Best Practices for Managing People

Volume 37 Number 6


Marcia Pennington Shannon ( is a principal in the lawyer development consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP. She is Managing Editor of The Lawyer’s Career Management Handbook (West, 2010).

As we approach the end of 2011, it’s a good time to think about new ideas and improvements to old ones that enhance your firm’s “managing people” strategies.

Below you’ll find my five top Best Practices tips. While all of these may not fit for your firm’s particular circumstances, select those that will, and consider ways in which you can implement or improve upon these in 2012. 

1. Demand a respectful workplace
Every individual, no matter his or her position in the organization, deserves to work in a healthy environment where everyone is treated with respect. Yes, these are stressful times, but allowing some individuals to take out their frustrations on others is not appropriate. Frankly, your firm or organization is at risk if bullying in the workplace is tolerated. The following behaviors were listed as commonly occurring “bullying” behaviors in the “Workplace Bullying Institute’s Report on Abusive Workplaces”:

  • Blaming others for errors
  • Raising false concerns about or criticizing the work of others
  • Making unreasonable demands
  • Yelling and screaming threats of job loss, insult or putdowns
  • Inconsistent enforcement of arbitrary rules
  • Social exclusion
  • Stealing credit for another’s work

Make your workplace a “no bully” environment. In other words, bad behavior should not be tolerated, no matter how much rain an individual makes. Perhaps it’s an old-fashioned idea, but bring back civility. It reduces stress, creates a positive environment, increases productivity and supports firm loyalty.

2. Cut down on multi-tasking
We’ve become addicted to our iPhones, Blackberries, Xooms—you name it. Many current studies show that we are overwhelming our brains with too much multi-tasking, resulting in short-term memory loss, inability to comprehend things quickly, inability to concentrate, significant loss of efficiency, and high stress levels that can, in turn, cause physiological problems. In addition, this focus on our gadgets is causing a negative impact on personal relationships.

Suggest to the attorneys and staff in your organization that they turn off their email alert sounds while concentrating on substantive work. For positive impact on professional and personal relationships, whether conducting an in-person or phone conversation, stop looking at your email messages and direct your attention on what’s being said to you. You’ll be surprised how listening improves communication! And take time to turn yourself off—we have little downtime—and take it as an opportunity to refresh, rejuvenate, recharge and reconnect with colleagues, family and friends. Get away from the gadgets from time to time and just focus on yourself and those around you. You’ll live a happier life and be more satisfied with your career.

3. Professional development is a must
Firms that want to survive and compete in the current economy must have a focus on professional development for their attorneys. It is easy to look at training as a cost center rather than as an opportunity to add to the firm’s profitability, but that would be terribly shortsighted. No matter the size of your firm, a well-thought-out development program will allow your professionals to more expeditiously achieve efficiency—a must in this day of client demand for lower costs yet value add results. Many firms are looking at the competency model as the basis for recruiting, training, mentoring, evaluating and developing their attorneys. One successful approach is using a competency model in which your firm identifies specific skills and knowledge needed by associates to advance through three or four levels. Take time to pinpoint the success factors for your attorneys in each practice area, and at each level. A professional development program tailored to these criteria will provide an organized and effective approach that builds on itself at each level.

4. Partner development—the New Frontier
This is an area often forgotten, but which should be a real focus in challenging times. New partners must be able to supervise others, originate new clients, take personal responsibility for their individual practices, become leaders of the firm itself, have well-honed time and stress management skills, and be able to create and maintain a vision for the future. While associates are often provided training in substantive work areas, most partners are without guidance in developing the important practice management and leadership skills.

Consider creating a new partner program in which individuals are given a partner-mentor, appropriate training, and coaching over a six-month to one-year period. Training might include business development, client relations, project management and supervisory skills. Coaching would be provided to help individuals set priorities, focus on soft skill development such as time management and client development, as well as receiving suggestions on improving their approach to new demands.

5. Transition with dignity
Attorney transitions are a routine part of the law firm environment. There are those who leave on their own for new opportunities. Others leave because the fit between their skills and experience are not a good match with the needs of the firm. Many senior attorneys leave their firm when they no longer want to deal with the pressures of full-time law practice or are ready to start a new chapter in their careers. Transitioning of lawyers from a law firm is one of those areas that most firms handle very poorly. There are certainly firms who hire individuals expecting that those hired will eventually make it to partnership, but this is not the norm. Many lawyers, especially in the early years of their careers, change jobs every two to three years. It is also no longer unusual for lawyers who have been with a firm for a longer period to leave. Many firms still have the “up or out” rule. And as we are all aware, there is not too much room at the top, especially in larger firms. The “up or out” mentality means that there will be good attorneys who are asked to leave.

In any of these scenarios, maintaining a good relationship with your “alumni” should be planned for. Firm alumni may move in-house to a current client or with a company that later becomes a client. Other firm alums may move to government jobs. All may become referral sources for you, even if they move to another firm. Treating your attorneys well while in your employ, and continuing to treat them respectfully through the process of transitioning away, results in fruitful long-term relationships. It also maintains good morale, as others in your employ watch how you handle these situations.

These five best practices should give you some food for thought as you consider your Firm’s goals for the upcoming year. Managing others is both an art and a science, which is not always easy, so take the time to hone these skills and implement new strategies—it will pay off.



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