Q. I just joined a new legal department three weeks ago, and I am shocked at the inconsiderate behavior of some of the attorneys. They seem to think their legal knowledge is all that matters on the job. Whatever happened to workplace etiquette?
A. While often placed by the nature of their jobs in adversarial positions, the most effective attorneys observe the rules of business etiquette in their interactions with staff and colleagues without sacrificing their competitive spirit. Here are some suggestions for treating contacts with respect and dignity amid the often chaotic pace of today's business environment:
Observe good "network etiquette." Building a solid professional network is essential to any corporate attorney, but there are positive and negative ways to go about the process. It is inappropriate, for example, to use a contact's name as a door opener without first obtaining permission. When meeting people in a social situation, lawyers should avoid coming on too strong.
Be Careful with e-mail. The potential for e-mail to misrepresent one's thoughts or intentions is more serious than many realize. The prevalence of e-mail in business today increases the likelihood of misdirecting a message or, worse, sending one and receiving a reply indicating the recipient was annoyed by what was said. While the medium is meant to save time in communicating, attention to detail and a bit of simple courtesy are still required.
Be punctual. No matter what your rank or status, make every attempt to arrive on time at meetings, interviews and other scheduled events. It sends a surprisingly clear signal to others that they are not considered equally important if you are habitually late to events you have committed to attend.
Be a considerate team player. As you know, the complexity of today's legal projects frequently requires the efforts of teams of professionals working together. Attorneys should observe team etiquette in ways such as sharing credit, following through on deadlines and being an equal contributor.
Q. I'm close to receiving an offer as an associate in the legal department of a medium size company. If it works out, I'll be managing others for the first time. Do you have any suggestions for being a corporate lawyer who is also an effective manager?
A. Corporate lawyers today are required to manage in-house staff as well as various case teams whose members change over time. Following are some ways to elicit outstanding results from a legal team:
Communicate straightforwardly. The basis of an effective relationship with staff members is clear communication. If expectations are not relayed plainly and unambiguously, misunderstandings can result that frequently cause relationships to suffer. Managing attorneys must make sure all professionals — both full-time and temporary — have a solid comprehension of departmental goals as well as exactly what their own responsibilities entail.
Don't withhold information. Managers in any profession who feel that knowledge is power and key information should be doled out only when necessary will always be merely average managers, never inspiring leaders. Attorneys who share their knowledge and expertise with the team will build trust and generate more effective cooperation.
Be a keen listener. To encourage the expression of innovative ideas, attorneys need to be good listeners as well as good talkers. Just as it's essential to offer a group clear direction, it's equally important to step back on a regular basis to hear their concerns and suggestions. Letting all team members know that their input is key to the group's success can be extremely motivating.
Criticize constructively. No manager is free of the need to occasionally criticize staff when they make significant mistakes or the quality of their work begins to slip. However, the manner in which this is done is one of the key differences between a motivating and a demoralizing management style. Professionals should never be attacked personally nor their shortcomings aired in public. Effective criticism should bolster an individual's confidence, not damage it. Give feedback that is clear, constructive and devoid of emotion.
Recognize individual and team successes. Knowing when to provide criticism is important, but attorneys should not take this too far and become negative managers who comment only when someone makes a mistake. Nothing motivates like praise – even among the most self-sufficient legal professionals. Counsel who are good managers take note of the progress of individuals and teams and offer frequent congratulations both privately and publicly.
Q. I have a successful career, but I worry that it comes at the expense of my home life. Can you suggest some ways to achieve a better balance between professional and personal life?
A. While striking a balance between career and family is a common issue, particularly in today's business environment where employees are working longer hours, it is possible to achieve your professional goals without sacrificing your personal life. Here are some proactive strategies you can employ to help you enhance work/life balance:
Find the right workplace. More and more companies recognize that family-friendly policies help them attract and retain talented employees and are offering new benefits options to workers. Paid parental leave, flexible scheduling, job sharing and telecommuting are all choices to consider when searching for the ideal work situation for your needs. If you enjoy your current position but desire more flexibility, consider meeting with your boss to discuss your situation.
Plan defensively. Some of the responsibility for achieving work/life balance rests squarely on your own shoulders. Be sure to plan for those unexpected scenarios, such as caring for a sick child at home, by developing a contingency plan that will enable you to conduct business while away from the office. Make sure you have duplicate business files and phone numbers at home in case family responsibilities make it difficult for you to come into the office for a day or more.
View your objective as a moving target. Although achieving optimal balance between your professional and personal lives may be your goal, it's important to recognize that it is an ongoing process. If you've been assigned a project with a tight deadline that will require you to put in more hours on the job, what constituted "balance" for you last week might not be practical now. You'll need to continually readjust your priorities to maintain the "happy medium" you're seeking.
Q: I have just become a supervising attorney in our legal department. While my staff management experience is limited, I've led project teams and supervised paralegals. However, I've had limited experience in other aspects of managing, such as staffing, professional development or performance reviews. How can I establish credibility with the team and get off to a good start?
A: There's no question that supervising others presents unique challenges. Becoming a supervisor will likely mean a shift in relationships with colleagues, especially those who are now direct reports. It's important to approach the role with sensitivity. Here are some suggestions to make the transition easy for everyone:
Meet immediately with your staff. You'll be more successful if you adopt an inclusive management style. One of the first items on your agenda should be to meet with staff as a group to discuss the new arrangement. Be sure to allow time for them to ask questions and voice concerns.
Clearly define roles. Have one-on-one conversations with direct reports to make sure employees' understanding of their responsibilities are in sync with your own, especially if duties must be reallocated as a result of your promotion. This is also a good time to share your expectations and how these may differ from your new staff's current responsibilities.
Delegate effectively. The goal is to match the right tasks with the right people based on the strategic needs of your firm or department and the unique talents of each staff member. You'll also need to gauge the right level of oversight; too much can be as counterproductive as too little. A good strategy is to be available to clarify priorities or address problems that arise, rather than trying to be involved with every minor detail.
Seek advice from trusted role models. Remember that even the most senior leaders at one time had little or no experience as managers. Your colleagues will likely be willing to share what they have learned and give you advice and guidance as you transition into your new position.