How can our law firm motivate a solicitor who is unlikely to meet his yearlybudget halfway through the year? We don't want to wipe the slate clean and notrecover those fees. However, if we push too hard we may lose a good lawyer whohas reached budget consistently in the past. The lawyer is very busy but thebilling is not evident from the work, and he isn't taking well to extra help inreaching budget.
- Watching dollars trickle away, HR, legal, Perth, Australia.
A Dear Dollars:
Productivity problems, in any business, are a constant concern. Usually, aproductivity drop in a previously high-performing employee is due to a complexinteraction of factors that even the employee may not really understand.Although law firms are usually very dollar-oriented and will simply want toquickly fix the problem and move on, if you are a concerned employer with a highinvestment in this employee, take the time to identify why the attorney isstruggling.
Issues other than time and file management may be the problem if the employeehas performed well in the past. For example, if other attorneys in the firm areunhappy with this attorney's work, they may not refer assignments to him. Thisdries up the attorney's workload and he may spend more time (not all of whichcan be billed) on each assignment out of a fear of not appearing productive.
Or, the attorney may be learning a different area of the law. A businessattorney learning employment law might not bill all of the time spentresearching or reading for context. Similarly, a high-performing attorney may beassigned work from partners in the firm who practice in an area of lawunfamiliar to this attorney. These assignments may require extensive backgroundreading before work can begin. If you balance this time against pressures tokeep clients and referring attorneys happy, the attorney could bill only afraction of the time worked. In these situations billable hours are down, butfor a good reason. Another possible reason for reduced billable hours isinefficiency caused by job dissatisfaction. Attorneys report extremely highrates of job dissatisfaction resulting in depression and other problems, whichmay manifest themselves at work.
Someone at the firm, usually a supervising attorney or an assigned mentor,needs to have a candid conversation with the attorney to identify any problemsand to develop a plan to address them. For the conversation to be productive,the mentor must allow the attorney to discuss all the possible reasons for thereduction in billable hours and not simply focus on the quickest solution. It'svery likely that the conversation will be difficult and that the attorney willbe resistant to discussion. Persevere. It is important for the success of theemployment relationship that the problems are identified and the solutions arejointly developed and not simply imposed.
If other attorneys are concerned with the employee's work product, coachingor clarifying expectations may be all that is required. If the attorney islearning a new area of law, perhaps the billable-hour requirement should bereduced in the short-term in recognition of the increased future earningcapacity of this attorney. If the attorney is being asked by others in the firmto do work in an unfamiliar area, perhaps the attorney could be given credit forthe learning time that cannot be billed. If you identify that job- satisfactionissues are contributing to the reduced productivity and you don't want to losethis attorney, outside intervention may be appropriate. The American BarAssociation and the local bar association may have access to confidentialcounseling. Remind the attorney of these resources and provide the time to workthrough any dissatisfaction issues.
Get creative in identifying the problems and the solutions. If the attorneyrealizes that the firm is truly interested in his success, making minor changesto how hours are counted or giving the attorney time to adjust to life changesmay be all the motivation that is necessary for the attorney's -- and the firm's-- long-term success.
SOURCE: Robin Bruins, senior HR manager, Personnel Management Systems,Inc.,Kirkland, Washington, August 10, 2001.
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The information contained in thisarticle is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, butshould not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember thatstate laws may differ from the federal law.
The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.
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