Dealing with Personnel Issues (An Excerpt from “Lessons in Leadership: Essential Skills for Lawyers”)

Excerpted and adapted from Lessons in Leadership: Essential Skills for Lawyers by Thomas C. Grella, published by the ABA Law Practice Management Section.

We are a society of structures and hierarchies. Many of these struc­tures and hierarchies have served society well; others are blamed for injustices, challenges, and problems suffered over many centuries. It is human nature for some people to seek to be in charge, while others remain subservient. Many of the achievements that we enjoy today are a result of this type of organizational management struc­ture, which is generally thought of as the system that got us through the Industrial Revolution more than a hundred years ago.

The structure of decision making and control of law firms through­out the country is not uniform, but it is almost without exception a variation of the typical top-down structure. While a typical pyramid structure is beginning to catch on in some larger firms, in almost all smaller and midsize firms owners (shareholders or partners) are in charge of decision making, and all others are below them in the hier­archy. As a result all ultimate control is in the hands of a few. Compensation systems typically do not encourage or reward those who direct (or in effect control) others. Moreover, law firms rarely take the time and effort necessary to assure that those working for the owners are properly trained, compensated, or appreciated.

Given these types of systems and structures, it is understandable that nonpartners express dissatisfaction with their work, especially when it involves receiving and satisfying partners’ demands. Law firms may fool themselves with internal team-oriented programs that have been successful in other business organizations. But those programs are a waste of time and effort in a law firm because firm leadership does not hold partners and managers accountable for the way they treat others.

In one law firm, a highly productive paralegal went privately and individually to several members whom she recognized as having authority in the firm: from director to firm administrator to firm billing partner to managing partner. For quite a while she had been overworked and had not received support from others in her prac­tice group. Though she was the most dedicated person in the group, she rarely received appropriate direction and then was belittled by partners when she could not service all of the work she received in the time the partners desired. The real problem was that members of the practice group had not organized as a team. This one parale­gal worked for six partners, but no partner, not even the chair of the practice group, was willing to take the time to implement controls and stand up to other partners to reduce the burden on this dedi­cated assistant. When the paralegal came to those in management, she described the pressures and her feelings. Her main message was that she needed help to get her work done. Although she mentioned her belief that she was undercompensated, this did not seem to be the main point. The work volume and emotional strain was affect­ing her health, and she did not know how much longer she could deal with the stress. In the overall message of this paralegal was a simple statement, a clue about the root of her dissatisfaction: “It would be nice if someone would simply say thank you from time to time. No one shows any appreciation for the sacrifices I have been willing to make for the firm.”

Leadership Thought and Application

Leadership requires thinking outside of the typical box that law firm organizational structures put us in. Many lawyers have strug­gled to maintain the status quo, a comfortable hierarchy that they believe has served them well, but those who work for demanding and authoritative lawyers need something different. They see change throughout society and are willing to walk away from an intolerable work setting. It is critical for leaders to begin to change their firms so that people who work for partners feel comfortable and appreci­ated. Although staff do not have law degrees, they need to know that their membership on the team is very important, even though it is different from the role of a lawyer in charge. Making the neces­sary changes will take time and effort, and most likely it is not possible to make all of the necessary systemic modifications at once. The following considerations can help make your law firm an accepting, uplifting, and supportive organization. The extent of your success will have a direct effect on the number of personnel issues you have and your ability to adequately address them as they arise.

Foster a team environment. It is a leader’s task to try to change the mind-set of those in the firm from a hierarchy to a team. Lately the concept of a “team” has gained momentum in law firms, though mostly for substantive work. Many law firms are setting up client teams instead of relying solely on an established practice group system that seems unable to adequately address all of a client’s legal needs. This recent trend is based on the belief that one practice group cannot provide organizational clients with comprehensive client service. This same idea applies to those who work for the law firm. Established hierarchies in the firm might have some benefits; however, they are not suited to a changing society that stresses worker empowerment. Leaders must be willing to adapt, but after focusing on their own and others’ productivity for so many years, it may be easier to talk about becoming adaptable than to become adaptable. As you lead your lawyers and staff to a team concept, consider the following:

1. Focus on the firm’s mission. Lawyers tend to focus on themselves: their own hours, their own billing, their own collections. A leader is more likely to be successful in changing this individual focus of firm members by stressing to them that they focus on how their positive efforts con­tribute to the firm’s overall well-being. However, to convince others to change their focus, the leader must truly desire firm-mindedness.

2. Overcommunicate the team concept. At every possible opportunity, remind your team of the firm’s team focus and do so sincerely. Firm management and leaders show support of the team focus through their actions. Words alone are not enough. Obviously, this is much easier said than done. Team concepts must, in effect, trickle down from the top.

3. Institute collaborative systems. Law firms are generally not collaborative organizations but instead tend to be orga­nizations of small cliques. Practice groups may try to appear collaborative, but compensation systems generally work against cooperation and teamwork. Law firm leaders need to consider how to change firm operations so that collabora­tion is encouraged. Changes might involve reorganization of work space and relocation, more activities that involve all firm members working on team building (perhaps subtly), or meetings of practice group leaders that focus on internal alliances. The actual means of fostering teamwork in each firm may vary, but teamwork must be a focus.

Address issues of bullying and abuse. Because of traditional governance hierarchies and methods of compensation, law firms are in danger of unnoticed and often unresolved bullying and abuse by firm owners. No one can foster a team environment in a law firm if there is unresolved bullying or abuse. This inappropriate conduct usually arises in the form of a lawyer who oppresses or mistreats a staff member (or several staff members) who supports that lawyer’s work. The abuse may take different forms: yelling, ridicule in front of others, inappropriate touching, and other types of improper conduct. Addressing the potential legal liability of such conduct is beyond the scope of this book, but that must always be a consider­ation when addressing a bully. As a leader of the firm, however, it is imperative that you take action to address bullying as soon as it arises if you truly desire an uplifting and supportive environment. Failure to do so sends the message that bullying is acceptable and that the firm’s true values are not necessarily the platitudes set forth in the well-crafted mission and values statements. Depending upon the nature of the improper conduct, a leader may address it privately with the offender and hold the offender accountable. However, depending upon the gravity of the conduct (or perhaps how long the conduct continued unaddressed), a leader might also consider the following general plan of action to address allegations of improper abuse or bullying:

First, bring the conduct to the attention of the full governing body of the firm so it can consider what steps might be taken to investigate the allegations.

Second, after confirmation of the allegations, firm leaders should resolve to conduct an intervention meeting with the bully.

Third, leaders should prepare talking points for the intervention, with specific action items. I recommend the plan include the following:

  • Choose an appropriate spokesperson to conduct the meeting, though all management should be present. Because the person being confronted might have a hierarchy view of life, the spokesperson needs to be that person within firm gover­nance who has the greatest respect of the bully.
  • Prepare a statement of the reason for the meeting and its purpose or the goal to be gained through it. This will assure that the bully being confronted understands that behavior must be changed.
  • A general statement of the offending conduct is sufficient. Avoid the natural tendency to replay specific instances of mis­conduct, but be clear that you have investigated allegations.
    • After stating the charges, express the belief that management values the offending member and that the purpose of the meeting is to plan remediation. The process goal of rehabili­tation needs to be made clear. Leaders should also, in no uncertain terms, state with specificity the ultimate conse­quence of repeated misconduct or failure to complete a required remediation plan.
    • Wrap up the meeting with a very specific plan of action. That plan may require treatment or coaching, and it should assign a trusted advisor from management to monitor rehabilita­tion efforts. Accountability through periodic reporting back to management by the bully and the advisor should be clearly spelled out.

Say thank you. Hierarchy systems do not foster sincere expres­sions of gratitude by those on the top to those perceived to be underneath. Unless leaders can adequately express gratitude, foster­ing a team environment that allows law firm staff to feel safe and secure in their membership will likely be very difficult. Leaders may assume that adequate compensation or a raise in pay constitutes expression enough. Generally, however, compensation is what brings people in the door. It may even keep them there in difficult economic times, but it does not instill a sense of togetherness and satisfaction that leads to initiative, innovation, and organizational success.

Expressing gratitude is not just saying the simple phrase thank you (which for some is not so simple). Public statements of gratitude, nonmonetary gifts, small periods of time off, and other such expres­sions can tell team members that they are needed and appreciated.

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