Recently, I received a call from an attorney, frustrated with problems that developed in his relatively new law firm, and asked about Woven Legal’s Firm Diagnostics. He described leaving the security of partnership at a large firm to hang out his own shingle, fulfilling an early commitment made to himself to open his own practice.
During our initial Zoom conversation, our client exhibited great people skills and clearly cared about his clients and staff. As you can imagine, this new entrepreneur was hesitant to share problems occurring in his business until I assured him it’s not our role to judge! If clients didn’t come to us with problems – we wouldn’t have a business, so we’re truly grateful to be called upon to help.
He went on to explain that despite his best efforts, he was frustrated with slow productivity, missed deadlines, and his staff’s failure to embrace the positive culture he envisioned. Before offering ways to help, I asked to speak with his (small) staff individually to gain greater insight into what could be causing bottlenecks or reasons for frustration. The issues uncovered from those conversations are both common and avoidable. Our kind client agreed to the value of paying this information forward in hopes of helping other attorneys who are struggling in similar situations. Here’s what was learned:
- Assign seats on the bus: Our client did his homework when hiring staff. He exercised due diligence to ensure the three employees brought on board to support him had experience and exhibited excellent work ethic and integrity in previous roles. So, why the low productivity and missed deadlines? His support staff admitted they were afraid to step on their new coworkers’ toes or appear overbearing and not as team players. For example, when they broached the need for deadline tracking with the attorney in several emails he apparently missed and/or never replied to. (In fact, many emails and text messages they sent him went unanswered, which we’ll discuss below.) Overcoming this problem was an easy fix. Having the right people on the bus is only half of the battle in establishing a functional team. Of course, it’s essential to define roles and responsibilities during the hiring process clearly. It’s equally important to communicate this info across the team. In this case, the attorney believed deadline tracking was assigned (albeit vaguely) to his support team. He told me, “Each of them purported they were excellent communicators…with experience and initiative.” He sincerely thought that because the need (to track deadlines) was obvious, someone would assume the role of firm calendar management, and nothing would fall through the cracks. This was not the case. We worked to define roles further, and collaboration ensued where specific tasks were assigned individually – including deadline tracking and firm calendars.
- Communication: Buehler? Buehler? I had to ask my client the obvious, “What is up with those unanswered emails and texts from your paralegal and legal assistants? He admitted the barrage of emails he received every day was pretty overwhelming. He went on to say that responding to clients’ emails took precedence, which often didn’t allow enough time to answer all the emails and questions his staff sent his way, too. I asked if this was a problem he experienced in his previous firm, and he said it was not. Every Partner at the firm had an assistant who handled their email and personal calendar. Again, I asked the obvious next question, “Have you considered getting an assistant to handle your email?” He explained that although he had considered it, ultimately, he decided to wait because he managed these things better and more quickly than an assistant could. I agreed he COULD do all the tasks but SHOULD he…? I explained that we often heard this from clients. Still, when managing partners chose to invest in the right professional to help with administrative duties – it allowed them to retain intellectual capital to grow and lead their firm. He laughed at himself and said it was time to get an assistant. I agreed.
Together, we also called to mind the importance of supporting his staff – two of whom are NEW to working with him. I reminded him that it was only reasonable to expect his team to need his input and guidance on processes and preferences. He admitted they hadn’t received the support he intended to provide them. So, we worked out a plan of expectations regarding speed of inner-office response time and reasonable expectations on staff response time with anyone outside the firm (clients, opposing counsel, experts, etc.). After sitting down with our client’s team and mapping out a more defined workflow, additional tasks were identified and assigned. Interestingly, with a new approach based on efficiency and transparency – it became clear that one of the three support professionals in his office could reasonably take on the responsibility of managing the attorney’s email and calendar. It was such a win to hear her say afterward, “I’m so glad to be able to have more to do because after we sat down and mapped everything out, it felt like I was losing responsibilities, and I wondered if my role wasn’t really needed.” On the contrary! Her role was now more critical than ever.
- Culture: Our client was certainly not alone when expressing frustration over the negative culture he feared was developing in his firm. Creating culture is a hot business topic, and there’s no shortage of “How To” articles and books addressing it. But, I am reminded of my mom’s advice on raising polite kids, “Manners are caught, not taught.” Similarly, leaders set the tone for their teams’ behavior and responses – primarily through actions and by setting the example.
MG: How would you describe the firm’s culture – particularly since addressing recent problems and concerns?
Staff #1: Things are less stressful now – more of a collaborative atmosphere. We’re all rowing in the same direction. We knew from the interview process (the attorney) was a nice guy and approachable in person, but training here was brief (laughing), and that’s an overstatement. He told us he trusts us because we all have years of experience, which is great. But, we struggled to have the time and exposure to get to know him so we could anticipate his preferences. And, response time being what it was (for him), we just didn’t have the information needed to establish case workflows and office procedures. I know I was scared of wasting time creating processes that my coworkers or (the attorney) determined weren’t right. Then, I think all 3 of us (pointing to the others) were walking on eggshells – trying to make it apparent we were trying to work together and not be territorial. Inadvertently, we missed some things. Now, I think we all focus on our own work but are communicating openly – willing to help each other, too.
Staff #2: Before, it felt like we were on an unstable foundation trying to build on that while not stating the obvious problems for fear of being perceived as negative.
MG: You mentioned fear a couple of times. Is that still a common byproduct in the firm now?
Staff #1: No. Again, most of that was neutralized when we felt heard, and changes were made as a result. We all, including (our attorney), are coming together and know we all share a willingness to build this firm and help clients and each other where we can.
MG: Can you help us understand the problems which occurred when your attorney wasn’t able to respond to your questions quickly or at all?
Staff #3: To be clear, he did pick up his phone when he wasn’t in a meeting or with clients. He wasn’t intentionally avoiding us (laughing).
Staff #2: Yes, that’s true, but he often used those times to make additional requests of us. When he tried to answer our questions, he talked really fast because he was rushing to explain things before heading into another appointment. It was frustrating because I honestly was wondering, “Am I just unable to understand this man? Maybe it’s just me…”
Staff #3: (Laughing) We all felt like we were having a hard time putting all the pieces together. There was just a lot of uncertainty – and even self-doubt in our new roles.
Staff #2: I wondered if I hadn’t made a mistake in accepting the job. It was tough to receive so little feedback or input in such a new role and with new coworkers.
Staff #1: The unanswered emails did make things hard, too, because we knew he was busy and didn’t want to be a nuisance. I think I was starting to feel like, “Well, if it’s not important to him, then I guess I’ll just do the best I can and not worry about it,” knowing the deliverable wasn’t probably the way it should be. I have never worked with that attitude before, and I am glad we don’t have to here now, either.
Staff #2: Yes, it feels pretty crappy not to go above and beyond as I always have.
MG: That’s really interesting. So, over time, without input from a leader, it sounds like apathy sets in as a result of staff frustration from not being able to do your best. Is that right?
Staff #2: I guess that is the case, yes. If the firm owner doesn’t invest the time and attention needed to allow staff to work at full capacity, I think it does communicate an undercurrent of disinterest or apathy. Ultimately, if the business owner doesn’t care 100% about progress, employees will ask themselves, “Why should I?”
MG: That’s important information you’ve all shared. Thank you. Do you think he did care, though? How do you feel now, knowing how invested he is in you and your roles in supporting him and his clients?
Staff #1: He shared in my interview he was passionate about opening his firm and committed to his clients, yes. Because he is easy to talk to (one of the reasons his clients like him), it was not hard to imagine he valued us. But I know he didn’t like all of the meetings, which clogged his calendar in his previous practice. He mentioned they were terribly unproductive. I believe he may have been hesitant to schedule team meetings because of that. But, when we all sat down together, we convinced him meetings were needed, so we spent less time in reaction mode and more time planning the work and then implementing that plan. This has made a huge difference because our meetings have an agenda and have become organized discussions on progress. We address any foreseen problems and decide on solutions while still learning his preferences and his approach to running the firm.