One of the fundamental principles in running a successful law practice is being a good leader. Have you ever asked yourself, “Am I a good boss?” How to be a good employer is not something ordinarily taught in law school. If you’ve ever worked for someone who was not a good boss, then you know how important it is to be one.
Many lawyers who run their own practice wish they could just get down to the business of practicing law. But if you want to keep your practice running, then it is important that you wear many hats: you’ve got to be an effective manager, delegator, organizer, advisor and mentor. If you are truly a solo practitioner—with no employees or staff–you may ask why you should care. It is likely that at some point in your practice, you will need help. No lawyer is an island, so even if you are not someone’s boss right now, you may become one. Here are some tips for running a tight ship that stays afloat and doesn’t run aground:
1) Hire the right person for the job. Consider employing a headhunter. You shouldn’t be spending your time doing background checks, doing the initial review of resumes, etc. The right head hunter can vet candidates and present you with a smaller pool from which to choose based upon the criteria you have set.
2) Hire only the staff you need. Ask yourself, “Do I need full time or part time staff?” “What will this person be doing?” “Do I really need a certified paralegal if the person would also be handling lots of administrative work?” Don’t hire a full time paralegal when that person may only be doing occasional paralegal work. If you hire someone who is overqualified for the job they are doing, they may become quickly dissatisfied.
3) Once you hire, train, train, train. Your new hire needs to understand not only the work that is expected, but also the Rules of Professional Conduct and your firm’s policies. Training doesn’t necessarily end once the person settles in. Rules change and policies change. Periodically reassess and see if you need to have a meeting to remind your staff of older policies or rules that may be overlooked or to educate your staff on changes to the rules and policies of the firm.
4) Oversight is paramount. Attorneys get into trouble with staff in two primary ways: a) over-delegation and b) lack of appropriate supervision. For example, it’s no problem to delegate daily trust accounting to staff, but make sure you are reviewing the reconciliations and spot checking source documents.
5) Clearly set expectations. Don’t expect your staff to know what you want. If it is important that everyone arrive by 8:30am each morning, or that business casual is OK only on Fridays, then say so.
6) Give praise where praise is due. Your employees need to feel appreciated. Recognizing them for a job well done goes a long way in keeping staff morale up.
7) Constructive criticism is important. Do a mid-year and/or year-end review. Never criticize an employee in front of others. Make sure the review includes both strengths and areas of improvement if necessary.
8) Set goals and an action plan for achieving those goals. These may be individual goals or firm goals. Firm goals can be used to create a team atmosphere within the firm, where everyone is working together toward a common goal. If the firm is doing well, consider across the board bonuses.
9) Ask for your employees’ input on ways to improve. This would include how the practice can improve and (here’s the hard part) how you can improve as an employer. It is important that you ask for and accept feedback not only so that you can address problems that employees identify, but also, so that the employees understand that their opinions are valued.
10) Recognize the balance between work and a personal life. Offer flex-time or personal days. Find out the situation before you ask an employee to work longer hours.
If you are a good boss, it is more likely that you will have good, productive, happy employees. For those of you who have lawyer and/or non-lawyer staff, you know we rely upon them tremendously in our practices. Employee dissatisfaction or low morale can affect the success of your firm. Take some time this year to assess how you are doing as leader of your firm. It could make all the difference.
This was originally published in the Law Practice Management Newsletter, NCBA, February 2014.