Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : February 2009


There are law offices where it is obvious that a professional, upbeat and team-oriented attitude on the part of both attorneys and staff is pervasive (and contagious) – the kind of team approach that leads both to outstanding client service and to retaining key associates and staff members. The actions and attitudes of a dedicated team can go a long way toward helping to mitigate finger-pointing and other counterproductive measures. But is that feeling the French so aptly named esprit de corps attainable? And if your office has it now, how can you keep it?

With regard to creating an efficient team that works together well, if you don’t yet have one, look to hiring individuals whose outlook and attitudes “fit” with your attitudes and those of existing staff and associates – even if such hires do not have experience that is directly on point. Staff and new associates who blend well into the existing environment from a personality standpoint will tend to stay with your team, thereby reducing hiring costs along with opportunities for friction.

If you consider yourself an attorney fortunate enough to be surrounded already by a core group of individuals who help you produce outstanding services, how do you ensure that associates and staff reporting to you stay put? To begin, provide training when necessary. Staff members will be more productive when they have been shown the ropes in areas in which they are lacking expertise or their skills require a brush-up. While training is an expensive investment, especially when billable hours can be spent elsewhere, it tends to pay for itself.

The actions and attitudes
of a dedicated team can go a long way toward helping to mitigate finger-pointing and other counterproductive measures.

Moving to a live example of outstanding teamwork in action, say you, as the senior partner, have at your disposal the resources of one associate, one paralegal and one legal administrative assistant (LAA). Further assume that in an ideal scenario the closing you are overseeing should be allocated to at least two associates, one paralegal, your LAA plus a temporary or floating LAA available to you on an as-needed basis. How do you, in effect, ensure that you are getting roughly one-and-a-half times the output per person?

Remember that flexibility is critical. Remember that in the best of teams, each member has a somewhat fluid role. Associates temporarily willing to take on the tasks usually assigned to a paralegal free some of the paralegal’s time to pitch in with the LAA’s administrative workload. (While it is stating the obvious, a note of caution here: As the senior attorney, make sure that no staff member is so pressed for time that she or he crosses the ethical line by seeming to give legal advice.)

Resist the desire to play the blame game. Keep in mind that as the pressure of a deadline looms so too does the propensity for people to point fingers. Get over the very human desire to say “it’s not my fault” and instead, when faced with a mistake made by you, your associate or a staff member, respond with, “Here’s what went wrong; how soon can we fix it?”

Say “Merci.” Remember that a simple “thank you” goes a long way. Yes, of course each of us is paid to provide excellent, professional service to our clients. But when a transaction has been especially stressful, and when the project is resolved successfully, at the end of the day most of us like to hear a sincere “thanks for your help.” The bottom line is that most good staff relations boil down to simple common courtesy.

Make time to assess and reflect as a group. As soon as possible after closing, treat the team members to lunch. During this lunch, ask each person to reflect on the process of the closing and offer opinions as to what went wrong and right. When you agree with the feedback provided, follow up. Is additional training necessary? Could some mistakes have been prevented if staff had been permitted to work (additional) overtime? Investigate and, going forward, put into action the policies that will help all of your team members succeed.

So is that much sought-after ideal of esprit de corps built gradually through constant attention? Does it instead spring into life the moment the senior partner desires it? Well, the short answer is that experience tells us most good and lasting things are built over time. Using the tips above, you can surround yourself with professionals who are expected to wear many hats but nevertheless are poised to spring into action immediately when the economy begins to recover.

Elizabeth de Mozenette is a real estate paralegal with the law firm of Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, LLP in Baltimore, Maryland. Editing thanks to Jennifer Boehm, of the same firm.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: February 2009

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