In many law firms, there is a sharp line drawn between lawyers and staff (i.e., everyone else). There are rules about co-mingling. Significant differences in pay structures. Disparate expectations for hours worked. And there are often good reasons for some of these distinctions. But not uncommonly, there is also an unacceptable distinction between the way lawyers communicate with each other as compared to how they treat their staff.
Too many young lawyers begin practicing without ever before having held a real job. Their visions of importance and self-aggrandizement have been allowed to percolate unfettered for seven years of undergrad and law school. They place themselves and those of their ilk on a pedestal, and anyone who is not similarly situated is subservient. They do not act respectfully or mindfully toward those who work for them. And these young lawyers grow up to be the same intolerable, ill-mannered older lawyers.
Here’s an illustration I’ve seen numerous times: A client comes into the office. The lawyer wants to impress the client, so he steers him around to the offices of all the other nearby lawyers. Everyone puts his best foot forward, greets the client cheerfully, and has wonderful things to say about the host lawyer. Each time the host lawyer walks into and out of a lawyer’s office, he walks past an assistant without introducing her or even recognizing her existence. This is terribly uncomfortable for the client who recognizes the rudeness but isn’t really in a position to remedy it. The client then gives the assistant an apologetic looks and is swept off to meet the next attorney.
Lawyers who behave in this way are not ingratiating themselves to their staff and are failing to set themselves up for the best possible success. A loyal, supportive, and proactive staff is the difference between an optimal and dysfunctional practice.
But rather than me continuing to discuss the subject, here are some Twitter responses from when I sent up a flare to #paralegaltwitter recently, with this query: “I’m writing a blog post about how lawyers do themselves a disservice by treating staff poorly. Penny for your thoughts?” Every lawyer should heed these responses and experiences, and proceed accordingly.
“Okay so I’m actually gonna answer this in a thread because it’s a challenging one on many levels not the least of which being that I don’t presume to speak on behalf of legal staff everywhere. Also, I don’t want to pigeonhole lawyers[.] So here’s my disclaimer: these comments are based on my broad observations. Further, 98% of the lawyers I’ve met treat their staff well.
“Your staff can make or break your practice, whether you like to admit it or not. First person a potential client talks to. 1st person on the phone with the bar when membership dues get lost in the mail. 1st person calling the clerk after the botched filing.
“Staff who feel respected and valued will go to hell and back for you. Legal staff are helpers, office moms, protectors [generalization]. That’s simply the type of person attracted to this kind of work. It’s a servient position. And we are loyal as fuck.
“I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard “I hate this firm and my salary but I just can’t leave my lawyer”. Hell, I’ve said it. But this puts us in a precarious position – it really opens us up to hurt and betrayal if you mistreat us. And those breed bitterness. Please don’t throw us under the bus to a client if things go south. We’re already berating ourselves even if it wasn’t our fault.
“Please don’t yell. We work WITH you. Talk WITH us, don’t yell AT us. It’s a surprisingly important distinction. If you have an issue, bring it to our attention. We can’t fix it if we don’t know about it. If you go straight to HR, it can affect our raises, future opportunities, even employment status. It kills confidence and morale, and our trust in our relationship.
“It 100% comes to respect. If you treat staff with disrespect, you’ll get disrespect back. Which finally gets me back to the question. Unhappy staff stop caring. They don’t do extra research. They don’t stay late. They don’t placate clients. They don’t cover your ass. They get bitter. “Not my job”. Start arguing with each other. And then your office becomes dysfunctional, and you may not even notice until it’s too damned late and you’re having a “staff cycle” and 1/3 of your staff are out interviewing because they’re miserable.
“Insert conclusion here? Respect is key.”
“How support staff are treated is part of what creates the culture of an office or organization. It takes a long time to build up a culture of mutual trust & respect. On the flip side, a positive culture will VERY quickly deteriorate . A poisonous work environment takes an immediate toll, but also has long-term psychological effects (I can’t overstate this).
“My confidence & self-esteem were decimated working for an abusive boss. I left that industry because I was so demoralized. Staff who are respected and well-treated will go the extra mile, happily work extra hours. And they have your back. In my experience, a great boss is one who encourages me to expand my capacities and to grow.
“Specific to paralegaling, my lawyer gave me free rein to work in areas I was unfamiliar with, gave me feedback, helped me succeed. He’s THE reason I’m in school now & working toward getting licensed. He cultivated my confidence and passion to work in law.
“Never underestimate the impact your actions and attitude can have. You’ll always make a difference for someone. Will it be good or bad? How we treat others MATTERS. Being kind to one another is a powerful kind of karma, maybe the only kind that truly counts.”
“When it comes to staff, you get what you pay for. We are adult humans with lives outside the office and we are not expendable.
“Also, please take some management courses. I’ve known so many great attorneys who were completely incompetent managers.
“NEVER say [‘So hard to find good help these days.’] to potential employees (especially during interviews.) It’s insulting and doesn’t look good on you.”
“Late nights happen. Do not expect every night to be a late night for them just because it is for you.
“Repeated rush projects and miracle completions stress the staff. They should be rare occurrences and not the normal course of business.
“Value & respect the experience your staff has. Combined they probably have more than you. Listen to them, they may be trying to save you.
“If your court runner tells you 4:10 is latest to get to court to file, do not come in at 4:20 And ask if she can make it. She does not fly.”
As with most relationships, respect goes a long way toward keeping everyone happy. Often the simple rules we learn as children, like “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” should continue to guide us throughout adulthood. But apparently, we attorneys don’t always set a very high bar for how to treat folks, as told by one of the attorneys who responded to my Twitter question (below).
Treating your staff badly can have disastrous results both for your practice and in the office environment generally. Some of the responses to my query have highlighted exactly what form that can take. The above response from another attorney further emphasizes the point. So to quote @ParalegalRant: “Insert conclusion here? Respect is key.”
Photo via Metro Library and Archive.