With the holiday season quickly approaching, we here at the Law Firm Mentor have been very busy preparing for a new year! Enjoy this replay of one of my most favorite, thought provoking episodes.
I have seen quite a bit of commentary in the Law Firm Mentor movement about hiring lately and mental blocks to hiring. I feel many develop those mental blocks to hiring because of the problems that they encounter with employees once they are on board. So, today I wanted to give you a framework for thinking about the failure of your employees.
We know that getting the wrong people in in the first place is almost always going to ensure that you won’t be successful with your employees. But do you have someone who you can remediate or do you need to start the process over again? This framework will help you remove all of the guesswork and make a clear plan.
In this episode we discuss:
- Three reasons that employees fail.
- The challenge of understanding an employee’s job when you haven’t performed that job.
- How attitude influences the ability to fit into a position role and office environment.
- Understanding the reasons an employee may not comply with your directions without jumping to your own immediate conclusions.
- How systems can help set the framework for employee success.
- The importance of training and following up to verify that there is understanding.
Allison Williams: [00:00:11] 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: [00:00:25] Hi, everybody. It’s Allison Williams here, your Law Firm Mentor, and this week on the podcast, we’re going to talk about employees and in particular I’m raising this topic. And I decided to cover this because I have seen so much commentary in the Law Firm Mentor movement about hiring lately and mental blocks to hiring. And I think a lot of people develop those mental blocks to hiring because of the problems that they encounter with employees once they are on board. So I wanted to give you a framework for thinking about the failure of your employees, the people that you have brought in that have been what you consider to be the nightmares. Right. So we know that getting the wrong people in in the first place is almost always going to ensure that you won’t be successful with your employees. But I wanted to actually talk through some of the things that will correlate with an employee failing so that when you think about once somebody is in your office, once you’ve hired them, do you have someone who you can remediate or do you need to start the process over again? And a lot of people have a hard time firing, not necessarily even because of how distasteful or uncomfortable it is to fire someone, but because they are so uncertain about whether they’re making the right decision that they perseverate over all of the things that they could have done, should have done, would have done, would have liked to do in the, in the role of managing that employee.
Allison Williams: [00:01:55] And they make it about themselves. And that’s probably the number one thing that I see with lawyers, that we make any and every failure of the employee, either, making the employee wrong. So they’re a bad person, they’re a jerk, they’re a jackass, they’re stupid or whatever. Or we make it all about ourselves. We were bad leaders. We were bad managers. We didn’t do enough. And sometimes those are actually the accurate thinking truth of what’s going on. But a lot of times there are things that are going on that if you don’t spend your time thinking through now, it becomes very easy for you to miss it in the future. And then you just create a revolving door of people that never work out in your firm that you’re either going to say, I can’t keep up the revolving door, so I just won’t hire anymore because I don’t want to have to keep firing. Or, worse, you continue to hire and continue to fire because you have created something that is never going to sustainably work for the vast majority of employees. Now, we all know that there are those unicorns out there, those people that no matter how chaotic, no matter how abusive the boss, no matter how little they’re paid, no matter how many onerous expectations are placed upon them, they’re the champs. They’ll stick it out. They’ll do whatever is necessary.
Allison Williams: [00:03:13] Those people, by the way, are not the stars. Those people are typically those who have been abused in some place in their life before they found your job and the fact that your job also continues, that abuse is actually supportive of their belief about themselves, that that’s what they deserve. So you don’t necessarily have no ability to employ someone, even if you have a toxic, unhappy, unhealthy work environment. Now, if you’re listening to this podcast, I have to believe that you don’t want to have that type of work environment and most of you probably don’t. Most lawyers that follow this podcast are at a place where they want more for themselves, but they also either struggle with giving too much to others so they don’t necessarily keep enough for themselves. They can’t have the proper boundaries with people. They can’t properly put into context compensation. So they’re not compensating based on a system or a plan. They’re compensating based on their feelings about someone, which are subject to change. So there could be a moment where you think you’re giving too much or too little based on how you feel about the person, or a host of other maladies that are usually centered in the attorney thinking more of others than they think of him or herself. So I want to give you these three things to consider for why employees fail, because there are only three reasons.
Allison Williams: [00:04:38] OK, I know you might say, oh, my God, if I were to make a laundry list of all the reasons why my former employees did not work out, my thought process would go far beyond three categories. But I’m telling you now, they all fit within three categories. Here they are. If your employee is failing, it’s either because of a lack of training. A lack of compliance or a lack of ability? Let me say those again, if your employee is failing, it is either because of a lack of training, a lack of compliance, or a lack of ability. Now we’re going to take these one by one and I’m going to start with the end, which is the lack of ability. A lot of people struggle with figuring out that a person does not have the ability to do a job because we think about it through the lens of ourselves and we say, how challenging is this job? You know, on its own, separate and apart from me as a person, separate and apart from my employee, how hard do I think this job is? And most of us get to the conclusion that it’s not rocket science. Right. It’s not rocket science to answer the phone and process the mail and deliver the items that come onto your desk and organize files and scan and shred things. That’s not challenging. The problem is that for the most part, for most jobs, with the exception of attorney, most jobs in a law firm, most attorneys have not held.
Allison Williams: [00:06:13] And so we have a frame of reference for how to do discrete activity. We might know what it is to answer the phone or what it is to process the mail or what it is to scan a document and then shred it. We may know those things, but we don’t know what it is to do a high volume, if that’s what you have, of that activity day in and day out, managing your time, constant interruptions by the phones. We don’t have that experience. So we are oftentimes extrapolating what we think would be the experience of someone doing that job. And then we attribute our thoughts about how we would feel in that scenario to the employee and either say it’s a really tough job or this is not tough at all. Any idiot can do this. And the problem with either line of thinking is that, first of all, there’s a baseline of competency for every role. So whether it’s the receptionist or the marketing assistant or the paralegal or the associate, every role has a minimum level of competence and a baseline median. Right. So if we were to look at a traditional bell curve, we’ve got those top, top, top achievers at the high end of the bell curve. Those people are going to knock it out of the park no matter what they do.
Allison Williams: [00:07:29] They’re exceptional compared to everyone else. And we don’t ever get to a point where we say that person is the standard because that person really is not the standard. That person is really more of the outlier. On the flip side, there’s the other end of the bell curve, the underachiever, the mediocre, the less than best, the person who no matter how much structure, training, guidance, oversight, positive feedback, positive reinforcement, additional bonuses, incentive compensation, no matter what you give, that person is not going to get it because that person does not have the ability to get it, OK. So the ability piece is not just the ability to do the role. It’s not just their aptitude to do the role. It is also their attitude. It is also that they don’t have a fit for your, for your office. Right? And when I say a fit for your office, I want you to think about the question of whether or not the person who is having some difficulty in your office. That there is more often than not a disconnect between what was communicated to them and what ultimately they position themselves to be. Right? Because most people, when they are interviewing for a job, they do try to present their best foot forward. And they also try to present essentially what the employer is communicating that they want. So sometimes employers can over communicate what they are and try to fit a person to what they are, rather than getting a sense of who the person is and not just asking questions like, can you do this? Can you do that? But who they are at the core, how they like to be, how they like to work, whether or not they have the personality, whether or not they have the values that are going to be consistent with the environment that you are creating.
Allison Williams: [00:09:31] And so when I say a lack of ability, I’m talking about the attitude, the aptitude and the fit for the role of your position. So I want you to think about that when you evaluate your team, because lack of ability is often a common thing. So and I’m going to be very stark in my example so that you can get it, but know that we don’t have to have something quite this apparent. Sometimes it is much less apparent and it is still the same analytical frame. So an example might be if you have an employee who is very antisocial. They’re not nasty, they’re not rude, they just don’t like to talk to people. And you have a very social atmosphere maybe, and you have the kind of atmosphere where you don’t have closed offices or maybe your office is completely in glass so that everyone can see each other and doors tend to be open and people tend to come and go. And there’s a lot of chatting in your office. Well, you might say, how important am I that I prioritize chatting? Well, if the person is performing a role that can be and often is done in isolation like Lawyering.
Allison Williams: [00:10:38] Right. You can have someone reviewing contracts, advising clients by the phone, and they never have to chat with the team and can still be proficient in doing the job. But if you are creating a culture, if you are building something beyond yourself, something that extends beyond yourself, it is not just John Doe’s law firm. It is the law firm of Doe and Associates. Right. Once you are starting to brand yourself as something separate and apart from the owner, then you really want to have a community of people. And the smaller your law firm, the more one person’s energy is going to throw off the dynamic of the people that you have that are on the team. So you might not want to have someone who is a gloomy Gus, someone who isn’t social, because that person’s not going to fit with everyone else and they’re going to feel it and your team is going to feel it. And oftentimes that little bit of cohesion disconnect, because there is just a person who just does not fit, does not work with everyone else, can oftentimes throw off your dynamic in ways that are just very not productive. OK, another example might be when you have someone who very much likes to work in isolation, but the way that you structure your work is a team approach.
Allison Williams: [00:11:58] Now, I’m using the example where the owner wants a team approach, because as I have said many times before on this podcast and in other places, I am very much an individualist. And when I was creating my career, I worked in law firms with lawyers. Thankfully, it was never the owner of the firm and it was never someone who was my direct supervisor. But I would work with lawyers who very much wanted to do the collaborative approach to law. Right. If there’s another person I want to ask another person, I want to call an associate into my office and sit them down and talk shop about a case and go back and forth. Or there are some people that think and think and overthink and overthink so that they draft a document or they let’s say they dictate. Right. I used to back in my day and age, I know it’s much less common now, but when I was growing up as a lawyer, I started practicing in 2003 when I was growing up as a lawyer. Dictation was very common and senior lawyers would dictate. And then you’d get a draft back from your secretary or paralegal or or even your your word processor. And you would review the document. And I remember seeing some lawyers that would review the document and make a round of changes. And then the secretary brings in the type changes and they would make more handwritten edits and they would go in and make changes again.
Allison Williams: [00:13:21] And I’d be like, oh, can’t they just think what they want to say and say it like? Is it really going to matter whether we say John and Mary were divorced in nineteen ninety three or we say Mary and John were divorced in nineteen ninety three. Does it really matter. And there’d be some people that would be so fixated on having it what they thought was perfect. And by the way, when they’d have these thoughts, I’d rarely think that what they had created as the final product was any better than the third or fourth draft. But they would have the desire to sit and work it out and talk it through and go over and over in their head. And there are a lot of people that work that way. I am not one of them. So I would not be a fit to work in a law firm where the owners want to lawyer in that way. Now, I can tell you I know some exceptional lawyers. Some of them are actually very good friends of mine who have that approach in their law firm. Their approach is we bring in a case, we have a team meeting and the team talks about the approach and the team figures out who’s doing what and the team ultimately discusses major developments in the case when an expert writes a bad report or a new adversary comes in or whatever the case may be.
Allison Williams: [00:14:36] And I always found it almost mythical to watch this process in action. Every once in a while, I would have the occasion to be at the office and they would simply not use client names in that scenario if I was anywhere near the conversation. But I would see this approach and think, oh my God, that would drive me crazy. Now, that is not right or wrong. I’m not right for wanting to be an individualist. They’re not right for wanting to be collaborative. That is just who they are. And there’s a fit of an employee who works there who would not be me. So I want you to think about when you talk about the lack of ability category, I want you to really think about does the employee not have the ability to rise to the occasion of what’s required for the role, whether it’s rise to the occasion of doing the role? Right. They just can’t multitask and answer the phones and process mail at the same time, or they can’t answer the phones and greet people at the same time or whatever is necessary if they can’t do the stuff of the job and or they don’t have the personality or the charisma or the attitude or the connectivity with other people that you require for your role, that lack of ability is a deal breaker. OK, next up, the wrong was lack of compliance. Now this is where a lot of people get stuck, because when someone doesn’t do what we want, there is often a visceral reaction that we have.
Allison Williams: [00:16:01] There’s a feeling of being offended that the employee did not do it our way. So the first thing I’m going to invite you to do when you evaluate lack of compliance and an employee is to suspend judgment of why they are not complying. Right. Don’t take it personally that they’re not complying with the rule, because when you go into your feelings and make it about how you’re being disrespected or how you’re not getting what you desire or how you have told this person over and over again and the person’s not doing it, when you start making those stories real in your mind, what tends to happen is you shut down in your problem solving ability and you stop looking for what is the real reason and start assuming that your thoughts about the situation are the real reason why the employee is not complying. So that means you could very easily sternly punish or ultimately terminate someone who is not complying for reasons that could easily have been ameliorated if you had been willing to be open to have a conversation. So I want you to think about the lack of compliance category as really derived from a person’s either being unwilling to do it a certain way or not prioritizing, doing it a certain way. And there’s a difference. So sometimes people don’t follow instructions because they can’t remember them.
Allison Williams: [00:17:26] Right. If you have a forty five page, single spaced dossier of how someone is to do a certain task and you give it to them at the beginning of their job and you tell them, consult the handbook before you do X, and they get into a habit of being busy and they just go off and do X a different way and they forget step number 16 of forty six, then it may very well be that that person is not willfully non-compliant because they’re thumbing their nose at you, but they could be noncompliant because they simply don’t remember. Right. It’s not that they don’t understand. They remember that they were supposed to do a whole lot of things but they forgot something. Or it could be that a person chooses to do it a different way because they haven’t learned from you, the leader. They haven’t learned from you that the way you want it done is non-negotiable. So I don’t say this to mean that you need to have a stern corrective conversation where you get your finger out and stick it at them and say this is non-negotiable because I’m the boss. I’m talking about an error of how we systematize. OK, so what is really, really important when we talk about employees is that there be a cultural imperative for how we do things. Even if you have not set that tone, had that conversation reorganized activity around that conversation, your employees are still picking up from the ether how things are happening in this business.
Allison Williams: [00:18:55] Even if your business is completely virtual, the way that you respond to things, the way that you react to things when somebody gets called into a meeting versus getting an email, when someone receives a a stern verbal lashing versus a stern written warning versus a very tepid written warning, those things are going to give cues to your employees. OK, so it’s really important that you be thinking about, asking probing questions when someone is not complying. Are they not complying because they don’t agree with the way something’s done, because they don’t remember the way it’s supposed to be done or because they got the message from you that I want you to do this, but if you don’t do it this way, as long as it gets done right, because there are some people that like to present themselves as very laid back and easygoing when we all know you are not laid back and you are certainly not easy going. Right. So your employees are going to pick up on what you say and sometimes they will heed what you say. And if there’s a cognitive dissonance created between what you say and what you enforce, they can often fall into habits that are simply the most convenient thing they have available. Because, remember, people do things for their reasons, not yours. Now, one of the things that will help with this is if you create a culture around systems.
Allison Williams: [00:20:12] And that is that is exactly what we’re going to be talking to you about in the Crushing Chaos, with the Crushing Chaos Masterclass that we have coming up on May 10th of this month. So I want you to be thinking about giving serious consideration to attending the Masterclass. It’s going to be eight days of continued day after day training. We’re going to be with you for about forty five minutes to an hour. Absolutely free of charge. The link to the master class will be in the show notes. And we’re going to go through how to actually create systems and create a culture of systems so that you can avoid some of these compliance issues that are so common with employees who fail in law firms. All right. The last area I’m going to touch upon very briefly, because I think we all get this one. OK, lack of training. Lack of training is usually not something that we’re intentional about. Most lawyers don’t say, yeah, I don’t intend to train my people, I’m just going to stick them in front of a computer and hope for the best. Right. More often than not, our lawyers, lawyers who own solo and small law firms, lawyers who care about their career, care about their license, want to protect it, don’t go out and have a mindset that says screw the training, whatever comes out comes out.
Allison Williams: [00:21:30] We’ll hope for the best. Right. We think we are doing a good job with training. We almost invariably are not. Almost invariably we are not going deep enough. So there’s a part of training that is onboarding when someone first joins a law firm. And then there’s the part of training that really is just about making sure that the person understands that there’s comprehension, that there’s awareness, that they can give examples, and that if you were to ask them, if you just call them into your office or if you’re appearing by Zoom, you get them on a Zoom meeting and have them walk you through step by step what they do. If they can do that, if they can become the teacher of the task that you have taught them, then you know that they have got the task. If not, they don’t have it. OK, and if they don’t have it, they don’t have it. It doesn’t become something that they learn by osmosis doing it 50 times over some period of time. They learned whatever they had in their knowledge base, not what you want them to have in their knowledge base. So it’s really important that when you think about the training of your employees, if you don’t devote specific time to training on the things that are going to be repetitive tasks that they’re going to be doing on a consistent basis, and you don’t give them examples of when there’s some need for deviation, because we all know stuff comes up in a law firm.
Allison Williams: [00:22:55] Right? If stuff comes up, do they pivot left? Do they pivot right? Do they stay the course? And they need to have that express direction from you or else they’re going to fill it in for themselves and often in a way that you do not want. All right. So we have talked today about why employees fail. I want to invite you to post any reflections that you have about this in our Law Firm Mentor Movement closed Facebook group. The link to the Facebook group will be in the show notes for today’s episode. I am Allison Williams, your Law Firm Mentor everyone. And I will see you on the next episode of The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast.
Allison Williams: [00:23:49] 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 in 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 firm 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.
Please note this recording references the Crushing Chaos Masterclass the week of May 10th. 00:20:12
December 6-14, 2021
Contact Law Firm Mentor:
00:16:16 (48 Seconds)
Don’t take it personally that they’re not complying with the rule, because when you go into your feelings and make it about how you’re being disrespected or how you’re not getting what you desire or how you have told this person over and over again and the person’s not doing it, when you start making those stories real in your mind, what tends to happen is you shut down in your problem solving ability and you stop looking for what is the real reason and start assuming that your thoughts about the situation are the real reason why the employee is not complying. So that means you could very easily sternly punish or ultimately terminate someone who is not complying for reasons that could easily have been ameliorated if you had been willing to be open to have a conversation.
00:18:12 (43 Seconds)
They haven’t learned from you that the way you want it done is non-negotiable. So I don’t say this to mean that you need to have a stern corrective conversation where you get your finger out and stick it at them and say this is non-negotiable because I’m the boss. I’m talking about an error of how we systematize. OK, so what is really, really important when we talk about employees is that there be a cultural imperative for how we do things. Even if you have not set that tone, had that conversation reorganized activity around that conversation, your employees are still picking up from the ether how things are happening in this business.