Tuesday Tip: Working with Support Staff

Every working relationship is different, and it can be frustrating when the work you delegate to others doesn’t get done as well or as quickly as you’d like. Often, whether you’re a law firm partner, a mid-level associate or a brand-new attorney, it’s easy to blame problems on the staff or how they are working. But consider that the solution isn’t to change what your staff is doing – maybe the solution is to make a change in how you approach working with your staff.

Here are three tips for working more effectively with your support staff:

1. Stand in their shoes

Take a step back and look at the task or issue from the perspective of your staff, rather than focusing on just getting work off of your plate. Staff are people, too! Treat them the way you would like to be treated.

When something goes wrong, don’t be quick to point the finger at your staff – instead, think about how you might have contributed to the problem. Did you give them work at the last minute? Set an unrealistic expectation about how long it would take to complete a task or project? Fail to provide them with the information or resources they needed to perform the task as expected?

Do better next time by asking yourself questions like:

  • How are the circumstances different for your staff than they are for you?
  • What do you know that they don’t know?
  • What education do you have that your support staff doesn’t?
  • What resources might your staff need to make it easier to get the job done?
  • Who else is that staff person working for and what other obligations do they have?
  • What time constraints or other outside factors may be getting in their way or influencing their ability to get things done? How can you help minimize or eliminate the effect of those other factors?
  • How much time will it really take (recognizing that it may take them longer to do a task than it would take you, or it may be their first time completing this task)?
  • What does their day look like?

Doing this exercise can be eye-opening. It can reveal hidden obstacles to getting work done. When you take into account your staff’s entire day and the other demands on their time, you may realize that you need to alter your expectations, get additional help, or give your staff better instructions or resources. But don’t just leave it there – take the conversation to your staff to get their perspective.

2. Be a team player

You and your staff are a team. Instead of just passing work off or treating them like a dumping ground, approach tasks and projects with a collaborative mindset. Sit down and talk to your staff about how you can help to make them more successful. Do they need better equipment? More training? More opportunity to ask questions? How do they prefer to receive their information – do they respond better to written instructions or lists as opposed to oral explanations?

What part of the project might you undertake so that they can do the rest? How can you provide them with the resources they need? If you are asking them rearranging their priorities to get something done for you, what can you do to help them meet their other obligations? For example, if they will be skipping lunch to get your work out the door, offer to buy them lunch or let them leave an hour early. Take another task off of their plate so they can focus on the task you think is most important.

3.  Show your appreciation

You can’t be successful without your support staff, so show them that you appreciate what they do for you. As one of my clients said to me recently, “A simple thank-you goes a long way.” Applaud their efforts, even when they are imperfect (remember – you aren’t perfect either, and everyone makes mistakes). Not only will this make your staff feel good, but they’re likely to want to do an even better job for you.

Don’t limit all of your conversations to work-related issues – show that you care about them as a person. Inquire about their families, their vacations, their weekends, and their hobbies. It doesn’t take much time or money to show someone that you care about them. Give a handwritten thank-you. Send them flowers. Give a favorite book or a gift certificate for a night out with their spouse.

These are three easy steps that any attorney can do to improve their relationship with their support staff.

What Should Your Engagement Agreement Include?

I had an article appear in the October issue of the New York State Bar Journal entitled, “What Should Your Engagement Agreement Include?” Read it here or click on the link below the images to see the full article.

What Should Your Engagement Agreement Include – NYS Bar Journal October 18

Reprinted with permission from: New York State Bar Association Journal, October 2018, Vol. 90, No. 8, published by the New York State Bar Association, One Elk Street, Albany, NY 12207.

How to Do More In Less Time Podcast

How to Do More In Less Time Cover Image

Having difficulty managing your workload? Think you could be more productive? My newest book, How to Do More In Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing Your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line may help. The first part of the book will provide you with strategies to help you manage your day to day tasks, while the second part of the book will give you specific tips on how you can shave time off of everyday tasks by using the software programs you’re already employing in your law practice more efficiently.

Want a preview?

Listen to this podcast interview with me and my co-author, Daniel J. Siegel.

Planning for Law Practice Improvement

Failure and SuccessThe first month of the New Year is already more than half over, but even if you haven’t started, it’s not too late to plan to make this the best year yet. You can still set things in motion to move your practice to the next level, work more effectively and attract the clients you want this year. Here’s how:

Do a year-end review

First, take inventory of your practice. The only way to make changes, to grow or to move forward is to first accept what is; before you can start thinking about making improvements, you need to know where you stand now.

Take stock of last year’s goals:

  • What goals (whether written or not) did you have for your practice last yer? Did you want to finally get some systems in place? Explore a new practice area? Create better relationships with clients or attract a higher caliber of clients to your firm?
  • How well did you meet those goals?
  • What benchmarks or other documentation do you have in place to determine whether or not you met your goals?
  • What made you successful or unsuccessful in meeting this year’s goals? What do you need to continue doing, and what do you need to change?
  • What resources do you need to make those changes?

A general review of the past year can help you to see areas ripe for improvement:

  • What clients/practice areas were the most/least profitable over the past year?
  • Who are your best/worst clients, and where do they come from?
  • What new strategic alliances/referral sources have you cultivated in the past year? What new relationships would you like to create?
  • How many new clients retained you over the past year? How much new business did you receive from existing or former clients?
  • How well did you follow up with new contacts this year? Did you use a system for keeping in touch with potential, existing and former clients? How effective was that system?
  • How up to date and effective are your marketing materials (business cards, website, blog, newsletter, brochure, email campaigns, seminars/presentations, etc.)? Do they accurately reflect who you are and what you do for your clients? Even more importantly, do they accurately describe your clients and their needs, wants and concerns?
  • How large are your receiveables and what can you do to reduce them?
  • How often did you convert prospects into clients over the past year?
  • Are you using staff, outside sources and vendors effectively, or could you delegate better?
  • What improvements have you made in your practice over the past year for the benefit of your clients? What can you do to knock your clients’ socks off in the future?

If you already have good systems, records and documentation in place, you may be able to obtain reports containing this information from your computer system in a few clicks. If not, you may want to consider a systems overhaul to make this information easier to obtain in 2014, as it can be invaluable.

For example, if you know where your business is coming from and you aren’t getting the kind of business you’d like, you may want to explore where the ‘less desirable’ business is coming from. If all of your “bad” referrals are coming from the same place, you may need to re-educate those referral sources; if your referral sources don’t know what your ‘sweet spot’ is, they can’t refer you the best clients. Similarly, if your marketing materials are not effective, accurate and timely, if they are attracting clients that you don’t want, you’ll want to revisit your marketing materials.

Choose three main goals

Now that you know where you are, you can start setting the wheels in motion to make improvements by setting goals. But don’t make the mistake of setting too many goals or goals that are too large. Although you may have a long list of things you wish you could do in your practice, a long list can quickly become overwhelming. Instead, choose three main areas you’d like to improve in your practice over the next year.

Choose the three goals that you think will have the most impact, or that are the most urgent, and focus all of your time on those three goals. Even with only three goals, there are going to be lots of little action steps to be taken in order to reach them. Anything that doesn’t work toward those three goals should be sidelined or put on a list for the future so that it doesn’t distract from your focus.

When you set a goal, estimate how long you actually think it’s going to take to accomplish that goal. Then build in some additional time for unexpected obstacles and inevitable delays.

Write down the list of your three projects and keep it posted somewhere you can see it and be reminded every day.

Create a plan

Write down the purpose of the project, the principles (why?) behind the project, and your vision of the outcome. Brainstorm ideas for strategies to achieve the outcome. For example, if one of your goals is to increase your client base by 20% over the next year, your strategy might include targeting a new industry and/or increasing your online marketing efforts.

List the steps required to pursue each strategy. These might include identifying industry needs, researching potential clients, or developing online content. Be as specific as possible.

Armed with all of this information, you can create an action plan. The action plan should identify specifically what you are going to do, who will be responsible for doing it, how will it be done, how you will follow up, when each item should be completed, who will supervise each action, and what mechanisms will be put in place to determine compliance.

Schedule time now

Intentions don’t create results – only actions do. But some of the most important actions never make it to your schedule because they don’t have built in deadlines or aren’t directly tied to client matters or revenue. Often these are the very actions needed to achieve your goals. To avoid this problem, once you’ve outlined the goals, strategies and action steps, take out your calendar and schedule time now to get moving on your plans.

Decide now when and how often you’re going to work on each of your goals and block the time on your calendar, keeping in mind the amount of time you’ve estimated to complete the goal. Schedule the individual action steps as appointments just as you would schedule client appointments.

Don’t leave another year to chance. Make a plan now to take action on your goals, but stay flexible. Regardless of how well you plan, obstacles may arise, the market may change or new opportunities may come to light. Keep your plan flexible by building in time to periodically review your goals and the progress of your action items and make any adjustments necessary.

(A version of this article appeared in the January 2014 issue of The Nassau Lawyer.)