Dolan Media Newswires – Clients often ask me what staff problems would make
my “High Voltage – Beware the Dangers” list.
That’s a tough question to answer generically, but here’s a top ten list:
10. Adults whose office behavior is straight out of high school (e.g. cliquish,
9. Staff who are NEVER wrong.
8. People who are just too smooth and/or perky to be taken seriously.
7. Chronic gripers who complain frequently but never suggest solutions.
6. Obsessive clock-watchers.
5. People who don’t mind asking for help, but never reciprocate.
4. Stubborn employees who refuse to change their outdated work habits even
when it is in the best interests of the firm to do so.
3. The type that thinks, “I know more than the attorneys.”
2. Sloppily dressed employees with no sense of pride for the firm, the profession
1. Staff members who enable high-risk attorneys by helping cover up ticking
time bombs, such as missed deadlines, repeated excuses to disgruntled clients
or, worse, substance-abuse issues.
This is not an exhaustive list. Other signs of potential problems would include
staff that gossip too much, dress as if going to a cocktail party or overdo
the perfume or aftershave. Look out for problem employees who are chronically
tardy, try to get away with doing nothing while looking busy or complain about
their heavy workloads while engaging in a series of personals calls and e-mails.
There are problem workers with “I’m just here for the paycheck” attitudes and
individuals who have burned out because they do not know when to say “no” or
the importance of taking care of themselves. This last group covers the ones
who are always in a rush with no time to chat and often sport pained, panicky
expressions. This puts them at a far higher risk of making mistakes, no matter
how smart or talented they may be when not burned out.
So what do you do if these warning signs crop up in your office?
The first step is to decide what “accountability” means in your office and
have the courage to require yourself and others to do what is expected. If you
are unwilling to hold folks accountable, then you’ve made a critical decision
on how your law firm is managed (i.e. there are no rules). If that’s your decision,
you should quit stressing over employees who ignore the rules because they aren’t
really rules in the first place since there are no consequences for breaking
If, on the other hand, you decide to act, you need to develop clear, reasonable
policies and enforce them consistently, fairly and swiftly.
Implement and enforce the proper dress code for your type of practice.
Consider chronic bad attitudes one of the worse threats within a firm. Do not
tolerate them regardless of how highly skilled the employee may be. The “costs”
of chronically negative attitudes far outweigh any benefits you may think you
are receiving from an employee’s skills.
Give employees a variety of ways to offer suggestions, including anonymous
feedback or staff meetings. Mandate that concerns be put in writing and accompanied
by at least two potential solutions to the problem before they will be considered.
Appoint someone to regularly monitor compliance with telephone, e-mail and
internet usage policies.
Do not tolerate clock-watchers while expecting other employees to work overtime.
Keep in mind, however, that efficient employees can do more in seven or eight
hours than many can do in sixteen.
Whether you are a solo or partner in a firm, you need to decide the direction
in which you want your “ship” to move. This includes knowing the kinds of clients
you want aboard and the type of “crew” and equipment needed to help get you
Trying to navigate the always changing and often choppy waters of our profession
without such know-how means you may still be afloat five years from now, but
without having made any substantial progress. Without a clear vision of where
you want to go and the right team and equipment to help you get there, your
“ship” will move in redundant circles rather than charting a successful journey
forward. To ensure you accomplish your goals, you must make sure your “crew”
has good direction (and leadership) and that it is held accountable for meeting
the standards created in the best interests of the “ship” and its goals.
Nancy Byerly Jones, attorney and mediator, works with attorneys and legal
staff as a management consultant, retreat facilitator, coach and mediator.