Building a better law-firm culture through being a better manager
Learning from others typically follows two paths. We learn what to do or what not to do. To become a better lawyer the advice is simple: Watch other lawyers in the courtroom. Steal from each other after an inspiring CLE presentation. When defending depositions, watch how other lawyers examine experts, medical professionals, witnesses, and our clients – learning innovative tips, tricks, and skills or, when they don’t do a good job, things to avoid.
What about how to become a good boss? How to build a positive office culture? We can’t just roll into an office and sit there day after day observing. Ever seen a continuing education class on how to be a good boss or how to build a positive firm culture? To recruit new talent, big law firms spend a lot of time and ink talking about their culture, work-life balance, and their work environment. However, in the plaintiff’s bar and among small firms in general, there is little attention given to these issues. We can all be better leaders, managers, and bosses.
Listening is a skill that takes practice, patience, and perseverance. Employees and colleagues come to our office every day to ask questions, seek advice, or just to vent. When they do, here are a few tips on both what to do and what not to do.
First, multitasking means we are not paying attention. When listening we should not be looking at our phones, computers, or looking around the room. Turning away from the person to check that incoming email or respond to a call or text sends the signal that what the person has to say is not important. That they are not important. Give the person you are talking with – whether in person or on the phone – your complete attention. Keep your eyes on the person talking. Square your shoulders to them and turn your body towards the speaker to signal they have your attention. Put away any distractions. This positive body language communicates that you are open to listening.
But what if you are in the middle of something? Politely tell the person to wait for just a second or that you will get back to them in a minute when you are ready to listen. If you have a meeting, call, or Zoom appointment coming up, let them know – “I have a call at 11, do we have enough time to talk now? Should we schedule a time to talk, or can I come to you after I am done with my call?”
These types of comments communicate that what they have to say is important and you want to take the time to listen and hear what they have to say. If it’s going to be a longer conversation, then you can set up a time to talk later so that you can give them your undivided attention. Also, by explaining what you have coming up, should you start the talk and then the conversation needs to end due to your other commitment, it was something which the other person knew would happen. However, if they were not aware of an upcoming interruption and they got cut off because something else came along, it will likely make the person feel unimportant and that the issue they brought to you is secondary. Interruptions happen, but it’s best to try and cut them off before they do so we are open to being good active listeners.
Second, do not interrupt. I know I am guilty of this, and it is something we can improve. Let each other finish our thoughts before replying. Your staff and co-workers will respect you more if you don’t interrupt them. Even if you know where they are going or what the question is going to be, let them finish. By interrupting, we communicate that what we have to say is more important, which can shut off or limit the lines of communication. Keeping the lines of communication open will lead to a positive workspace.
If inclined to give advice, do so in a respectful manner, perhaps by asking if the person even wants advice. If they have come to you to tell a story, it’s likely because they want to share how they are feeling, rather than coming for advice. In that case, be sympathetic and, if possible, empathetic with them. Acknowledging how another person feels will go a long way and will help in preventing ill feelings from festering and growing into something greater.
On the other hand, if an employee you supervise is coming to you with a complaint, it is possible they are doing both – sharing how they are feeling and looking to you to help solve the problem. In that case, acknowledge how they feel and then explain to them the steps and things that you are going to do to address their problem or complaint. Then, follow through. Go back to the person and explain what you did and that if there are any other problems again to bring them back to you. Keep that door and lines of communication open.
Another good tool to show that you understand and have been listening is to reflect or paraphrase back to confirm you understood them correctly. Do not just parrot back to them what they said; that does not prove you were listening. Rather, use this tool to make sure you comprehend what they’ve shared.
Finally, a conversation with staff or colleagues is not cross-examination. It should be more like direct examination or voir dire. Avoid the yes or no questions. Instead, focus on asking open-ended questions. Such as “tell me more about that” and the “why” questions. Allowing people the runway and time to share will help create a positive work environment and office culture.
There is a saying, “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we talk.” Listening to each other will make the work place a more positive environment where everyone feels heard and valued.
Be kind and care about the people on our team.
Inquire about their life outside of work – their kids, family, weekends. Share about your life, family, and hobbies. These are not simple pleasantries. We spend just as much time, if not more, with the people we work with than with our family or friends. Know and celebrate birthdays and other significant life events. Smile. Say hello. Greet people by name. Ask how they are doing, how their family is doing, inquire about their interests and hobbies. Be interested in others and their life. People are interesting.
“But I’m an introvert and feel awkward or have anxiety interacting with other people.” These are not “other people.” These are the people you spend five days a week with and are in the trenches with you when you are in trial, opposing a summary judgment motion, or dealing with a difficult case, client, or time in your life. This is not “just small talk.” Learning and caring about the people you work with is the foundation of your workplace culture. And without a strong foundation, the building will topple.
Smile and laugh often. What we do as trial lawyers is stressful. A smile or laugh releases so much of the tension. It is cathartic. If others see you are happy and enjoying your work, then they too will feel better about the work they are doing. This is not just true walking around the office, but on the phone too. For example, the first rule of answering the phone, before saying a word, should be to smile. People can hear happiness. It is disarming and uplifting to hear a smile on the other end of the phone. Laughter is contagious and healing.
Why are you screaming?
Do not ever yell or scream at an employee, co-worker, or boss. No one likes being yelled at. Period. It only leaves people feeling less than, resentful, and angry. It de-motivates. People make mistakes, deadlines fall through the cracks, things that should have been done are missed. That is never a reason to yell or scream at a fellow human. Take a deep breath, figure out what went wrong, and use that occasion as a coachable moment.
If an employee needs time off to take care of a sick family member or to go to a school event, allow it. No questions asked. An employee should never hesitate or be afraid to ask for time due to being sick, needing to tend to a family member, or simply for a break or vacation. Provide for generous sick, family leave, and vacation time. If an employee wants to work from home a few days a week, let them. Encourage employees to take time off for vacations and to care for their loved ones. Do more than simply what the law requires. Rare is the person who will take advantage and abuse your generosity. Rather, your kindness and understanding will create greater loyalty and a desire to work hard and perform well for you. When people know that you have their back, they will fight harder for you.
Break bread with your coworkers and staff. Not just at the annual holiday party, but on the random second Tuesday of the month, ask your staff to join you for coffee, breakfast, or lunch. Pay for it. Spending time with other people over a meal is a great way to learn about each other and make connections. Perhaps getting outside the office will enable them to raise a subject privately with you they had not thought of previously or felt uncomfortable doing at the office. Have annual or semi-annual all-firm meals. Bring in bagels, donuts, fruit, or any kind of food to share with others. And then sit in the break room and enjoy it with them.
Lastly, make sure you are paying your employees properly and giving them appropriate benefits and perks. No matter how kind and friendly you are, if an employee is being underpaid, or not being paid similarly to their counterpart, they will be unhappy. Unhappy employees are not productive. Unhappy employees leave. Talent goes elsewhere.
Take time to teach
Taking the time to teach our staff, and when they know they can ask questions without fear of reprisal, will lead to a more positive and productive work environment.
There is never a reason to turn an employee away or get frustrated with an employee for asking a question. Encourage your employees that if they are not sure, to come and ask. Have an open-door policy, and actually leave your door open. A closed door is the same as crossed arms, you are not open to listening to others. Answering their questions and teaching them the correct way (or how you like things to be done) will show that you care and value them. It will also prevent mistakes from happening and lead to a more productive work environment. Tell your employees if they have a question to have pen and paper in hand so that they can write down your advice and instructions. At work there is no such thing as a bad question, just a boss who is unwilling to listen and help others.
Mistakes happen all the time. Getting angry and yelling at someone when a mistake happens doesn’t prevent it from happening again. Rather, if a mistake happened, it is usually because someone didn’t know the right thing or way to handle a situation. This means, as an employer, we’ve failed at teaching or failed to have an open door where a person felt comfortable asking questions. As lawyers, the buck stops with us. If our staff makes a mistake or fails, that is 100% our fault. It is our job to check their work and teach them how to do things the proper way. The onus is on us as leaders and managers to teach our staff and other new lawyers the right procedures, whether in the office or for the court. Blaming staff in front of the judge speaks volumes about who you are as a person. When we win, we win together. When something goes wrong, it is the captain of the ship or the head coach who should shoulder the blame.
We will never be able to perfect all these suggestions. We are not able to spend days or weeks visiting and watching another law firm to learn what to do or what not to do. The most we can do is learn by experience. We’ve all worked somewhere with a bully for a boss or had a coach everyone respected. We can emulate the traits we liked in our former bosses and choose to do things differently than those we disliked. However, if we all practice being better listeners, being kind to those around us, and teaching where we can, we will create the positive law-firm culture where people will want to work and go to battle with us.
Martin I. Aarons has been an employment law trial attorney for 10 years. Aarons handles discrimination, harassment, and retaliation cases. He was a finalist for the CAALA 2014 Street Fighter the Year award. He was named a Rising Star for 2012-2016 by LA Super Lawyer, and has been the chair of the CAALA New Lawyer’s Group. www.aaronslawfirm.com.
by the author.
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