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The Newly Independent Attorney: Tips For Working With Your Support Staff

When I first started practicing law, I had only limited experience as a manager. Not only that, like most new attorneys, when I first passed the bar I had only limited understanding of what it meant to truly practice law. Although law school had provided me with the tools and theory necessary to practice law, I still lacked significant experience in actual day-to-day practice of law. Despite that lack of experience, I was expected to immediately manage the members of my support staff, each of whom were older and more experienced than I was in the industry.

I’m sure I’m not alone in that department. Many attorneys begin their careers with little understanding of how to work with their support staff. Unfortunately, the attorney is ultimately responsible for making sure that projects are completed properly and timely. If things go wrong, regardless of who was responsible for the mistake, the attorney will share in all or some of the blame.

As a result, it is important to understand how to manage your staff. If you are doing your job right as a manager, you’ll get the best work out of your staff and diminish the probability that serious mistakes will occur.

Treat your staff with respect.

This might sound trite, but it is nonetheless important. Always treat your staff with respect. Demonstrate through your actions and words that you understand their value to your team. Far too often I’ve seen colleagues mistreating other colleagues and members of their support staff. This type of behavior is counterproductive and ultimately leads to resentment. Treating your colleagues with respect is the best way to encourage their best work.

It’s also important to recognize that respecting your staff also means trusting your staff. In fact, in many situations they understand their job better than you do, so treat them accordingly. In other words, don’t micromanage your team. Give them the tools and knowledge they need to accomplish the tasks that you provide them, and them trust them to get those projects done.

When mistakes do occur consider how your own actions may have contributed.

When delegating tasks to others, it can be tempting to blame those individuals when problems or mistakes occur. However, it is always worthwhile to consider how your actions may have contributed to the problem. For example, ask yourself whether you clearly communicated your instructions to your team members. Did you provide them with the best tools and all necessary information to properly complete the task you gave them?

If you conclude that your actions did contribute to the problem, consider how you can improve in the future. Even if you conclude that your actions did not directly contribute to the problem in any way, consider whether there are nonetheless ways you could improve your practices to avoid similar mistakes in the future. For example, I had a member of my support staff who regularly misinterpreted my verbal instructions. Although I felt confident that I was clearly communicating those instructions, I was able to avoid future mistakes simply by sending a brief email confirming my instructions after our discussion.

Work with your team in ways that encourage professional growth.

If there are problems with a team member’s performance speak to them about the problem politely and respectfully. Explain what the problem is and (if necessary) why it is a problem. I’d recommend then also discussing with them the reasons why they believe the problem occurred. Is this the type of mistake or problem that is likely to reoccur? If so, ask them to suggest a reasonable plan for preventing the problem from reoccurring. By doing this you ensure the following: 1) that they understand the problem; 2) that they understand why it was a problem; 3) that they understand why it occurred; and 4) that they have devised a plan for ensuring that the problem doesn’t reoccur. As a result, it is more likely that they will actually implement the necessary changes in their work practices to improve and to ensure that similar problems don’t occur.

Provide positive feedback to your staff.

Although it is important to provide constructive criticism to your staff, it’s equally important to let your staff know when they are performing good work. Positive reinforcement encourages more high quality work, improves workplace morale, and builds loyalty. People are able to do their best work, and enjoy their work most, when they feel like their work is valued.

Do you have any tips for working with the members of a support staff? Let us know in the comments.

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  1. Mina says:

    How do you deal with staff (as an associate, not a partner) who just can’t seem to do their job correctly no matter how many times you tell them? This same staff person makes daily chat/complain visits to another member of staff who does not work for the same partner. This other staff member coddles the first staff person and tells him how mean I am to be frustrated with his lack of ability to do his job and follow my instructions, which I have given him verbally and in writing numerous times. Other staff don’t have the same problem and I get along fine with them.
    We all make mistakes, me included certainly! But really, is it so hard to figure out (after 3 months) how to process a letter or court document properly? Or keep a file up to date? Or calendar court appearances?

  2. Everyday Law Staff says:

    Hi Mina,

    That sounds like a frustrating situation! This question is a bit beyond my place to speak, so I’d like to connect you with an attorney who can speak to you directly about your situation. It may help your situation. Please see this link for more information:

    Or if you’d like to do some research before making a call to an attorney, you can utilize our resources on employment. I’ve found some articles that may be relevant to your situation:

    Best of luck to you!