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5 tricks to surviving and thriving in a highly political office

A law office is filled with many different personalities and many different dynamics.

With those differences come office politics. And with the politics the manager can become a casualty.

Here are the solutions to five situations where politics and personalities come into play. They are outlined by Margaret Hintz, SPHR, manager of HR services for Insperity, an Atlanta human resource and outsourcing company.

Trick #1: Stay away from office gossip.

Don’t get into it. Don’t add to it. Don’t listen to it.

To participate even peripherally is to take sides, Hintz says, and then the manager loses neutrality.

Rise above it and set an example of doing so. When a staffer starts in about something, put an end to it fast with “That’s not relevant to what we are doing here as a business. And I don’t appreciate gossip.”

Besides ending the conversation, that wins the staffer’s respect, because it’s proof the manager isn’t going to speak ill of anybody.

What if it’s a lawyer who starts the talk?

Do the same, albeit with greater diplomacy. The lawyers too need to know that gossip is not something their manager is going to participate in.

If Lawyer A starts into a tale about Lawyer B, redirect the conversation, preferably to business: “I appreciate your insight into that. However, I’m working on such-and-such, and I’d like to get your opinion on X.”

Trick #2: Don’t show favoritism.

The most common place favoritism is seen is in work assignments, Hintz says. The good assignments go to a few select employees. And for good reason. Those are the staffers the manager can rely on to get the work done right and on time.

The problem, though, is that the other staff come to feel left out. Worse, it’s not unknown for an overlooked staffer to claim discrimination for not being allowed to progress in the job.

“Welcome new people into the fold,” she says.

From time to time, talk with all the staff about what types of challenges they would like to take on and what their interests and strengths are and where they would like to have more training.

That tells the manager who is and isn’t interested in doing more and who’s capable of doing what so that the better assignments can be spread out among more people.

Trick #3: Go easy on the self-promotion

“A little self-promoting is okay,” Hintz says, but do it judiciously.

For example, don’t use a social event as a venue to talk about having set up a great new billing system. Save it for when the lawyers expect to hear it.

Put in on the agenda of a meeting, and even there keep it brief. Tell how the system works and what good results it has brought, and say, “I will monitor it and let you know how it plays out.” And don’t talk about it anymore. Everybody already knows about it.

Similarly, don’t hog the accolades. Give credit to anybody who participated in bringing in the new billing system. Give their names and describe their contributions so they get a little glory, too. The lawyers know a large job doesn’t get done without help.

Besides illustrating the manager’s honesty, giving people credit for their contributions is good for morale. It also evidences the manager’s leadership ability.

Trick #4: Promote the firm’s culture statement.

Your staff expect the practice to live up to what it advertises itself to be.

Suppose the office prides itself on showing respect for its employees. If it’s apparent that a lawyer is bullying a staffer, the manager needs to bring that to the attention of the managing partner. Present it in terms of how the situation is damaging to the staffer as well as the office and the clients.

Or suppose there’s a statement that the practice insists on courtesy and Lawyer A is continuously rude to staff. Take the issue to the other lawyers or to the managing partner.

Don’t express any opinion about Lawyer A’s character or ability or make statements such as “Lawyer A acts like a jerk.” Use examples and keep the focus on the business: “This is what I have observed, and it’s having an impact on morale because …”

Also give recommendations: “This is how I’d like to see it resolved.” And show flexibility: “But I’m open to other suggestions.”

Having courage enough to do that, she says, shows the manager as a true professional whose focus is the good of the practice.

Trick #5: Be fearless

If it looks like your job is in jeopardy, be a professional. Don’t give in to fear or emotion.

Job loss often happens when there’s a change in practice leadership, particularly if the new office head is at odds with the previous head and it was the latter who hired the manager. The signals of doom are things such as having duties taken away or suddenly being left out of meetings.

No matter how gloomy the forecast, “keep the emotions under control,” Hintz says. Calm down and go to the senior partner or to another trusted lawyer and address the issue directly: “I see some things that are different now. I’m no longer doing X and I’m no longer being asked to participate in the attorney meetings. I’m concerned because I want to be as effective as possible for the practice.”

In addition, tell the new managing partner, “These are the things I’ve done before. I’d like to continue these efforts, and I’d like to talk with you about how I can accomplish that.”

That keeps the discussion open. By contrast, spend the time expressing emotions and the conversation ends there.


Editor’s picks:

How in the world can anybody stop gossip?


Eight rules for running your office right, especially if it’s a small one

How to increase—and demonstrate—your value to the firm


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