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Build A Winning Team Through Enlightened Empowerment

How can you fill your law firm with loyal, enthusiastic and motivated workers?

The answer is Enlightened Empowerment.

Enlightenment means all team members know their individual roles and understand how they fit into the larger picture. Empowerment means they are given not just the tools to succeed but also the freedom to bring their full creative potential to work each day.

When these two qualities are brought together, magic happens. Enlightened Empowerment begins with some basic assumptions:

  • The command and control concept of running a law firm - where key decisions are made by one or a few people at the top and communicated down the line - is history.
  • The new workplace is horizontal, not vertical. Meaningful discussions occur back and forth, not up and down. Think verdant field, not ivory tower.
  • Everyone from the senior partner to the stockboy is a valuable member of the team and a stakeholder in every important decision.
  • Information should flow freely and easily throughout the law firm. Think blood circulating in a healthy body, not medicine inching down a drip-tube. Technology helps facilitate this flow.

Step One: Pick the right people

It's easy to identify good prospects for your team. They relish a good challenge. They smile easily and often. They are forward-thinking. They are creative.

This criteria should apply to all hires, from managers to mail clerks, and it might lead to some unconventional choices.

For example, let's say your firm just purchased a New Expensive Switchboard and is looking for someone to run it. On your desk are two resumes. Candidate A has prior experience at a top law firm that used this exact same New Expensive Switchboard. Candidate B has never worked at a law firm and is unfamiliar with the New Expensive Switchboard.

Slam dunk, right? Not so fast. What if you take the time to actually interview both candidates. You learn that Candidate B quite capably managed the front desk of a busy startup with twice the call volume of your firm, while also finding time to publish the company newsletter, build its social media presence and organize its softball team.

What if you also know that training on the New Expensive Switchboard is available online for a few bucks?

The point being that the full measure of a person cannot be summarized on a single sheet of paper in Times-Roman font. Dig deeper for hidden treasure.

Step Two: Enlightenment

Being enlightened does not mean knowing how to do your job. That's called being qualified. Enlightenment means understanding: (1) what you are expected to do; (2) why the world will be a sadder and less functional place if you don't do it; and (3) how it fits into the grander scheme.

Most law firms do number one just fine. Orientation, training, mentoring and shadowing are all ways of assuring baseline competence.

And some firms are great at number two. They let their employees know they are valued and appreciated by way of pay hikes, promotions, backslaps, attaboys, gold stars and corner offices.

But most firms need improvement with number three. The lowly associate who spends hours researching the dusty minutiae of patent law might never get to see how one obscure case citation carries the day in court. Or the staff member who assembles and copies a box full of documents might not have a clue as to the critical value those exhibits hold.

Perhaps if they were given a glimpse of the forest they might grow prettier trees.

Let that associate tag along to a deposition. Invite your secretary to sit in on your next real estate closing. Personally introduce new clients to the various team members who will be working on their case. Hire paralegals and legal assistants who have shown initiative by earning academic degrees and certification.

Keep enlightenment burning bright through education. Encourage team members to attend outside courses. Conduct in-house seminars on topical issues. Review the State Bar accounting rules - especially disbarments involving embezzlement - with everyone who works with the trust account.

Step Three: Empowerment

This is where the fun begins.

Now that you have hired great people and brought them into the fold, turn them loose.

Think Moneyball. Everyone has different skills, preferences and temperaments. Capitalize on these differences to create a championship team.

Get to know your teammates. Discover their strengths. Encourage feedback and actively listen when they talk. Be open to new ideas. Don't take things personally.

A sure way to discourage people is to try and force them to be something they aren't. It never works. After all, you can put a tutu on a cow but that doesn't make it a ballerina.

And let your people know you trust them. We do our best work when we know others have faith in us.

This is not to suggest that employees be allowed to run wild. You have an ethical duty to supervise your team. Accountability, safeguards and double-checks are necessary.

But supervision does not have to be stifling. It can be liberating. When boundaries are clearly identified, we can use the entire playing field and not just a tiny patch.

So start enlightening and empowering those around you. Then sit back and enjoy the results.

Ernest (Jay) Reeves Jr. is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. He has practiced in both states and was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He writes the Risk Man column of practice pointers and risk management tips. Contact jay.reeves@ymail.com, phone 919-619-2441. www.riskmanlawsolutions.com.

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