Cheryl’s published article featured in Law Practice Advisor
This is Part One of two articles. To find out more, read Part Two.
Letting someone go whom you like, who has been with you a while, and whose personal life will be affected is the hardest decision a lawyer has to make. It usually comes after many discussions that created a short-term improvement but no long-term change.
Behind the stress is the fact that the lawyer genuinely likes the person. The lawyer feels responsible for the person, and believes that he or she has created the problem. While understandable, what has actually created the problem is the law office work environment. If the lawyer does not correct the underlying problem, the next employee hired will have the exact same issues.
Small firms are not like big firms when it comes to HR management. A big firm has an HR person who handles the issues. In a small firm the lawyer is the head of HR. There is no barrier between the lawyer and the employee, and it makes the work performance issue personal. Because the firm is small, personal relationships develop that control the work situation.
Teaching moment: If your employee comes in on Monday and you ask how the weekend went and they tell you in detail — that is too personal!
An unhealthy work relationship starts when a lawyer (let’s call her Beth) shares a great deal of responsibility with the employee (let’s call him John). She assumes if she is caring and interested in John’s life outside the firm, John will work harder to please her. Beth doesn’t like to set boundaries and as a result there is no accountability.
John quickly learns that by expressing interest in Beth’s day, bringing her coffee or bucking her up when she is tense counts more than a well drafted-complaint or correctly-filed paperwork. This is not a professional work environment — this is living in a comfort zone.
John’s work performance is not the problem. The problem is the work culture. There are no clear expectations, and no clear, defined boundaries. Most importantly there is no accountability.
A high-performance work culture has four elements:
Firm owners share the same vision and values.
They are self-governing.
They are problem solvers.
Most importantly, they are client-focused leaders.
From the file clerk to the associate to the law firm owner, each knows what is required. Principles are what guide the work.
If the delivery of quality work product means error-free work, then this means error-free work. John must know that sloppy, haphazard work is no longer acceptable. Beth must learn how to be a leader and manager of her employees. She must learn how to hold John accountable for his work and his actions.
The right seat on the bus
Changing a work environment requires commitment. Positions should be defined in writing with deliverables spelled out. Guiding principles must be clearly defined. Every effort should be made to ensure that everyone is in the right seat on the bus.
Feedback is crucial. Documented meetings should be held between Beth and John as they work out the issues. Beth should be honest with what she requires and John must be honest with what he needs to meet those expectations. There must be an understanding that if the working relationship doesn’t succeed, then John can’t hold the position any longer. Personal issues must remain out of the discussion to create a professional relationship.
Everyone wants to win the game and when both parties understand the expectations, the boundaries and the accountability, it is easy to win.
Good law firms are profitable. I always ask lawyers: What part of “for profit” don’t you understand? When you have a mediocre work environment with less-than-acceptable work product, it affects the bottom line. When you make decisions in the best interests of the firm, you prosper.
Copyright 2014 Cheryl J. Leone. Reprint rights retained by Catalyst Group, Inc.
About the Authors
Principals Dave Favor and Cheryl Leone are the founders of Catalyst Group, Inc. with its corporate offices in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rounding out the Coaches is Attorney Carl Solomon of Columbia, South Carolina. They share a common value and belief system that everyone deserves a chance to work for themselves and do it in such a way that it is profitable, enjoyable and respected by others. For more information email our Head Coach.
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