Six years ago, when my partner and I founded Pacific Workers’, The Lawyers for Injured Workers, we saw a revolving door of our non-lawyers. We realized that in order to grow our firm, we would need to focus on the non-lawyer staff just as much as the attorneys. We began to embrace a culture of safety as well as personal and professional development.
The following has been adapted from The Case for Culture.
A few years ago, I was on an airplane and got to chatting with the guy sitting next to me. He was also a lawyer running his own firm. “How many people do you have?” I asked.
“There’s four of us,” he said.
“So, two attorneys and two paralegals?” I asked.
“Oh, no, I mean four lawyers. We have five assistants, so I guess there’s nine in total. But we have four lawyers,” he said.
This guy forgot more than half his workforce. He was very successful in an interesting practice, and I’m guessing his support staff worked their asses off for him, yet he essentially ignored their existence. Unfortunately, he’s not alone in this. It’s common for law firms to consider attorneys first and other employees second—if at all.
Treating support staff as second-class citizens hurts your law firm, but as I’ll explore, it’s possible to earn your support staff’s loyalty without sacrificing the respect given to your lawyers.
Employees Don’t Feel Safe When They Feel Replaceable
When support staff are relegated to the rank of second-class citizen, they do not feel safe or secure in their positions. Naturally, it’s difficult to care about the success of a company that makes you feel replaceable and disrespected.
I’ve seen firms where everyone addressed the attorneys as Mr. or Ms. but used first names for support staff. They insisted that attorneys be shown a level of deference that was deliberately withheld from support staff. It created a culture of hierarchy—a caste system that labeled support staff as less deserving of respect than attorneys.
To rid your firm of the social hierarchy, you must encourage respect for all employees. Get rid of the caste system that currently makes support staff—paralegals, assistants, receptionists, IT techs, the mailroom staff, operations teams—feel replaceable and puts undue pressure on attorneys.
Provide Professional Development Opportunities
In almost every law firm I’ve encountered, employees in support roles have an inherent feeling that their professional development does not matter, as they are not on track to become lawyers. I am certain this problem is rampant amongst most professional service organizations, but law firms feel it particularly acutely.
Most professionals in other industries engage in professional development through classes, retreats, and training, but the law industry’s caste system extends into education. Firms support their attorneys’ growth but do almost nothing to assist in the training and development of support staff.
To get rid of the hierarchy, introduce more professional development opportunities for your support staff. When we invest in the growth of our support staff, their performance improves. Invariably, so does that of our company. If support staff feel they have value, they will work harder, be more devoted, and collaborate better with attorneys.
Autonomy over one’s job is one of the key metrics of job satisfaction. If we simply hand support staff of bunch of forms to fill out without giving the opportunity to help decide the best process, they become little more than assembly line workers in an office setting. They are not. They are knowledge workers and sherpas of the client experience. Give them a voice to speak up and make changes, especially to the work they do everyday. Make sure they know their voice is valued.
In a great company culture, speaking up, contributing with a full-voice is rewarded. This is where you can truly see how a team member can contribute on a larger scale. When people don’t feel safe, they won’t speak up when they see mistakes. In our firm we encourage a practice called the ‘failure log’. Everyone keeps one on their desk. Since the pandemic it has become virtual. Every time they see a mistake, no matter how small, they write it down and bring it to the attention of the person to fix it. Keeping quiet and not reporting mistakes is the failure. We use this to help us find those tiny mistakes to refine our process but also to see who is paying attention.
Giving people autonomy, involving them in the process, constant training in their positions to help them get better will raise their game.
I’m often asked what kind of training do you give non-lawyers… just about anything that will improve them in their job. Customer service, legal… or how about simply how to write a great email.
Your Attorneys Will Appreciate the Change, Too
You might be asking, “Won’t my attorneys feel disrespected?” but I have not found this to be the case in firms that make the switch. That’s because in addition to demoralizing support staff, the caste system puts undue pressure on attorneys. They feel the weight of carrying the firm and constantly strive to earn the title bestowed on them. When you don’t train the support staff or make them feel 100% equal in the process, the burden falls on the attorney to carry the load.
When you treat everyone as equally deserving of respect, it takes the pressure off attorneys to carry the mantle. It allows your attorneys to focus on the job they’re doing and not the title and social role that accompanies it. Fewer distractions equals better performance. Recently, we had a new attorney join us. I asked her what the difference was between her last firm and ours. She replied that her staff really connect with the clients. Their ability to have trust allows her to get her job done, she doesn’t have to get on every client call.
This is how it is supposed to work. When the non-lawyers are well trained, confident, see opportunity and are treated as equals, they lean into their job, do their part and it allows everyone to be more productive.
Find the Balance
It may take you some trial and error to find the right balance for your company. Remember, the goal isn’t to overly focus on either your support staff or attorneys; it’s to create an environment that respects and celebrates everyone. By showing all of your employees that they’re valued, they’ll feel more loyalty toward your firm, respect for one another, and a greater willingness to collaborate across roles—a clear-cut win for everyone involved.