Letter from the Law Society: Building a Stronger Team
I recall my early years in the practice of law. Senior partners were mysterious and frightening and were addressed as “Mr. X”, and rarely spoken to. Today, the law firm is a different place – still somewhat hierarchical, but the formality and stiffness of the ‘80s is gone.
Today, students and associates do not just expect feedback, respect and collegiality in the workplace, they demand it. And for those firms who fail to provide it, they feel the inevitable result in turnover, scarce resources and lack of support. Senior lawyers may think they do not have time to accommodate these demands, but what I have learned is that we simply cannot afford not to.
With rising demand for good legal talent, and head-hunters routinely reaching out to offer big bonuses and salaries to our associates, now, more than ever, it is an absolute necessity to build a workplace where associates feel appreciated and valued. The biweekly deposit to their bank account is no longer sufficient reward for the long hours and demands of the typical legal workplace. Lawyers and firms who overlook this will find themselves without the critical members of their legal teams.
I have been fortunate to work with some really exceptional team builders over the years, and those people have some common traits and techniques. Each of them ensures that everyone knows what important roles they play on the team, they share the success with all those who contribute to it, and they ensure that everyone gets regular and specific feedback on their performance on a timely basis.
Here are a few lessons I have learned from these exceptional leaders:
The importance of saying thank you for a job well done or an extraordinary effort cannot be overstated. Recognizing the impact of someone’s work on the final results or the impact on the client’s matter are enormously important. Even better, if a message of appreciation is provided by the client, do not underestimate the power of sharing that with the team and adding individual messages of thanks for their role in the successful result.
In situations where the file did not go as well as it might have, the value of a post-closing or post-trial conference with the team to discuss what went well and what could be improved for the next time is essential. It is important that this feedback is specific and constructive, and not demeaning or accusatory. Team leaders can hone their leadership skills in this process and learn how better to manage the project for future matters.
Consider the unintended messages you might be delivering through your emails, actions or correspondence. An email in full caps can come across as the equivalent of shouting – not appropriate in verbal or written form. Before I became aware of this, I was often guilty of hitting CAPS LOCK and sending a full caps email which was received by a puzzled staff member or associate.
Also consider the timing of requests – late Friday requests may imply that you expect a response before Monday morning. Be clear about the expectation and if a weekend response is required due to client demands, make that clear and apologize for the short notice. My experience is that associates are happy to pitch in on weekends where it’s required in order to meet client demands (and not where it just arises as a result of partner delay or disorganization). Whatever the case, be sure to identify the relevant time frames and requirements in the instructions.
I am famous for brevity in my emails but have learned that “See me please” is never well received by a colleague. I now try and utilize slightly longer and more descriptive emails, such as “Let’s discuss timeline” or “I have a few comments on your memo, do you have time to discuss?” which are infinitely better for the recipient. The legal world has enough inherent stress without unnecessarily adding to it by inappropriate email communication.
Also be very careful with comments that could be misinterpreted – anything that could be interpreted as too familiar or comments on appearance are absolutely not appropriate in 2022. Even compliments such as “you look nice today” or “that’s a pretty blouse” really have no place in an office environment. If you are wondering whether a comment is appropriate or not, err on the side of caution.
While we are on the topic of well-meaning but inappropriate comments, always remember not to discount someone’s (generally a young female someone’s) interest in participating on a file or being involved in a project because they have a young family. Assess their competence for the task and let them decide on their own capacity/availability.
Well-meaning senior partners saying “This will involve a lot of nights/weekends/travels, so [usually “she”] won’t want to take this on with her young family” can make a person feel like they are being excluded. Let the competent, capable person who is being offered the opportunity have the choice of saying:
“Yes, I’d love to take this on”; or
“No, I can’t accommodate those kinds of demands right now”; or
“I would love to be involved in this project, but the travel might be a problem for me – could some of the meetings be held virtually?”
Accommodation is not just important in creating a fair, inclusive workplace, but a great way to create loyalty in an employee who feels their value to the firm has been recognized while their personal circumstances have been recognized and accommodated.
One of the most effective team building partners in my office has taught me to always include our associates and students in our activities, whether that is a quick walk across the pedway to grab a coffee or inviting juniors to client meetings, or social events. I think this really contributes to the feeling that we are all in this together. It gives juniors the valuable experience of meeting with clients and it gives clients the opportunity to meet all members of the team.
I hope these suggestions will be helpful in thinking about how to build stronger teams. We work in a high-stress environment, and the consequence of mistakes can be significant. We all want to work with the very best teams possible, to contribute to a great result for our clients. In order to do that, we need to develop those teams and create an environment that people do not want to leave. Our daily words and actions are so important in delivering the message to our colleagues that they are valued and important members of the team. This goes a long way in encouraging both retention and drive amongst our teams to produce the best possible results.
All the best,
Darlene W. Scott, QC
President, Law Society of Alberta