How to Cure Your Support Staff Blues & Get the Firm’s Business Back on Track
Paralegals are the lifeblood of any law firm. Attorneys depend on them for anything and everything that doesn’t strictly require a law license.
But surveys of legal support professionals across the country suggest that paralegals often struggle with morale, feeling overburdened and underappreciated for their extremely critical role in the firm.
Your own practical experience in hiring, managing, and firing paralegals over the years may have left you with the same conclusion.
This matters. As a business, your law firm performs better when paralegals are firing on all cylinders, so there is a real business imperative in boosting morale.
How to do that, though? This is a conundrum for many lawyers (and especially for managing partners), who aren’t always inclined toward sentiment and who certainly don’t have time to fret over everyone’s feelings.
Your time is a concern, certainly. But business operations are, as a rule, human operations. Feelings are a part of the human experience, and so they are a part of the business experience. Failing to tend to them — particularly to the feeling of being underappreciated — is simply bad for business.
In this article, we offer several strategies for improving attorney-paralegal relations and boosting morale across your law firm’s entire support staff.
1. Understand What Motivates Them
Attorneys understand one another because they’re motivated by the same kinds of things — the win-loss record, the size of the contingency fee, the competition with colleagues, the need to make the most of many years of education, the success of the firm, and so on.
These are not the same things that motivate most paralegals. They are employees of the firm, so they don’t share in your profits. Generally speaking, their careers do not rise and fall on a record of verdicts, settlements, and judgments. They do not have extensive schooling or substantial student debt that they still need to justify. No one is rating them on Avvo.com.
As an employer and/or manager, it is your job to understand your employee’s motivations and speak to them.
What’s The Motivation?
Some of these motivations are universal. Employees, as a general matter, are motivated by appreciation and acknowledgment. (Time and again, studies have found that American employees value a feeling of workplace appreciation over incremental increases in their salaries!)
But much of motivation is personal, too. Each of us is motivated differently, so to really connect with your paralegals, you’ll need to understand their unique personalities and goals. You need to figure out how they tick.
To that end, you might fancy yourself an interpersonal communications expert for a week or two and dive into a few studies of human behavior.
There’s Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies, for instance — a book that divides people into one of four categories based on what motivates them. And if you don’t have extra time to read the book, there’s a quiz that can be taken online.
Or the classic Gary Chapman guide, The Five Love Languages (just make sure you’re using it to understand how each paralegal receives tokens of appreciation… not to woo them, lest you cross a line).
Getting to know and understand someone takes time and effort, but you’ll be a better boss for it.
2. Observe the Criticism-to-Compliment Ratio
It’s a simple principle, but it’s tried and true. Constructive criticism is most effective when it’s couched in compliments. Unconstructive criticism, meanwhile, isn’t effective at all.
We suggest following this single, familiar rule: for every criticism, give at least three compliments.
Don’t force it, though. If you rebuke an employee and then robotically spew out three random compliments, no one’s going to buy it. Authenticity is key.
So here’s the challenge: start actively looking for things your paralegals do well. Remember them. Make note of them. And when you’re impressed, say so.
As long as you’re offering praise more frequently than correction, the latter will be received in the right spirit and is more likely to take root.
3. Give the Right Kind of Gift
Almost everyone enjoys receiving gifts (whether they admit it or not). But gift giving isn’t as easy as it sounds. How do you give someone something they really want without spending a fortune or sending the wrong message?
Well, don’t overcomplicate things. Choose from this go-to list of gifts and you’ll never go wrong:
- Retail gift cards
- Spa gift cards
- Movie theater gift cards
- Coffee mugs / mug warmers
- Keurig or Nespresso coffee & espresso makers (you can find great deals at Walmart or Amazon)
- Dining certificates
Some experts recommend chocolates, candies, and flowers. There is nothing inherently wrong with those gifts, but given their traditional role in romance, you should be mindful of dynamics and personalities before bestowing them on your subordinates.
Cards are always a nice complement to gifts, too. You’ll find some examples of paralegal-specific greeting cards here, here, and here.
4. Consider Custom Coupons
In addition to gifts, a do-it-yourself coupon (the kind your kids make for your birthday) can be surprisingly morale-boosting. These are ideal for paralegals who are raising children, supporting aging parents, dealing with hectic home lives, or who commute a long distance to work.
Coupon ideas include:
- No-Questions-Asked “Kids Made Me Late” Coupon
- Extend a Vacation by One Day
- Half-Day Off
- Free Fridays
- Take a “Someone Else Is Sick” Day
- Double Your Lunch Break
- Play Any Music You Want in the Office Day
- Bring Your Kids to Work Day
You might stipulate that advance notice is required for redemption (to avoid being caught off guard on the worst possible day).
5. Know Your Holidays
When should you give all these gifts, cards, and coupons? There’s never a wrong time. “Just because” gifts are always welcome, and a well-timed present can also make for the perfect mea culpa.
But there are days when gifts are especially appropriate… and at least two times a year when they’re downright expected — Legal Assistants Day and the winter holidays (during which a bonus might stand in lieu of a gift).
Nothing is worse for morale than your paralegals learning that their colleagues in other firms were treated to a lavish lunch or spa day while they didn’t get so much as a trinket.
Here are a few occasions when a token of your appreciation might be appropriate:
- Legal Assistants Day — Designated for March 26 each year, it’s your official chance to celebrate the hardworking legal support specialist in your life.
- Administrative Professionals’ Day — Celebrated nationally on the Wednesday of the last full week in April, APD celebrates support professionals of every kind: secretaries, administrative assistants, office clerks, receptionists, and so on. Paralegals are often included in that category, but be careful. Some legal support professionals resent having their services conflated with secretarial work, so if you recognize Administrative Professionals’ Day, it’s best to do it in addition to Legal Assistants Day, not in place of.
- Administrative Professionals Week — Many workplaces extend the APD celebration throughout the entire final week of April.
- National Holidays — Whether it’s a federal holiday, a religious observance, or a day of local significance, festivity is always well received.
- Birthdays — Don’t let an employee’s birthday slip by unrecognized. While large gifts aren’t necessary, you do want to convey the sense that the day is special.
- Create Your Own Office Holiday — Do you feel that office morale needs a giant shot in the arm? Making up a staff holiday is quite a gesture. It just might do the trick.
- Make Working Holidays Fun — Most law firms don’t close for Halloween, but that doesn’t mean you can’t decorate, wear costumes (outside of court, at least), or have a Halloween cake on hand. Look for ways to incorporate festivity during “minor” holidays throughout the year.
6. Get Out of the Office
At least once a year, take your staff out to eat at a nice restaurant. Or, if lunch sounds too stuffy, consider a retreat. (Very large law firms will likely need to do this by practice group or department.)
Dinners, outings, parties, and team-building exercises can all work wonders of camaraderie — sometimes in just a few hours. It’s amazing what a little shakeup can do.
7. Provide Education
You paid a lot of money to go to law school, where you learned a lot from other lawyers. But your paralegals have an opportunity to learn a great deal from you for free. Convey that in a way that seems like an opportunity, not an obligation or condescension.
Offer to send them to continuing education courses, legal seminars, or even to court for the day. The insight they’ll gain will make them more well-rounded legal professionals, and that’s ultimately to your benefit. Alternatively, you might offer to conduct an in-house legal seminar yourself.
More than anything, you want your staff members to feel extremely comfortable asking questions whenever they aren’t sure about something. Those who are too intimidated to speak up are more likely to make mistakes or compromise efficiency.
8. Thin Out the Bad Blood
Is there festering resentment in the paralegal-attorney relationship? It’s time to stop those nasty feelings in their tracks. They’re counter-productive and toxic to productivity.
If you have a concern, address it. What if you suspect your employees are the ones with a grievance to share? Open up the floor and listen earnestly. If you need to apologize, do so forthrightly.
Communication fixes everything. So get to the root of your problem and then start over with a clean slate.
9. Give Them Less to Do
If you want to tick off your paralegals, start assigning them arduous, time-consuming tasks that (A) aren’t in their job description and (B) get in the way of the work they were actually trained and hired to do.
Case in point: law firm marketing.
Paralegals didn’t pursue a career in marketing, don’t have a background in it, and don’t have the available hours in their work day to devote to it.
Unfortunately, too many lawyers make the mistake of saddling their support staff with marketing demands. It doesn’t work for anyone. The job doesn’t get done, the law firm website doesn’t move up within the relevant Google search results, and the firm’s case support suffers because the assistants are distracted.
Let paralegals be paralegals and assign your marketing to marketers instead.
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