Lawanna Voci is a seasoned business strategist and leader with a passion for helping businesses succeed. With almost three decades of experience in legal environments, Lawanna possesses a deep understanding of the unique challenges faced by law firms and businesses of all sizes. Her journey in the corporate world and law firm space, combined with her entrepreneurial spirit, inspired her to establish Peak Elevation. Come listen to her advice and enjoy all of the nuggets of wisdom that she shared with me on this week’s episode of the podcast.
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Meg Garavaglia: Lawanna, thank you so much for joining us here today on the How and the Wow. Lawanna Voci is our guest today and Lawanna I’d love for you to share a little bit about your background. Thanks for being here too.
Lawanna Voci: Of course, thank you so much for inviting me. I really appreciate it. So I have a long background.
I’ve been doing Work in the legal field for over 30 years and it started in a financial services industry in their legal department Then it moved to an am law 200 law firm as their law firm administrator And then it moved into a cfo position for a small law firm So for me, it’s always been about building up my leadership credentials making sure that I’m the kind of leader that engages and motivates, and I’ve taken some of that into what I do now, which is a new company that helps law firms, right?
And it helps them find the best efficiencies or the best workflows, hiring the right people. And I think a lot of times, you know, if we’re not in that space. It’s always a little bit more difficult to know what to apply to be successful in that and how there’s this like tendril effect that everything is affected by something else.
So I’ve taken all of those years of experience, which it hurts my soul, by the way, to say I have that many years of experience because I’m not even that old.
Meg Garavaglia: Definitely think that you are not that old, but yet you have a great deal of experience. How about that?
Lawanna Voci: Yes. I started when I was 12.
Meg Garavaglia: I understand completely.
Very good. And so you just started Peak Elevation.. Can you talk a little bit about how that kind of came to be and how long you’ve had Peak Elevation. Up and running?
Lawanna Voci: Absolutely. I’m very excited to talk about that. So the last law firm where I worked, I was hired to help them rebuild their infrastructure, and it was in anticipation of growth.
And so we did all kinds of fixie things, right? We fixed the culture. We fixed the staffing. We fixed some of the infrastructure in terms of software and in terms of protocols and workflows and automations. And when I accomplished that, So yeah. I took a seat back and I thought, do I want to do the maintenance?
And I thought I really liked just going in and fixing something, right. Taking a lot of years of experience. Giving that to an organization to help them meet their strategic goals, whether it’s growth, whether it’s better profits, whether it’s better staffing, whether it’s better culture. What if I just did that, right?
And then I jump in, fix it, jump out and leave on the little cape that says like super COO. And so that was kind of the inspiration for it was being able to help smaller firms be able to do that. And I started doing this at the very end of July. And I’m new, brand new as an entrepreneur. And so I’ve learned a lot about that.
I’ve learned a lot about how to pivot. It’s been a really great experience. You know, I love going into a firm and having conversations and saying, I can fix that for you. We can make this better, you know? And, and I think that it, it bleeds to everybody, right? So if the top level of the firm is improved, everybody underneath that gets the benefit of that.
So I like that piece too.
Meg Garavaglia: And that’s a great observation, actually. I mean, we know what everyone says rolls downhill, but can you kind of elaborate on what that principle is and just how you’ve seen that borne out in your own experience?
Lawanna Voci: All right. So, you know, I’m a very employee centric leader. I think that organizations are successful because of the employees that they have.
I think a lot of times, if I try to sell to the organization, I can fix everything for your employees. They’re like, okay, but why? If I sell to the organization, I can fix your processes, your protocols, your workflows, your automations, I can help you with your billing, I can help you with training, I can make you more profitable, that will fix your culture, your employees will be more engaged, you’ll reduce attrition, that’s going to cost you less money, right, you’re going to have better employees because your recruiting brand is going to be better, that’s going to give you more solid service, so my goal is, Fixing this employee area, but you have to start up here and you have to give it a business reason that trickle down effect is what then creates a better culture for the employer.
It would be great if every single manager or law firm owners that I get why culture is important. Let’s do that. Right. Right. They don’t, you know, they’re looking at it from a business sense and not really realizing the tie in for culture, the tie in for diversity, the tie in for the cost of attrition or the value of retention.
So I give them that dollar amount. I help them understand and fix those things. And at the end of the day, we engage all of the employees, we make them part of that process, right? And so now you have a team that feels included. They feel empowered. They feel like they have a voice. They work harder for their attorneys.
They work harder for their law firms because there’s an ownership piece of it, right? What a great way to work, right? Feeling like what I do every day. I am a huge contributor versus I just come in and I punch a time clock. So for me, the value of fixing this and that trickle down to all of the people that it’s going to impact is extraordinary.
Meg Garavaglia: It is such a joy to be able to put your paddle and row in the same direction. Conversely, I worked for a smaller business quite a number of years ago and we were all rowing together and it was such a joy to be on that team and we were building something really special and dynamic and then the owners of the business. You guys are doing a great job.
This is going to be one heck of a business that we’re going to sell. And I got to tell you, it was like a bucket of cold water. And have you ever seen that or experienced anything like that?
Lawanna Voci: Not on that side of things. I was part of a large financial services institution that acquired other companies.
And so I was on the side that had to make the determination of like, how are you going to fit into our structure? How are you going to fit in? And I think for that company, I was very fortunate because they wanted to try to keep as many people as they could. Right. It wasn’t a matter of just buying the name and disposing of their human resources.
It was using the resources that made them successful. Good. And bringing them into my organization. I think that once you invest that much time and then you have to kind of wash your hands of it, that’s gotta be pretty disappointing and a little bit of a letdown too.
Meg Garavaglia: I think because we all did feel that ownership, it was really difficult.
We were building something that would be sold. And, you know, I had been through other acquisitions in pharma, you know, before I got into the legal industry and layoffs were rampant. So, you know, I think we all anticipated that there was a lot of turnover at that point. I’m sure the individual who was the business owner, after they looked back, thought, “Oh, probably should have said that!” Can you talk about diversity and inclusion. It is such a hot topic. It’s been a hot topic for quite some time. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.
Lawanna Voci: Absolutely. So for me, I think diversity is such an integral part of a business being able to attain the highest level of success, right? I think it for the human reasons, right? Because I think it’s the right thing to do. But again, you have to be able to explain to a business owner the positive business effects, and you have to hope that that realization, and then having the incorporation of diverse talent come into your organization helps build that human part of it too, right?
So I lean into, hopefully this is going to make that change, but from a business perspective, especially if you’re a law firm, right, you’re representing. The diversity in your community. So if you’re just one diversity, you lose the benefit of attracting clients that lean into space where they prefer to have an attorney that understands and represents their interests.
For example, you know, people I’ve heard over the years, and it’s so ridiculous. If you hire someone that has physical limitations, well, I have to make all these accommodations. It’s going to be prohibitively expensive. I can’t do it more often than not. The accommodations are super minor. And yes. You think about what that person who has a physical disability had to overcome to be an equal footing with their peers, right?
The tenacity, the drive, the self motivation. Why wouldn’t you want those characteristics on your team?
Meg Garavaglia: Absolutely.
Lawanna Voci: Right.
Meg Garavaglia: And probably compassion, but also empowerment.
Lawanna Voci: Yes. And loyalty, right? Because, you know, it’s hard sometimes when you’re in that diverse space to get people to realize and recognize all of those attributes.
So when you find an employer that says, yeah, I love that you’re bringing that to the table, there’s this exceptional amount of loyalty that accompanies that as well. What does an employer really value? What should they value? Loyalty, right? So having someone that says, I love the faith that you put in me. I’m going to give you all of those things. I think that’s exceptional. I’m a diverse candidate. If I have a legal issue, certainly want somebody that understands that diversity. And I’ll give you an example. My wife and I have children. She was the birth mom, and at that time, Florida didn’t recognize gay marriage.
And so what does that mean when you have children, right? And I wasn’t going to be able to go to just a run of the mill adoption lawyer because they might not know the ins and outs. And so we were fortunate and we found an attorney that was part of the LGBT community, understood where and how we could get this accomplished – what the limitations were going to be.
We ended up doing it in Miami outside of our jurisdiction. There was, you know, something that was pending. They didn’t think they were going to appeal it, but the judges were like, “We think it’s going to be okay. We’re going to do it.” Where in my jurisdiction. It was kind of meh. But having that diversity as an Attorney for me was of the utmost importance at that time.
So if you look at other diversities in your community, they’re similarly situated. I want to see a face that looks like mine. Someone that understands some of my travails and I want to hire them. So if you’re a law firm with old white guys, and I hate saying that, but right. One type of person.
You’re missing that opportunity. The other thing I think is super important with diversity is innovation. We all bring life experiences to a position with us, right? If you’re part of the military, what do you bring? You bring great structure. You bring great tenacity. You bring this community, this sense of patriotism and connection.
If you’re a physically disabled person, as I mentioned, you’re bringing tenacity, you’re bringing overcoming obstacles. If you are from a different socioeconomic background, you bring those struggles. There’s so many benefits to having a group of people to add to your innovation. And if you’re a law firm that just wants to live in one space, not make any progress, not do anything spectacular, just do what you’ve been doing. You’re not going to do that without diversity. You get into that group think mentality, right? Where nobody changes. I think it’s so important.
Meg Garavaglia: Yes. It’s just one of those things too, when people are challenged and you gotta know that anybody with any kind of disability that you described, they have had challenges that somebody like me potentially would not have had, and like you said, the services they can provide to somebody just like them is huge, I would think.
Lawanna Voci: Sometimes it’s just a matter of creating a safe space. If I have a lawsuit against an employer for not making an accommodation that’s required under law, having that conversation with somebody who understands the actual impact it has on me, it just makes a bigger difference. And as a client base, you’re drawing in people that will come to you because they feel safe with your representation.
Meg Garavaglia: Yes. One of our attorneys, we share a phrase that we like a lot and he always tells the people, the associates that he mentees that he’s not there to answer their questions. He’s there to question their answers and I like that because they are really quite diverse. It’s a great think tank kind of a situation.
Lawanna Voci: What a great concept, right? I’m not telling you you’re wrong. I want you to tell me why you’re right. Making you think out those problems and you’re learning from that.
Meg Garavaglia: What can paralegals do to promote diversity and inclusion within their firms or in their interactions with clients and colleagues?
Lawanna Voci: That’s a great question. I think every layer of a law firm is essential part of creating that inclusivity, right? So it’s one thing to say, we’re going to hire diverse candidates.
It’s a completely different thing to say, “We’re going to make it a safe space for them to work.” And that safe space is inclusion. You don’t want to hire handicapped people and put them in the corner and don’t talk to them. Don’t benefit from the ideas that they bring to the table. Don’t build those structures of professional relationships that strengthen your team.
You’re where the rubber meets the road, right? You’re in there. You’re with the legal assistants. You’re with the office services, the receptions, the attorneys, the clients, the courts. You’ve played such a powerful role and setting the tone for inclusivity. So maybe you’re not making the hiring decisions, but when people are brought in particularly diverse candidates, any candidates, but particularly diverse, you’re creating an atmosphere for them.
Right? And a lot of times the unknown makes us uncomfortable. If somebody has a disability, I don’t want to ask about it. I’m just not going to look at them. I’m not going to talk to it. That’s not creating inclusivity. Most people will answer the question, right? Like if you ask it politely and kindly and respectfully, they’ll say, yeah, this is my disability.
Well, what can I do to help you with it? How do I help you navigate our office space? It feels like that hallway is a little like skinny. Maybe we move your office, right? Making those conversations feel like I want to make this a successful opportunity for you. What can I do to help? Let me introduce you to some of the girls.
We go to lunch every Thursday and we talk about the craziest clients that we’ve had this week. We’d love for you to join. In fact, I know a restaurant that’s really close, so it’ll be easy for us to get you there. It’s just about making someone feel like they’re part of the team and what you’ll get back. It is phenomenal because they’re engaged.
They’re committed. As humans, we need to be part of some circle. Belonging is huge. And in a workplace, you get the opportunity to have such a powerful impact on your peers by how you create that sense of belonging for them. You know, I worked for a firm, and one of the folks that I worked for didn’t really have a whole lot of exposure to gay people.
I was like, “I’m your first one. Good luck.” But the thing is, he would ask questions. He’s like, “Well, what about this? What challenge did you have here?” And I just don’t understand that. And I’m like, “Well, I’ll tell you.” And we were at lunch one day. He’s like, “I feel like I’ve learned so much outside of what I thought I knew.”
So if it’s someone that’s different than you, ask them questions. They want you to understand where they’re coming from and it’s going to make you a better human. It’s going to make you a better paralegal because you’re going to have clients that fit those molds also, right? So if you’re exercising that muscle with the people that are inside your organization, you’re going to do great when your client comes in.
If you have a client that comes in that’s in a wheelchair and maybe has a really obvious physical disability and they’re used to people just kind of staring or turning away or looking embarrassed and you walk up and you shake their hand and you’re like, “Welcome to Law Firm ABC. We’re so glad to have you here.”
You already beat the competition just by stepping outside of that space of being uncomfortable and making them feel welcome and like they belong. I think for paralegals because they touch so many other people, they have such a great impact in that.
Meg Garavaglia: Yeah, and such an amazing balance of attention to detail and people skills, and it’s such a difficult thing to combine successfully, and I think my team would agree that I swing a little bit further on the people skills, less on the details. As far as communication, I was very excited to dig into your experience about this as well. What are the keys to successful communication that you’ve seen between paralegals and attorneys and getting the optimal outcomes?
Lawanna Voci: Communicate. Just do that, right? So many times, my office always tends to be the safe spot, right? Where people can come in, sit in the chair across from me and say, “I just don’t know what to do about this.” And the number of times that I’ve had people come in and sit in the chair and say, “I just don’t understand what he wants from me,” or “I feel like he’s being short with me” or, you know, any number of things.
My first question is, “Have you talked to them about it?” “No I would never.” Like, so how do they know, right?
Meg Garavaglia: And you’re talking about the attorney was saying this?
Lawanna Voci: Yes. I’m saying to the staff. There’s this level sometimes of intimidation that occurs.
Meg Garavaglia: We see that as well. And that’s why we have relationship managers, you know, to facilitate that communication.
Lawanna Voci: I think that you have to understand there’s a hierarchy, but you’re a partnership when you’re working for a lawyer, when you’re working with a legal assistant. I always look at it as like a three legged stool. You’re not any good without all three of those. And for that to be successful, you have to feel comfortable having a conversation.
You have to feel comfortable expressing concerns. And certainly the personality of your attorney, you know, the timing. If your attorney is not a morning person, and right when he walks in, you’re like, “I want to talk to you.” That’s not the best, right? So taking heed of understanding some of their characteristics: When are they most approachable for those conversations? Don’t spring it on them because I think sometimes people panic. Attorneys are litigators. They just start getting ready. So you sit down and say, “Hey, I want to have a talk with you about a couple of things that I think are going to help us better the team. Let me know when you can carve out that time. It’s going to take about 20 minutes.” And then they’re going to get suspicious. “What do you want to talk about?”
“I just want to talk about how we’re doing our discovery. I feel like I have some great ideas on how we can do it better.” And in that conversation, I always encourage people to make their conversations about me, not you, right? Because if I start saying you do this and you do that, I stop listening and start thinking about my rebuttal. So if you’re saying, I’m trying to think of ways that we can make our team more streamlined. And I was thinking that sometimes it feels like if we meet at 9am, You still need your coffee, which is not making progress.
“How about if we meet at 2 because I feel like we would be more productive versus going in and I can’t even work with you right now because I swear you’re just so grumpy in the morning, right?” It’s how you have the conversation, but have it. That’s the thing. Have it. And have it with your peers too, because I have a ton of situations where somebody’s like, “Well, this person did this to me.”
And I said, “Well, did you tell her how it made you feel?” I don’t like conflict. I’m like, “It’s not conflict. It’s communication.” Just having a conversation. Have the conversation.
Meg Garavaglia: Yes, I love that. And we so agree. In fact, we get and we do it every day. So it is a service that’s part of what we do. But they will say, “Hey, I want to switch to another contractor.”
They don’t want to have that conversation. So we have it. How did it work in some of the law firms that you worked in when difficult conversations took place? How did you coach people to approach those?
Lawanna Voci: I try to encourage the act of communication. I also try to be realistic about the outcome.
It’s a spectrum of outcomes. Some outcomes are going to be like, “I really appreciate you bringing that to my attention. I really want to make our team stronger. Thanks.” Right? Most attorneys want someone, especially a good paralegal, that they feel like they’re in partnership with. That partnership has to include communication.
But it has to be a two way street, right? So, you’re upset with your attorney and then he comes back and is like, “Well, I’m grumpy because you do this.” Right? He can’t just walk away like, “Well, it was no good.” It’s a relationship. Talk to them like you would talk to your best friend, right? You are comfortable having a conversation and sharing something. Maybe the tone and the words and you know, you’re not going to do it. But you’re still going to communicate because it’s important to you. It’s a relationship.
It’s about fit. And you know, I’m not going to be the perfect personality for everybody.
Everybody’s not going to be the perfect personality for me. That’s okay. If you are finding yourself in a place where you’re not going to be able to move that needle in terms of communication, in terms of engagement, in terms of building that relationship and making both sides participate in that effort. You do have to contemplate, is it better to move into a different contracting position? But I always say you can’t always just walk away from things in life, right? Practice. Practice the conversation. And, you know, I have found myself in situations where I was disappointed with the end result, I like to learn from things.
What could I have done differently? Should I not have punched him in the nose? Maybe that was too much. I try to refine it. You know, I’ve had people that will say, “You’re so good at that. How are you so good?” I’m like, “Oh, cause I messed it up a bunch of times.”
Meg Garavaglia: I completely agree. My kids say that all the time. I could never say that. And I encourage people, don’t quit before the miracle happens. When you get to working with somebody that is just such a good fit, don’t quit before the miracle, you know. Say the things that need to be said
Lawanna Voci: Yes! And learn from the mistakes because if anybody in your life, that’s a mentor, that’s really good, they’re good because they’ve made mistakes and they learn from them, right?
Meg Garavaglia: Great line! They’re good. And they’re great mentor because they’ve made mistakes and learned. I love that. And my mentor says, “I spot it because I got it.” And I love that. You know, it really creates an environment where I feel like I can share the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Lawanna Voci: At the beginning of your relationship is ideal, but as you work your way through the tenure with that person, what are your expectations? If we are having some challenges, meeting deadlines together, what’s your expectation of me? What can I expect from you? Right? I’m upset about something. How do you want to address that? Do you want to email? I hate emails because we can’t really talk it out. But if you got to think about it, you got to let it marinate and then it’s more productive. But I think when you have those conversations on the front end, also, you set expectations as well. I think it’s easier for you to navigate it when it pops up.
Remember how you told me that if I was having a problem with the deadline I could do this? I’m ringing that bell right now. I’m sending that email or I’m calling that meeting or whatever. And it also helps them know what to expect from you as well, right? Because they’re, you know, mostly here too.
Meg Garavaglia: It’s like a flag on the play. And I’m impressed with myself that I just used a sports analogy. I know. Zero. I mean, despite having two boys and a husband. That’s ESPN all the time, I’ve seen the flag on the play. So yeah, I love that. It’s kind of like a marker to say, “Hey, something’s up. We need to talk it through.”
Lawanna Voci: Their success and the client’s success depends on your contributions to it, right? So they want to know, are they the impediment? How do you guys figure that out? It’s just. Learning a little bit of emotional intelligence and how you approach that particular attorney, but definitely you have conversations. Even if it’s not great, you did it, right?
Meg Garavaglia: Exercise the muscle. And I feel like I get stronger and can keep my eye on the goal. Sometimes I’ll even say,” Listen, our emotions are really high right now. Let’s take a break and revisit this in an hour or 20 minutes or whatever,” because it allows me to cry uncle and save face, you know?
Lawanna Voci: I had an attorney do that. We were in a training and people just kind of kept bombarding him. He’s like, “I’m going to be honest with you. I feel a little attacked right now. I think we’re just going to take a break. I want this to be productive. We’ll regroup, but I don’t feel like I’m going to give you my best feedback right now.”
It’s both ways and I think that we’re humans and we can get emotional. And when we do that, we do lose sight of what it is we’re trying to accomplish. And I love that you have that self awareness to say, “I got to take a minute away.” Because I want to be productive with you and I can’t be right now”, you know, I’ll say it to my kids. I’m like, “So mama just needs to go away for a minute.” Because it’s the same thing, right? I don’t want to yell at my children. I don’t want to yell at a peer or a boss or something, that’s going to have a very adverse impact on the future of our relationship because I just got emotional about a moment and events.
Meg Garavaglia: Right. I love that self awareness. My mom, I’m the last of six kids, and she had great kid rearing advice. She would say, “don’t discipline when you’re angry, because then you’re both angry, and then you run the risk of just getting revenge going”, you know, and when my son peeled every single key off of my brand new laptop when he was a little boy, and when I say every key, I mean, even the rubber like part inside brand new, that was a time where I had to go in the other room and just kind of give myself a minute. I love that you brought that into business.
Lawanna Voci: There’s a Disney movie, which escapes me the name, but it’s about emotions, right? And it’s talking about this little girl and every time something significant happened, it saves as a core memory. My goal is always to try to be the person that creates positive core memories.
Sometimes you do that in difficult situations. I had a girl that had some performance issues. Brought her into my office, had a chat with her. And at the end of the conversation, she’s like, “This is the best I’ve ever felt getting in trouble.” Well, I’m not trying to break you down. I’m trying to build you up, right? So even in difficult conversations, the way that you communicate has an incredible impact on your outcome. Even if that’s controlling your emotions. Being self aware, stepping away, all of those things, I think, come into play with, with that, especially with attorneys, right? They’re used to arguing.
Meg Garavaglia: That’s just it. And I’m like, “all right, it’s go time, mister!” Or ma’am, whoever. You reached out to me after I had posted something on a paralegal group on LinkedIn, and I think my question to the group was, “What red flags did you see when interviewing for a job that maybe you took the job and you wished a couple of months or even a year after that you had honored your gut and said no, instead of joining that organization? What were those?” And you responded great. Go ahead.
Lawanna Voci: I don’t even remember what I said. I will tell you from personal experience. I don’t know what you call it if it’s intuition. It has never been wrong, okay? First of all, it’s never been wrong. If your gut is telling you something, pay attention. Even if you can’t articulate why something is wrong, it’s something that’s there.
And I know that and I’ve still made that mistake because my brain is smarter than my gut. And I’ve made those mistakes. But I do think that, you know, sometimes we do feel a little bit locked into those decisions. Well, I accepted the job and just quit, but the way I look at it, and I look at it from a leadership point.
Also, not just from an employee perspective, if I make a representation to you about what a job is. I owe you that, right? If I failed to follow through on that representation, I should expect that you’re not going to stay. And maybe it’s a small one. You’re like, well, you know, the 401k is three and a half, not four.
I’m fine with it. Right. But if it’s a big one, if it’s something significant, it’s the thing that kind of flared up that gut reaction. It’s okay. If you walk away, you’re an employee and you’re bringing a skillset to that business, paying you for your professionalism, your knowledge, your experience, right?
In return, they have to deliver on what they represented to you, whether it’s culture, whether it’s opportunity for development, whether it’s just good communication and collaboration. And if they’re not following through on the deal, guess what, if you don’t follow on through on the deal, what are they going to do?
They’re going to say goodbye. Right? Yes. You have the same right. So, you’re a better employee when you’re in a space where you’re thriving, you’re engaged, you’re motivated. When you stay in a space where you are unengaged, that has a really big impact on you and it runs across just your work hours, right?
You’re losing sleep. Absolutely. You’re stressed out. You have anxiety, cortisol builds up and it makes us chunky. And that’s not fair. We’re already stressed, but now we’re also going to get chunky. Yes, there are all these impacts. So take care of you, right? It’s a, it’s a business relationship. And if they’re not holding up their end of the bargain, find the next business that will, right.
We’re in a time where, and I love. I love seeing this shift, right? If you think back in the day, employers held all the cards, right? We can treat you as bad as we want. What are you going to do? You’re going to be back in the factory tomorrow doing the same thing. Making widgets, right? Yeah. That’s not how we function now.
No, we have options and we have the worldwide web that opens up so many opportunities for networking and collaboration and learning and moving. Right. So find the space that’s going to keep you inspired and engaged. If you love being a paralegal, find the space you love being a paralegal.
Meg Garavaglia: And serving people that appreciate the gifts, talents, and experience that you bring. Our team gets to bring together awesome attorneys, clients, with this amazing caliber of staff. And it’s so much fun to then hold the line on both sides, you know, to bridge that gap until the relationship is strong and it’s grown together and then they have their own relationship, but it takes a minute and virtually, I think, it makes it a bit more challenging. So, can you provide insight on how a paralegal could possibly anticipate the attorney’s needs and provide proactive assistance? We are huge on setting a bar. That’s when we know the magic is happening, is when they can get out in front of their attorney and serve proactively.
Lawanna Voci: Yeah, I think there’s a couple of ways when we talked about which is communication and I think it’s such a great effort when you start a new job or a new attorney joins your firm and you’re now either assigned to that attorney or just that you’re filling in right, right out of the gate to say, what do you like, right?
It’s funny. Attorneys would come and complain to me about “My assistant keeps using the wrong size font.” ” Did you tell her? No, I’m not going to do that.” I’m like, “Then how did you know?” I didn’t know where on a resume that says mind reader. You have to have the conversation with her, right? But conversely, if you don’t want to have those kinds of issues,” Hey, Joe, you’re new to the team. Let’s just sit down, have a quick powwow and talk about like, what are your preferences? Do you like the drafts? Do you want to print it? Do you like it two days before the deadline? Do you like it three days?” So you’re getting all of those things out of the way at the front end. So I do think that communication is really important on the front end.
I also think, doing a little of that self investigation, right? Almost everywhere you go. It’s going to have a case management system. Go through and look and see what do their pleadings look like, right? Stylistically, what does it seem like they kind of lean into, right? Are they super aggressive in their pleadings?
Are they super passive in their pleadings? If you’re drafting things on their behalf, look and see how they did it in the past. Look and see how they put their discovery together and check in. “Hey, I noticed that you always had your discovery done like A, B, and C. Is that how you like it?” Right. Maybe they hated it.
And that’s why the other particular paralegal left, but have the conversation. It shows initiative. It shows that you’re trying to find the ways to best support that attorney and with client relationships. I love speaking with the clients. Are you comfortable with it? Yeah. What’s your expectation for those communications?
If something comes up later, cause you’re not going to cover everything, right? ” Oh, I forgot to tell her I hate pink paperclips.” Open the door for that comfortable conversation. So if I’m the attorney, I’m like, “Oh. Remember how we talked about that? I remembered one more thing.”
Talk to the people around you, right? If it’s a larger firm, even if it’s a smaller firm, but if there’s multiple people supporting attorneys, they’ll have some insight into how that attorney practices, some of their idiosyncrasies, some of their preferences, some of the things that will rub them the wrong way.
I think the only thing I would caution there is that sometimes people can add in a little bit of their own – “well, also, he’s ugly,” right? Like, just something that is not relevant, but you just don’t like that guy. So sometimes those types of comments. Take those with a grain of salt, right? I’m always a big fan of creating my own impression.
Do all that you can to learn about the practice style. Look at the kinds of cases, the attorneys that have worked with them, that kind of thing. I think that people come in and just expect that an attorney is going to know you, you’re going to know the attorney because we work in the same area of law.
That’s not the same. There’s all kinds of things that are different. So, but it always goes back to me, for me to just proactive communication.
Meg Garavaglia: Talk about culture and what have you found that contributes to the most positive team culture? I know at a company when Patti and I worked together previously, they had a no gossip policy and it was rigid. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.
Lawanna Voci: I think that’s a lovely question. I instituted two policies. No gossiping. You don’t have anything nice to say. Don’t say it. And also, you know, I lean into the space. Most of our profession are women. We are not in this place that we’re occupying professionally. We are not going to be part of the group that tear each other down. If you have something to say about something, it better be how nice Susie’s shoes look on her. Say something nice. And if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all. And if you do, you will be in trouble. I fired someone for it. I approached her and I was like, “remember, I told you last time that the next time we have this conversation, we’re going to be parting ways.” You cannot diminish the people that work here. And that’s how I look at it. I pay professionals to bring a service to my employer and you cannot put them in a place where they feel bullied, where they feel picked on, or they feel diminished. This is a professional environment, zero tolerance for it. It would be interesting to see the impact that gossip has on the bottom line. You think of the amounts of disengagement that happens when people get kind of caught up in that cycle. And I think it’s a horrible thing to say as women, we do it worse than men.
You get into these catty little places because we also have to have validation for the way we feel. So not only do I not like your shoes, but I have to make sure that those three people also don’t like your shoes. So my productivity is going to go down because I really feel like I need to be validated. And then those people are going to go tell Susie cause they were friends with her. It just creates so much disruption and productivity. I have absolutely no doubt it has an impact on the bottom line from that perspective.
And also guess what? I don’t work in a place that there’s that kind of stuff. So I’m going to leave. Now, now I have attrition. So now I have to pay the cost of hiring someone else and training someone else. That’s expensive too.
Meg Garavaglia: I was going to piggyback on that and ask you if there are other ways to avoid that kind of, you know, we’ve all heard about the mean girl mentality or the click mentality and I’ve seen men and women who have talked about that and the impact that it had if they were on the outside looking in or if they were the perpetrator, so to speak.
Lawanna Voci: Well, I think it’s worse when your leadership participates in, right? That’s, that’s a huge, big red flag. If you’re in the coffee or the break room and your leadership is like, “did you see so and so they look like,” you know, or whatever, that’s a big red flag. You can’t be fully engaged and fully motivated and bring skillset to the table.
If you’re wondering about what your leadership is talking about you behind your back, right? That’s silly. We’ve left high school. Even as a peer, I put the kibosh on anybody trying to come and have those conversations with me.
I had a girl when she worked in another office and she was visiting our office and we were going to lunch and she was like, “Oh, I meant to ask you, what do you think of so and so in this office?” And I was like, “I’ve only talked to her a few times. She seems fine.” And she kind of went into this little rant of she’s so stupid. And she said this and I was like, “Oh my gosh, really? Hey, I was wondering, what do you say about me when we’re not together?” Boy, that’ll shut it down, right? Because I know you’re going to be this way with other people. For me, I’m setting this boundary. You don’t get to talk negatively about other people like that to me.
You can come to me if it’s something work related and she’s not doing something. Hey, so and so is not sending things out on time. And I saw it in the copy room and I’m worried about missing a deadline. That’s not gossip, right? But if you’re just being a mean girl. I set those boundaries, but here’s what I’m going to tell you what happened.
And I think this is atypical. She called me a few weeks later and she was like, “Hey, I have a question for you about something. I feel like I maybe I left a bad impression. I feel like I could do better.” I was like, “I think you also could do better.”
” I would like you to hold me accountable to that.” That’s the exception, not the rule. But that’s the potential somebody realizes that they’re going to be called on it and they realize the impact it’s having on a relationship. And I was a leader. She left that relationship with a leader having that impact, right?
She tried to self correct it. I mean, that’s pretty impressive. It doesn’t happen very often, but –
Meg Garavaglia: That’s excellent. I mean, that’s optimal outcome.
Lawanna Voci: Yeah. And I think you, you just don’t be the person that participates, right? Because what’s the power of the gossip? Participation, somebody that’s going to listen, somebody that’s going to agree, somebody that’s going to live in that little space with you. If nobody does that, there’s no gossip, maybe just sitting in a cubicle talking to yourself, but really there’s no gossip, right? If you don’t want to see it in your environment, don’t perpetuate it, right? You’re the first line of defense. And I’ll do what I can as a leader, but I can’t be in every situation to hear anything.
You get to be that extension of me, right? We’re creating a culture where we respect each other, where we feel comfortable sharing ideas because I’m not going to share ideas with a bunch of people. I think you’re going to like make fun of me later in the break room. Oh yeah. Right. My innovation takes a dive.
But if you tell people that on the front end, I guarantee every person that I’ve interviewed, I have zero tolerance for gossip. We don’t do it respectfully, blah, blah, blah. If you hear about it, stand up to it and then come and talk to me about it because we’re going to make sure. And do you know how refreshing that is for people? They are like, “Oh God, yes!”
Meg Garavaglia: I agree. And that’s the way we run Woven Legal. But I had never worked in an organization before, you know, the one that I referenced. And I found what you described so refreshing. And of course, I was like, we’re gonna see how this transpires, you know, see what happens. Having that high bar and hearing when things slipped below that bar they did end up firing one or two people over that. I don’t believe by any means that they were the scapegoat or even the sacrificial lamb to make a point. I think it was happening.
Lawanna Voci: You can’t have that environment unless You stay true to it, a huge proponent of coaching, you invest so much in an employee, right?
You want them to be successful and you want to coach them up and you want to train them and you want to give them the opportunities to right the wrongs. But there are those times where I can’t let your behavior adversely impact my environment because it affects, like we discussed everything, profitability, productivity, culture.
All of the things, right? So for me, you’re breaking a rule just as, I mean, if you were violating any other policy to me, because you’re impacting so many business related items and also personnel related items, you’re affecting my human resources, right? These are the people I paid to bring in here. You’re adversely impacting them.
Meg Garavaglia: That is awesome. And boy, I could talk about that at length.
Lawanna Voci: Well, and I think paralegals, you know, whether they would categorize themselves in leadership positions or not, I think they should look at that role as having an impact on the people around them. They are one of the roles that has that close one on one working with the attorneys, right? So there’s that hierarchy piece that you had mentioned before. So setting that example for other people in your firm, people coming into your firm, I think that’s the best that you can do is set the example, be the example for how the firm is trying to create an environment because you’re not going to like it.
If that culture takes a nosedive because you get steamed up for what you believed in, right? And what you believe in is not talking mean about people. It’s not that hard. My 10 year old gets it.
Meg Garavaglia: Can you talk about a situation that you came into, maybe it was just a pod, you know, amongst the big firm where it was a, another toxic situation and how you overcame that to get to a higher place? Do you feel like you’re interviewing for a position? You’re hired, I’ll tell you right now, I would totally hire you!
Lawanna Voci: I’m going to write down my compensation request. That’s funny. One of the things that I had to do at the last law firm were we were rebuilding infrastructure. There was a huge problem with culture. I’m always a big proponent of meeting with everybody individually, getting to know them, letting them get to know me, having conversations. What’s great about working here, what are some things that, you know, we could fix about working here, like how can we make it a better place for you to work and that type of thing?
And, you know, bar none, it was the culture. This person is a bully. This person’s mean, this person’s that. And, you know, I’m an observer first, right? Because I hear, but I also have to witness because sometimes people have ulterior motives and I can’t do anything unless I feel like it’s validated. This firm had an organizational psychologist to help with the culture.
So they knew there was a problem. They were trying to resolve it. From my perspective, culture is a boots on the ground type of thing, right? Somebody who’s there every day, holding people to the expectation, creating that environment and letting it kind of grow through that and also removing the toxicity and sometimes you have to remove the toxicity. So in this particular situation, I knew who the toxic employee was. I’d heard her talk to people. There may have been sounds of my chin hitting my desk. People like, “What’s that thunk?” Right? Cause I’m like, “What did she just say?” and so I tried a couple of different methodologies.
I thought, well, maybe she just needs to be recognized for the skill set that she’s bringing to this group, right? So I’m going to talk to her about mentoring and through those conversations, I’m going to talk to her about how we communicate with people and how mentors are setting the example for creating environments and creating cultures because I’m a perpetual optimist, right?
It didn’t work. I’m usually pretty good at it. Didn’t work. She’s just not the kind of person that wanted to do those things. She thrived in this space where she could make people feel less than he knew that her skill set was very significant for what the firm had had up until that point. And she felt that it didn’t matter what she did, they couldn’t exist without her. I’ve seen it. We’ve all seen that.
The attorney was like, “Well, we need her.” I was like. “Okay, so you’re going to spend a lot of money replacing all these other positions, just everybody here has worked here less than a year. Why do you think that is?” Right? When she was removed from the equation, we found an exceptional paralegal, right?
An exceptional paralegal. The entire field changed, right? People that wanted to be in a collaborative environment, a collegial environment, that wanted to learn and be mentored, suddenly came out of their shells. They did better work. They didn’t feel like they were going to be yelled at or ridiculed or asking a question, right?
You can try to make the case for the contributor to that. But I also think you have to be ready to say goodbye to that person if your culture is the important element, right? And it should be the, because otherwise you’re saying goodbye to 10 other people, right? Because nobody’s going to be in that space, right?
And is she that great or has she convinced you that she’s that great? You know, I wish her well. I hope that she found something that was the space that she was going to thrive in. And maybe part of the issue stemmed from being in that space and allowing them, I don’t know, I wasn’t there. What I know though, is the culture there now is 180 degrees because you removed that one piece, right?
Meg Garavaglia: Wow, that’s huge.
Lawanna Voci: I’ve been in toxic cultures. I know how I thrive. When I’m in a good culture and I know how I struggle when I’m not, it affects everything.
Meg Garavaglia: It really does. It really does. It’s so stifling to people’s potential and creative problem solving and all of those things and just what you described.
It’s so hard to voice the things that you see if you are going to be torn down for that. It’s the age old expression, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” And some people can’t get past, they want to be right.
Lawanna Voci: Well, and I think, you know, the problem too is sometimes firms don’t look at their leadership.
Right. And I think because attorneys don’t want to manage people. Attorneys want to practice law and if that lady over there is doing it, I don’t have to do it. If you don’t know how to fix a car engine, you’re not going to go dig around in a car engine, right?
You don’t know how to fix a culture if you don’t know how to get the right people. You’re just going to let that person do it. I think law school would do well to give them a business class. Not everyone says that. Here’s the firm life. Here are the things that are going to make you thrive, and here are the things that are going to make you struggle, right?
And if you’re going to manage your own firm, here are the things that are going to make you thrive. Yes. Here are the things that are going to make you struggle. And people are always going to be at the very center of every single one. That’s the thing. People are integral in every single situation, whether it’s a client, whether it’s another peer.
How you treat them is going to have a direct impact on how successful you are.
Meg Garavaglia: The people business. My dad always said, “We’re in the people business, Megger.” It is the people business and it’s unpredictable, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. This is a curve ball, Lawanna. Do you have any hacks for productivity, like productivity hacks?
For us, we have recently shared Loom, you know, with all of our clients and just how great of a training tool it is.
Lawanna Voci: Well, you know, so it’s one that I like, and it’s the first time I was able to do it was in the last firm, you know, a lot of case management software has workflows and automation. I have found, I love this and I love those for a few reasons. One, I am old and so I am forgetful, right? And I’m also a big subscriber to the checklist. There’s a book called The Checklist Manifesto that talks about like the value of getting everything right because you’re checking it off, right?
Yes. If you do a workflow, it’s just a fancy way of saying a checklist. So you know that everything is getting done, but if you are working on something, and I’m working on something, you can integrate every one of those, and if your case management system pulls in workflows, it sets it up as calendar items, right?
If the proverbial bus comes along and someone’s no longer available, I can always go check your workflow. I can see where you are. We don’t lose, you know, pace on what we’re doing with the clients because we can always check and I like consistency, right? Because I came from a super regulated background.
So it was managed by a lot of regulators. So having a workflow says every time you file a motion to compel. That goes to this person it’s filed here and then we send a copy here and it’s done just like that. Right. And so you have that supervision piece. And then if you have an automation, so like my case, for example, cause that’s the one I most recently used.
You could set up a workflow, create a template document and say in that workflow, create this document and it populates it for you. So I think to the extent that you can find ways in your practice to use workflows and automations. I love it from a management perspective because anybody can come in and feel guided in terms of how do you accomplish something right.
And it’s consistent other methodologies. Oh gosh, personally, I’m scattered all over the place. I have a really great wife and she keeps me on task.
Meg Garavaglia: My husband’s an engineer. I completely understand. And he will say, ” Don’t forget to leave the check for,” he just said that to me earlier. So yeah, same.
Lawanna Voci: I like it because it’s reliable on technology. I like it because you set it up. It takes some time to set it up on the front end. But it’s there, it’s consistent, and you can tweak it if you need to. For rule changes, you have to update a form, or if you have to update, you know, a deadline, it’s an easy tweak.
And then going forward, it’s all consistent and it’s fixed. So I like those types of hacks for productivity. I like written procedures. I just do, and I think part of that stems from being in a regulatory background, but I think that, you know, for me, I always look at it for, from the perspective of a person coming in, how do they know from soup to nuts, how to, how do you deal with this case?
And if somebody has, here’s how you do this and here’s how you do that, you lose that continuity and how to manage it. You have written procedures for the new person coming in. You’re just like, okay, how do I open a case? Oh, look. And she did screenshots. I’m a visual person. I love seeing that. And if it’s something I don’t do very often, I always do it. Cause I will forget.
Meg Garavaglia: We support that message, but we also I love that too. There’s an app that I heard about Scribe that helps document the processes and procedures that you put in place and I haven’t adopted it yet because I’m kind of already out of my comfort zone with some new softwares we’re using, but I do look forward to pulling that in. And it sounds kind of like what you just described. There are so many things that we have on our plate that we just kind of got to barrel down and think about, right. So if we can automate or quickly get off our plate, just those repetitive things, let’s do that. That way our focus can stay here.
Lawanna Voci: We can do better work here as well. I know if I’m bogged down with this, this, and this, what I’m trying to accomplish for a client, I’m not as great, right? So having that off my plate and really being able to focus on this. I think that’s just kind of across the board.
Meg Garavaglia: Lawanna, thank you so much for your insight that what a great conversation.
I knew I would enjoy talking to you further and I appreciate your time. Thanks for being here.
Lawanna Voci: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciated the time.