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Question: From a firm administrator’s perspective, what could a lawyer do to be a better boss?
Sharon Abrahams: Lawyers are saddled with one of the most important jobs related to the supervision of their administrative staff: providing constructive feedback. Feedback is your tool to improve the performance of the people you work with, including those you’ve selected to manage your firm. Your objective in giving feedback is to enhance performance by supplying information that guides people toward the level and quality of work you expect.
For any feedback to be effective, you must focus communication on modifying a situation, correcting a behavior or improving work performance. The communication should never be seen as an attack on character or personality. By making specific observations, those you supervise will understand exactly what needs to be changed. General feedback is often more confusing than helpful. Do not talk vaguely about the situation, behavior or work product. Use specific examples. Offering suggestions on what and how to improve performance shows that your intent is genuine and that you have thought about how to improve the situation or the individual’s performance.
Pay attention to what your administrators and staff tell you, too. Allowing people the opportunity to respond without interruption builds their confidence and shows you value their comments and ideas. It also helps avoid misunderstanding or misinterpretations.
Summarizing the feedback session can prevent further misunderstanding, and checks to see if the communication has been clear. Use this opportunity to show support and encouragement. Be sure the person leaves the session in a positive frame of mind instead of being resentful toward any constructive or negative aspects of the discussion. Acknowledging the session was productive and useful ends the session on a positive note.
Dr. Sharon M. Abrahams is dedicated to helping attorneys be more productive and profitable. She has written three books for the American Bar Association, including her most recent, “100 Plus Pointers for Business Development.” Sharon has more than 20 years’ experience in the training and education field specializing in client relations, marketing, communication and management/leadership development training.
Paul Morton: To understand what lawyers could do to be better bosses, we must understand what makes a “good” boss. What is it that makes an individual who is in a position of authority over another person be viewed in a positive way? In her article “What Makes a Great Boss?,” Melanie J. Douglas says there are a number of things one can expect from a great boss, including clearly set expectations, useful feedback, recognition of efforts, inclusive behavior and open and truthful interactions. She writes that great bosses can be made, but they are not necessarily born that way. This gives us hope that lawyers can become better.
The traits that lawyers are taught in law school are not usually the same traits that would lead to strong supervisory skills. Lawyers are taught to be analytical, authoritative and somewhat competitive. To be a great boss, you need to believe that the people you are supervising have value, can contribute to the goals of the organization, can think, learn and act independently, and ultimately be an important part of the client service team.
To be able to do these things as a boss, you must have respect for the people being supervised. If you can accept that an employee is a professional in his field, even if he does not have a law degree, then it can be a great jumping-off point. You can teach, lead and nurture an employee, recognizing his value and how the employee can get better. And the employee must be made to feel an important part of that team.
Being a good boss is something you must work at all the time. If you want to be a good boss then you can make it happen.
Paul R. Morton is the Chief Operating Officer of Burns & Levinson LLP, a mid-size law firm based in Boston. With a background in education and counseling, he has managed and led law firms for more than 30 years. He has learned from good bosses and has tried to both be a good boss and teach others to do the same.
Not every law firm has a full-time administrator or professional management to guide them. Send us your questions via email, or use the comment section below, and we’ll pass them on to the experts at the Association of Legal Administrators. Watch for the best ones here in “Ask the Experts.”
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