I hired Pat over 30 years ago, and she has worked either with me or in association with me ever since. She never was a great legal secretary, but she’s reasonably bright, loyal and, for the most part, hardworking. However, as can happen to the rest of us, over time her skills have fallen further and further behind what is needed in the firm. In that time, my role has certainly changed, and she has been shifted several times into positions more suited to what she could do.
Each move has meant lower status and expectations, and she knows that what she does has decreased in importance and meaning, too. All of which has translated to less interest on her part, and lower morale and performance.
The Invisibles: What to Do?
I was worried that Pat was going to become one of those older less-productive staff members who can create problems for the firm and co-workers. What to do?
My first stop was to her new supervisor, an aggressive administrator who knows how to get new staff engaged and motivated. There are lots of kids out there who want the chance to show that they can learn and work hard. While sympathetic with my concern, she feels that replacing Pat would be easy, result in better work performance, and probably cost less. She’s willing to work with Pat, but doesn’t see a need to “carry” her.
My second stop was to HR. Their first concern was age discrimination. How are performance expectations communicated to Pat? How are they measured and is there sufficient documentation of her performance? The newer systems cover these codified parameters reasonably well, but don’t account for the human side, in my opinion. (It is supposed to be human resources, after all.)
I also talked with several of my partners who had worked with Pat and felt some degree of responsibility for her. However, none of us felt that she should be given too much leeway; after all, it is a business. We’ve all had to help older partners find their way out of the firm at some point.
So, after talking with these people and listening to their advice, here’s what I came up with:
- Pat’s performance was the key to her being able to remain with the firm.
- Her performance was linked directly with her sense of contribution and worth.
- We had to find ways to honestly value her contribution and communicate that to her.
The Morale Issue
In looking at this, I became aware that maybe we weren’t doing much of a job valuing any of the administrative staff. Sure, the legal secretaries and paralegals got kudos from their attorneys often (well, at least sometimes), but what about that nearly invisible crowd I’ve heard referred to as “administrative fluff”? We really weren’t doing much for them; except letting them graze the leftovers from our “important” meetings.
I raised the issue through the right channels (had private conversations with key people, gathered some intelligence, discussed it at the next partner meeting) and got support for more recognition for staff and more explicit appreciation for their role in making the firm profitable.
Within that context, it was easier for us to communicate directly with Pat about her contribution. In addition, the managing partner dropped by to let her know that her years of contribution had not gone unnoticed. Pat’s supervisor was able to shift Pat’s workspace to a spot nearer her old cohorts, and closer to some of the old guys she had worked with, like me.
I also realized that I had been avoiding Pat, because I was a little uncomfortable with her reduced role and perceived unhappiness. I suppose I felt guilty. So I made a concerted effort to stop by and visit with her. Some of the others did the same and it was obvious that just that little bit of contact was helping her morale. And her performance, as reported by her supervisor, had improved, too. Pat became more visible and more valuable.
It wasn’t all that easy, of course. There were some tense times, and a few rough conversations, and it’s not likely Pat will stay around for more than another year or so. But I’ve enjoyed a resumption in our friendship, and it may be that I have more in common with Pat than I realized. After all, I’ve been around a long time and, frankly, I’d like to leave while I’m still appreciated and can still add value.
Maybe it’s like they say: “Some people brighten a room when they enter, and some when they leave.”
Otto Sorts has been reading law since before Martindale met Hubbell. Of Counsel at a large corporate firm that prefers to remain anonymous, Otto is a respected attorney and champion of the grand tradition of the law. He is, however, suspicious of “new-fangled” management ideas and anyone who calls the profession the legal “industry.” When he gets really cranky about something he blogs at Attorney at Work.