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Managing Your Relationships with Your Staff: Pointers for Getting It Right

February 2010
How can you make sure that your staff are invested in the firmís goals and motivated to perform to their very best abilities? Follow this checklist.

Managing your relationships with your staff is a lot different from just managing your staff. You can manage your staff by scheduling who works where and when doing what. The relationships part, however, is trickier—and it has a direct impact on how effectively you ensure that your law practice operations are efficient and ultimately successful.

First, it’s important to recognize that how we perceive a person or situation influences how we interact. You may need to change how you perceive your staff to better manage your relationships with them.You may have had bad experiences with staff in the past, or just before spotting this article. Don’t think you can do it better? Think again! By the time you finish reading this article, I guarantee you will pick up a pointer or two and gain a better sense of how to do it right. Starting now.

Your Staff Relationships Checklist

Do you have a shared vision? Do you have a mission statement for your firm? How does your staff figure into this mission statement? What is your vision of your firm? Do you share it with your staff? Do you live it? Do you invest your staff in it? Don’t just frame your mission statement in the reception area. Make it the focus of your team meetings. Share stories that illustrate how your firm is living its mission statement: This is who we are. A good leader inspires goal achievement. Or as George Burns said: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Get your good better and your better best.”

Is working for your firm a career or a job? Becoming a lawyer involves great expenses: time, effort, tuition. Don’t overlook that your staff feels that they too invested great expenses of time, effort and tuition to become a paralegal or legal secretary. Can you look at your firm from your staff’s perspective? Become invested in learning what your staff hopes to accomplish professionally.

What about your staff’s professional development? Do you encourage your staff to participate in professional development? Do you pay for their membership in their paralegal association, legal secretary association or administrative association? Many of these organizations have affiliates at the state level. If you want your staff to develop as professionals, they will be in good company with these organizations that promote professionalism, ethics and education for their members:

Do you see your staff in your firm’s long-term future? You may have made provisions to protect your clients’ interests in the event of your disability or death. What about your staff? Are there any provisions to protect them if something happens to you or to the firm? You might want to talk with your insurance agent about a continuation of business policy to insure against a disaster interrupting business. You might even get a modest term insurance policy like one solo practitioner did to protect his loyal long-term paralegal, who had followed him from a stable large firm to his new solo practice. They have worked well together as a team and envisioned that they will both retire at the same time. But should something happen to him, the firm would close and she would be out of a job at a time when she would not like to be looking for another job. The insurance policy would allow her to have a cushion for a life transition and retirement base.

Do you know your staff’s strengths and work toward them? Many organizational coaches advocate the use of the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment to determine your personality type. Based on Jungian principles, this assessment measures personality traits to arrive at 16 different personality type combinations of four qualities, indicating:

  • How individuals focus their attention or get their energy
  • How individuals perceive or take in information
  • How individuals prefer to make decisions
  • How individuals orient themselves to the external world

If you are interested in the official MBTI Assessment, you can take it online for a fee at the Center for Applications of Psychological Type (CAPT) www.capt.org. There are other places online that offer pared-down versions of the test, such as www.personalitypathways.com or www.humanmetrics.com. You may discover that job descriptions should be modified to better suit your staff.

Do you allow your staff to practice time management, too? Time management coaches encourage us to capitalize on our productive periods and energy flow. Some people get more done an hour before the workday starts while others hit their stride at 4 p.m. By practicing good time management yourself, you will be better organized so that your staff can plan projects and tasks for the times best suited to accomplish them. Do you block out your most important work time on your calendar to enable you to give a project the focus and attention it requires? Give this gift of time to your staff as well. Productivity will soar and you’ll find the whole team is working with greater effectiveness and efficiency.

Are you approachable and available? When things are tough or not going well, can staff talk to you? Do you keep open lines of communication? Do you plan times when you are available for staff to come with questions or concerns? There are letters to be signed, phone messages to be relayed, documents to be reviewed. Carve out a time when you can be available. If you find yourself becoming overly stressed and hiding from staff behind a closed door or ducking questions by always being on the way to an important appointment, contact your state bar association’s lawyer’s assistance program for some extra support. Law offices are stressful places for clients, lawyers and staff.

Have you become a master delegator? Delegate according to your staff’s strengths. When delegating, give clear directions—including what your expectations are for the finished product, the interim and final deadlines, and the budgeted time allotment. Otherwise, unless the staff is able to get right to it, details can be forgotten by the time the project is begun. If you are prone to being a perfectionist and controlling, you likely have a difficult time delegating. It is a critical skill for you to master. Nothing saps morale more than being given menial tasks or being micromanaged. Don’t dissipate energy trying to do it all yourself. Instead, delegate tasks to the lowest-cost competent person. Otherwise, you are charging your client too much. Leverage your staff.

Do you give constructive feedback? Fine-tune your team. Don’t let a bad attitude become contagious. If you are uncomfortable with work performance, attitudes or relationships, address problems in a timely fashion. Respect the dignity of your staff. If you are unhappy with how something has been done, you need to let your staff know in a respectful manner. Do not criticize or correct staff in public. Praise publicly, correct privately. Don’t make it personal. Don’t be overly soft and apologize for bringing poor performance to your staff’s attention. If you don’t address the negative factors, you will find yourself growing resentful. Don’t hold a grudge. Don’t be a catastrophist. Keep your perspective.

Do you have clear boundaries with your staff? They are not there to be your sounding board for political struggles with other lawyers in the firm. They should not be burdened with tales of woe about your errant spouse or truant teenager. It is not your business whether or not they went out on Saturday night. Although lawyers are aware of harassment claims, some continue to be inappropriate with staff. The attorney is in a position of power over staff. Staff in turn can be uncomfortable with off-color humor or jokes even if they appear to laugh along with you. Suits against employers have increased during the recession. It is a costly mistake that is eminently avoidable.

What Really Motivates People

Remember, it’s not about the money. In the final analysis of why we love our jobs, compensation usually has little to do with it. Honestly, some of our best jobs have barely nudged our net worth. Instead we like the challenge, the opportunity to be creative, or the sense of making a difference in our corner of the world; that’s what motivates us. Joseph Campbell inspired his readers to “follow their bliss.” Bliss comes from living congruently with our personal values, motivations and vision. Your staff isn’t any different. Likely, they aren’t just showing up for the money. Find out what motivates them. Consider that doing work that is fulfilling—meeting our needs, matching our abilities, providing opportunities for our growth—makes it easier to have a positive attitude during stressful periods.

Now, if you do not pick up a pointer or two or gain a better sense for how to do it right, e-mail me and I will respond to your concerns personally!

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About the Author

Sheila M. Blackford is an attorney and practice management advisor for the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund. She is a member of the Law Practice Magazine Editorial Board.

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