea that communication will improve morale at your firm. As a manager, seek out ways to foster an atmosphere of truly open and honest communication among lawyers and staff. It may seem simple, but improved morale equals improved productivity and increased creativity, the kinds of ingredients needed for these economic times.

Marcia Pennington Shannon is a principal in the Washington, DC, attorney management consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP. She is coauthor of the ABA book Recruiting Lawyers: How-to Hire the Best Talent.