Common Complaints: A Paralegal's Perspective on Three Top Management Pains

Millie Dyson has more than 17 years of battle-hardened experience in the legal trenches and is the epitome of legal support staff competence. Having steadily worked her way through the ranks, from secretary for three litigators in an insurance defense practice to senior paralegal in the IP department of a 150-year-old firm, she’s done it all. She also has a razor-sharp intellect and a brutally honest world view.

Common Management Challenges—and Remedies

We interviewed Millie while researching management issues in the legal profession, and as we began correlating data and analyzing the lack of skills training in firms, it became obvious that she had provided a steady stream of quotes that perfectly describe a range of management pains and their impact on lawyer-staff relationships. So here, introduced through Millie’s wit and wisdom, is a look at three of the common challenges accompanied by a few strategies to remedy these pains.

1. Lack of Management Skills in Young Lawyers

THE CHALLENGE: “It’s not in my best interests to train young lawyers. Every time some arrogant kid tells me to do something, I have a choice. I can take the time to train her to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ or I can use that time to go the extra mile for the managing partner. Guess who wins.”

Millie’s comment perfectly illuminates what happens when management doesn’t take the time to start young lawyers off on the right foot in managing their support staff. Absent the skills needed to create positive lawyer-staff relationships, both sides suffer from miscommunications, unnecessary frustrations and stress. Unfortunately, very few firms invest in training new associates how to develop a good foundation of management skills—and, thereby, they inadvertently support poor management, miscommunication and contentious “territory staking.”

THE STRATEGY: Wouldn’t it be great if every new lawyer had taken a course in “Managing Your Secretary 101” and could co-create powerful partnerships with staff from the start? Until that day comes, and while not a substitute for formal management training, these two strategies can help both parties manage their relationship more effectively:

  • At the start of the relationship, have each party share their most important pet peeve. For example, Millie hates when others don’t say “please” and “thank you,” and the lack of these common courtesies pushes her into passive-aggressive behavior. An attorney’s pet peeve might be when an assistant hovers in the doorway to ask questions while the attorney is on the phone. By uncovering such hot buttons early on, both parties can avoid triggering each others’ shadow behaviors.
  • Schedule regular, formalized times for ongoing check-ins to review what’s working and what’s not. It is often effective to ask what someone wants “more of” and “less of” to avoid triggering personality differences and hurt feelings. Continuous feedback is the key to any great business relationship.

 2. No Strategy for Dealing with Poorly Performing Staff

THE CHALLENGE: “I can handle the arrogance and awkwardness of lawyers. It’s the cluelessness of staff that puts me over the edge. I once worked with a secretary with tons of seniority whose tech skills were so out-of-date that it seriously gummed up the works. It was easier to just do it myself. As a paralegal, I didn’t have the authority to criticize much less fire her. We had 25 tough-as-nails attorneys in the firm and nobody had the stomach for it.”

Millie’s quote addresses a prevalent pattern in many firms. Lawyers can be great at negotiating complex deals and destroying opponents in court but, ironically, they avoid conflict when it comes to dealing with underperforming or nonperforming staff persons within their own firms out of a fear of being perceived as mean.

While it may be tempting to analyze the psychological reasons for this phenomenon, let’s address the more important management pain. Most firms have ineffective performance management systems, so often they are trapped in lumbering end-of-the-year evaluation inefficiencies that over-focus on reaching mandatory billables or overrely on managers’ abilities to effectively evaluate employees.

THE STRATEGY: When firms have, and use, effective performance management systems, taking tough measures with nonperformers, people with poor attitudes and toxic individuals is simply a matter of process. These two strategies can help firms better assess performance so they can retain the star performers and trim the deadweight:

  • Develop well-thought-out competencies for each position within the firm and tie each one to the strategic plan. Avoid simply listing generic skills and characteristics such as “team-centered” or “effective communicator.” Really consider what specific competencies are needed to do the job in the most effective, efficient and productive manner. In the case of the senior secretary that Millie cited, a clear competency needed by someone in that position may have been: “Tech-savviness: Consistently uses technology to efficiently resolve day-to-day issues, enhance interdepartmental communications, and provide clients with exceptional service.”
  • Conduct a performance audit of your staff using what’s called a nine-box grid or matrix system, wherein people in similar positions are rated on a high-low performance plus a high-low potential axis. (See the graph.) Proceed to place your people within the grid based on your performance audit. For example, you would place a top performer with a high potential in the top-right corner of your graph. Low performers with medium potential would fall in the bottom center, and so on. This will give you a graphical view of your people’s current and potential performance. From there you can suggest individual areas for development for people with potential and determine an exit strategy for those falling in a low-performance low-potential box.

3. Poor Delegation and Time Management

THE CHALLENGE: “I get that crises happen. I’m okay with going all out in an emergency. But when I lose a weekend because some attorney gave the client the ‘drop deadline’ instead of adding a day or two for my work, it makes me want to quit. When it happens every single weekend, it makes me want to hurt somebody.” At first blush, this sounds like an everyday problem between lawyers and staff, and many things could be at the root of it. Perhaps the lawyer has lost control of the client and is afraid to enforce deadlines, or maybe the lawyer just doesn’t get the deadline concept. Often, too, staff members are hesitant to communicate the problem to the boss—there is, after all, a culture in law firms whereby status is conferred on those who work the craziest hours. (Nothing quite says “bonus” like running into a name partner in the office at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning.)

Whatever the root cause, the bottom line is that lack of effective delegation and time management frequently causes miscues, which can create much deeper problems if left unaddressed. An effective delegation system requires some specific, agree-on definitions. For example, what is the difference between a deadline, a drop deadline and a check-in date? These definitions need clarified so that both parties can manage their time more effectively. Another important aspect of effective delegation and time management is setting aside time to prioritize, and reprioritize, tasks and projects on a regular basis. Without prioritizing, too many tasks tend to move into the “urgent” category, leaving little to no time for organizing, planning and strategizing about other things that need to get done—and it can produce such a negative ripple effect that you end up losing star staff members.

THE STRATEGY: These two strategies can move a dysfunctional team from being in constant crisis mode to being a well-oiled machine:

  • Identify the top two common challenges that consistently prevent the team from working in sync. They could include frequent miscommunications about deadlines and document filings, disruptive interruptions during crunch times or the like. Conduct a mini-analysis of the root causes by asking probing questions about when these scenarios usually appear and what may be causing them. Once causes are identified, create a list of nonnegotiable expectations about what you will each do in those situations to avoid falling back into old patterns. For example: “We will set deadlines, drop deadlines and check-in dates for all client matters and regularly confer on the progress on our respective to-dos.”
  • Use a priority coding system when allocating to-do tasks. Use a 1 for things that need to be done today, a 2 for tasks needing to be completed within the week, a 3 for things to be completed this quarter, and a 4 for longer-term projects. Share the codes daily to produce a visual overview of what needs to be done when and by whom.
Admittedly, these strategies are not comprehensive solutions to what are often complex problems in law firms. Instead, they are meant as initial action steps so you can begin overcoming some of the more common management pains experienced by law firm staff. And ideally, they will spark additional ideas for creative problem solving to help you more effectively manage the relationships in your firm.

About the Authors

Jessika M. Ferm is the President of J.Ferm, LLC, an international leadership development firm and developer of the “No Frills No Fluff Management Skills Program: Lawyer’s Edition.” Petersen Thomas is a litigator with Lynch, Cox, Gilman & Goodman.