In today’s episode, I’m talking about firing your family from your law firm. I know I have talked about the need for us to really have very clear boundaries with those that we employ so that we can get optimal performance out of our team, and how that is particularly necessary when you have family members in your law firm. Today, I want to expound upon that a little bit because I know that there are several people out there who started off their law firm not having a whole lot of revenue, not having a whole lot of clients. As a result, they had their spouse, or another family member, come into their law firm to provide some much-needed assistance.
I don’t want to say that working with family never works. There is definitely a positive element to having family members in your law firm. But I want to talk about, in particular, the challenge of firing your family because so many people I know are contemplating that, and/or have already gone down that road- and there have been ripple effects.
In this episode we discuss:
The challenge associated with having family work in your law firm.
Setting boundaries when you add another person to your culture.
Risking a claim if you treat employees differently.
How different circumstances can determine the manner in which you fire someone.
Remaining in the context of the employer when terminating a relative.
Allison Williams: [00:00:12] Hi, everybody, it’s Allison Williams here, your Law Firm Mentor. Law Firm Mentor is a business coaching service for solo and small law firm attorneys. We help you grow your revenues, crush chaos in business and make more money.
Allison Williams: [00:00:16] Hi, everybody, it’s Allison Williams here, your Law Firm Mentor and welcome back to another episode of the Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor Podcast, where this week we’re going to talk about firing your family from your law firm. Now I know I have talked about the dysfunction of family in the past, and I’ve talked about the need for us to really have very clear boundaries with those that we employ so that we can get optimal performance out of our team. And that is particularly necessary when you have family members in your law firm. But today, I want to expound upon that a little bit because I know that there are several people out there who started off their law firm not having a whole lot of revenue, not having a whole lot of clients. And as a result, they had their spouse or their mom or dad or siblings come into their law firm to provide some much-needed assistance. So I don’t want to say that you can never make it work, to work with your family, right? We know that some people have a very close relationship with their loved ones and who better to be loyal to you, to give you support, to have your back, to always be on their grind than those that you obviously have a closest relationship with. And frankly, those that have the most to gain by virtue of you being successful. Because if you are successful in your business and you are married to the person who is working alongside you in the business, they will reap the fruits of that labor right alongside you.
Allison Williams: [00:01:52] Right? So there is definitely a positive element to having family members in your law firm. But I want to talk about, in particular, the challenge of firing your family because so many people I know are contemplating that and or have already gone down that road and there have been ripple effects. So the first, we’re going to talk about the challenges associated with it.
Allison Williams: [00:02:17] So the first challenge associated with having family in your law firm in the first place is the challenge to your culture. So you may think that having a family-owned business right is stacked with mom, sister, cousin, aunt, all in there working alongside you is going to create a stronger workplace, right? Because they’re on your side, they’re loyal, they know what needs to be done, and they, to some degree, have a vested interest in seeing you be successful. The challenge with that is when you start adding in other people, because even though you may say we’re all equal here, right, we all have to do the work here, we all have to meet the requirements of the employer here.
Allison Williams: [00:03:00] The reality is, if your mom screws something up, it is going to be more challenging for another employee who might be inclined normally to come to you as the saving grace and say, Hey boss, I wanted to let you know that the new girl in aisle four has just messed up X, Y, Z. She’s probably not going to say that if the new girl is your mom right, or if it is, if the relationship is the other way around. If you have had mom here for years and someone comes in, that person is going to have a different attitude toward your relatives than they might have toward just any other employee. And this doesn’t have to be inherently bad, but it tends to be… not universal. But it tends to be that when somebody comes into a workplace, they are always looking for the hierarchy, right?
Allison Williams: [00:03:48] They’re looking for who is the boss on paper and then who is the real boss, who is the one that tells me what to do? Who is the one that influences whether I get my paycheck? Who is the person that’s going to either help me to get promoted or who’s going to sideline me and lead to me being fired? So it’s really challenging when you start stacking the deck of your law firm with people who are in that family category because people who are not in that family category are oftentimes at a disadvantage and they feel it. They feel that they’re not necessarily on equal footing with your other employees because you might be inclined to fire them or if they don’t get along with your sister or mom, brother, cousin, you might be inclined to fire your relatives, but it’s less likely that a person would instinctually believe, yeah, they’re going to fire their relative before they fire me.
Allison Williams: [00:04:38] The person who is the, the non-relative is going to say, Yeah, they’re going to fire me first, which means I don’t just have to do what’s necessary to keep my boss happy. I have to do what’s necessary to keep the employer happy. And the employer could be someone who is not necessarily you, meaning on paper, right? The words on paper could be my boss is attorney Smith. But if the words on paper are not what actually plays out in their day-to-day work experience and mom, dad, cousin, uncle, husband are the ones who are calling the shots. They’re going to be responding to that person as if that person is truly the one calling the shots. And that can hurt your culture, OK?
Allison Williams: [00:05:24] Now, another consideration is when it comes to setting boundaries, because one of the challenges that you’re always going to have when you add a person to a culture, right? When you’re starting super small, when it’s just you and one team member, whether that person is full-time, part-time virtual doesn’t really matter. As soon as you add a second person to that culture, that container changed and the change is felt more profoundly when you have a smaller community because the smaller community is a composite of all of the attributes of each person in that community. And as soon as you add another person, you’ve now diluted it by a significant margin, right?
Allison Williams: [00:06:05] So if I have 10 people or rather if I have nine people and I add one, I’ve changed my culture by 10 percent versus if I have two people that I add a third. I’ve changed my culture by thirty-three percent, right? The percentage of change is greater. So I want you to think about it when you start thinking about having relatives there and then another person comes in, who’s not a relative, they’re going to see that there is now a great change in the environment. And if that person fits in well with your family, great! If they don’t fit in well with your family, they have a much greater likelihood of not succeeding in the role when they have the additional added pressure, as we said before, of pleasing that person in addition to pleasing you. And so some of the boundaries that come up, some of the boundary violations is that relatives oftentimes feel that because of your familial relationship, rules are somewhat negotiable, right? Even if they don’t say that, even if they don’t come in and say, fuck the rules. They still have fundamental knowledge and understanding that as soon as we as a couple or we as they struggle or we as a small group, as soon as we bring ourselves together and the boss sets the standard, that standard is ultimately going to lead to some compliance or lack thereof.
Allison Williams: [00:07:24] And if relatives are not compliant because relative says that, yeah, I appreciate and respect my relative as my employer, but in all honesty, I know this person well enough to kind of do what I want, and it’s not that big of a deal, so they can kind of slip into the noncompliance. You’re going to have a greater challenge with that person when it is time to look to other employees to be compliant. Because if cousin is allowed to do whatever she wants without ramification and you then hire a third person who is held to the strict letter of the law, and every time he or she does something off-grid or not in alignment with what you’ve said, that person gets called to the mat, then that disparate treatment is going to not just erode your culture, but it could also create some type of legal problem. So you have to think about that from the perspective of what criteria might be different about your employee. Right? So if you have an employee who is of a different race, different age, different able status than your family members and all of a sudden your family members are getting to do whatever they want. But your employer, your employee is held to a higher standard. You could have a discrimination claim, you could have a bias claim, you could have a retaliation claim. There could be any number of problems that flow from the appearance of treating one person different.
Allison Williams: [00:08:47] And even though you know that your intention is to treat everyone equal, the likelihood is that whether you are actually treating them different or not, the perception will be that mom gets cut of break, whereas relative does not or non-relative does not. Cousin gets to do what she wants while non-employee relative or non, non-relative employee does not. Right? So you have to be careful about the perceptions and the perceptions are that much more prolific and profound when you have family members in your business. Now let’s shift to actually talk about firing your relatives because we, of course, know that if someone’s not working out, most lawyers that I have spoken to about this topic tend to wait far too long to fire. Right? They tend to want to nursemaid someone through, they tend to try to coach them up or they personalize it. It becomes a personal slight that I, the business owner, chose this person in the first place or that I, the business owner, did not take a good enough assessment or inventory of the potential client. Or worse, we think I’m not good enough at leadership or management.
Allison Williams: [00:10:03] If I had only been a better employer, this person might have had a fighting chance to be a better employee. And some of that might be true. But the reality is, if they’re not working, they’re not working. And the fact that you’re not perfect does not absolve them of not working, nor does it eliminate the frustration that’s caused by their not working well for your business. So when you make that decision that someone is not working out, it takes on an additional flavor of problem when the person is a relative.
Allison Williams: [00:10:31] So oftentimes what I like to assure our clients of, whether it’s our clients or just lawyers that we speak to here at Law Firm Mentor is that you don’t have to fire everyone the same way. Right? There is not a general rule out there that says when you terminate an employee, you must terminate them over a five-minute conversation, take them to their desk with a box, watch them pack and move out, and then ultimately escort them to the building, take back their key, remove all applications from their phone and see them on their way, right? That is one type of very traditional corporate America type of termination, and there are very good reasons for it and a lot of employment attorneys will tell you this is the safest course of action to get someone who’s no longer suitable out because people respond in a variety of different ways. Some healthy, most not when someone is terminated.
Allison Williams: [00:11:22] So you don’t necessarily want to have them still have access to your client matters, to your finance rules, etcetera, right? But let’s assume that that’s not the way that you’re terminated. Now I’ve had the I say, unfortunate, but I really don’t want to use unfortunate because I actually consider it quite a blessing that I was fired twice, but I was fired twice and both times that I was fired, I was essentially told that the decision had been made and then I was told, all right, go find another job and let us know when you do. And so I was not escorted from the building in either circumstance. I was still very profitable for both of my employers, up until I left the building. So, you know when, when the decision is made, it doesn’t have to be an automatic get them out type of decision and depending on what they’re doing for you and how you believe they’re going to take it and what are going to be the consequences of letting them know. You might ultimately choose to do something other than the quote-unquote traditional corporate fire. Of course, I always recommend that you consult your employment attorney before making that decision, but ultimately the decision is yours.
Allison Williams: [00:12:28] With family member, however, it can add a little bit of salt to the wound if it is the former type of termination, right? If you say, All right, mom, this is not working out, you need to leave now. And I’m being somewhat harsh and cold and you get my sense right? If you are going to terminate a relative, there are lots of different things you can do. And I haven’t just done this with relatives because I’ve, I’ve never employed a relative of mine, even though I did employ a very good friend of mine, and luckily our friendship rebounded very quickly after we let go of the employment relationship. But before I let her go, I actually found her another job. And I wasn’t necessarily out there pounding the pavement on her behalf, but I knew who in the legal community would need someone with her talents, and ultimately I knew that she was a very good lawyer and that she would have a very good opportunity someplace else. I just knew that that person was no longer a fit for us. So in looking at that, it was very easy for me to decide to place a phone call and see if an opportunity that I became aware of would work. And I was able to introduce my former employee to the person that became her successor employer, and she was never without an income and it worked out for the best. You can absolutely choose to do that. You do not have to escort someone from the building, right? There are other circumstances that I can tell you of where I have become aware of people letting go of family members, not necessarily hiring them or finding them another job to be hired at another position. But they did offer severance in the circumstances they otherwise might not, right?
Allison Williams: [00:14:09] A lot of times employment lawyers will recommend that if a person fits within a discrete category that is likely to cause a risk of an employment claim that you offer them a severance even though you didn’t do anything wrong, even though you don’t believe that they would accuse you. You still offer it, and you offer that in exchange for a release of all claims, I will give you x dollars, right? You could absolutely do that with a family member. But most people would tend to be more generous with their family than they otherwise would choose to be with a non-relative employee. So think about that as another way to kind of smooth the edges, right? It’s, it’s a way of letting the person know. I don’t, I don’t want to displace you without some consideration of the fact that you did come, you helped me out, maybe I paid you lower than market rate wages when I first started because that’s what I could afford and you were OK with that. Maybe we’re just at a stage now where we’re just not a fit to work together anymore. But I do want to help you the way that you helped me, right? So there’s ways for you to kind of soften the blow.
Allison Williams: [00:15:14] The one thing that I would always suggest is to the extent possible if you are going to terminate a relative and that is the best decision for your business. The one thing that you want to aim to do is still keep it as a traditional termination, right? It’s going to be a very short communication, the decision has been made. And you’re going to give them a reason why if you choose to give them a reason why and then you’re going to give them parameters such as are they going to be able to apply for unemployment? Are you going to contest it if they do? Here’s the forms that they have to fill out. What happens with their health insurance and all of those logistics, right? You go over those. But at some point, because it is a familiar relationship, you may want to say, separate and apart from this relationship, right? Once this is over, you and I can have a relationship as sister and sister, or as mother and daughter or as cousin and cousin, so that you know that you’re leaving the door open. You’re inviting your relatives to know that the door is open, but you’re not transmuting your otherwise employment communication into something. It’s not designed to be right because what tends to happen is it becomes muddy as soon as you hire the relative. But if you’ve already hired them and you now need to extract them from your business, it can become even muddier if that is the person that would ultimately file a claim against you of some sort.
Allison Williams: [00:16:40] So you want to be very cautious that you don’t try to turn that last conversation that you have about employment into a let’s talk about why this was a bad decision for us as cousins to work together, or let’s talk about how I don’t want this coming up at the family reunion, right? So you have to still stay in the lane that you are in and in the context of letting someone go you are in the context of an employer. Right? And as I said before, it’s always wise to consult with an employment attorney. If you don’t already have one on your team to at least have a consultation with somebody so you can get some guidance around what are the things that you absolutely should stay away from and how you can implement this advice in a way that is going to preserve your family while also extracting them from your law firm when it is time for them to go.
Allison Williams: [00:17:27] All right, everyone. I am Allison Williams, your Law Firm Mentor. And this week in The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor Podcast. We have talked about firing your family. Now, if this is something that you want help with, if you have a family member on your team and you know that they do not belong on your team and you’re struggling with how to let them go, or even whether to let them go because there could be ramifications. I want you to reach out to us here at Law Firm Mentor. You can visit us on the web at www.LawFirmMentor.net and schedule a growth strategy call where we can talk about what needs to happen in your law firm for you to get the scaled-up team that’s going to take you to the next level of business and the business of law.
Allison Williams: [00:18:08] All right, everyone, I’m Allison Williams, your Law Firm Mentor and I’ll see you on our next episode of The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor Podcast. Thank you for tuning in to The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor Podcast to learn more about today’s guests and take advantage of the resources mentioned, check out our show notes. And if you own a solo or small law firm and are looking for guidance, advice or simply support on your journey to create a law firm that runs without you. Join us in the Law Firm Mentor Movement free Facebook Group. There you can access our free trainings on improving collections and law firms, meeting billable hours and join the movement of thousands of law firm owners across the country who want to crush chaos in their law firms and make more money. I’m Allison Williams. Your Law Firm Mentor. Have a great day!
Allison C. Williams, Esq., is Founder and Owner of the Williams Law Group, LLC, with offices in Short Hills and Freehold, New Jersey. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, is Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Law Attorney and is the first attorney in New Jersey to become Board-Certified by the National Board of Trial Advocacy in the field of Family Law.
Ms. Williams is an accomplished businesswoman. In 2017, the Williams Law Group won the LawFirm500 award, ranking 14th of the fastest growing law firms in the nation, as Ms. Williams grew the firm 581% in three years. Ms. Williams won the Silver Stevie Award for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in 2017. In 2018, Ms. Williams was voted as NJBIZ’s Top 50 Women in Business and was designated one of the Top 25 Leading Women Entrepreneurs and Business Owners. In 2019, Ms. Williams won the Seminole 100 Award for founding one of the fastest growing companies among graduates of Florida State University.
In 2018, Ms. Williams created Law Firm Mentor, a business coaching service for lawyers. She helps solo and small law firm attorneys grow their business revenues, crush chaos in business and make more money. Through multi-day intensive business retreats, group and one-to-one coaching, and strategic planning sessions, Ms. Williams advises lawyers on all aspects of creating, sustaining and scaling a law firm business – and specifically, she teaches them the core foundational principles of marketing, sales, personnel management, communications and money management in law firms.
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The reality is, if your mom screws something up, it is going to be more challenging for another employee who might be inclined normally to come to you as the saving grace and say, Hey boss, I wanted to let you know that the new girl in aisle four has just messed up X, Y, Z. She’s probably not going to say that if the new girl is your mom right, or if it is, if the relationship is the other way around. If you have had mom here for years and someone comes in, that person is going to have a different attitude toward your relatives than they might have toward just any other employee. And this doesn’t have to be inherently bad, but it tends to be… not universal. But it tends to be that when somebody comes into a workplace, they are always looking for the hierarchy, right?