by Charles Volkert, Esq.
When you promote employees to managerial positions, you want the transition to be as smooth as possible. Anyone who is a paralegal one day and a boss the next will have to navigate a tricky new office dynamic. Your job as a law firm administrator is to help the new supervisor and the former coworkers ease into their new roles.
Here are seven legal practice management tips to set up the new manager for success.
- Clear the air with other internal applicants. Perhaps the person you promoted wasn’t the only internal candidate applying for the role. If other coworkers were passed over for the job, you need to address any feelings of resentment or hostility. Hold in-person meetings with each of the other candidates. Gently explain to them why you chose who you did for the job, and ask them to offer their support.
- Give the new supervisor plenty of information. As a paralegal in the firm, the new supervisor is familiar with the legal staff and ongoing projects. However, more detail will be needed in the new position. Hand over the personnel files — job descriptions, performance evaluations, salary histories and so on — of the new team. Then talk about the firm’s higher-level issues, such as plans for expansion or reorganization. To do this new job well, the new supervisor will need as much information as you can give.
- Hand over the reins. To start out on the right foot, you should formally introduce the new manager to the team and publicly pass on the reins. Also communicate with the entire law firm about this promotion. Talk up the new supervisor’s credentials and the legal practice management expertise he or she brings to this role. Then outline the new reporting structure — what the new job entails and who will report to whom. The more clarity there is about the new manager’s duties and the more confidence you show, the more buy-in you will get from associates and legal support personnel.
- Be liberal with advice — when asked. There are unique challenges that come with moving from coworker to boss. If you’ve been there and done that at another law firm — and if you’re asked — share some tips with your newly promoted paralegal, such as how relationships with former coworkers will change. You might suggest that a change in Facebook settings could exclude the new direct reports without anyone noticing but that unfriending them now would cause bad feelings. It’s also OK to join the former coworkers in after-work social events as appropriate. The alternative is to come off as a snob to the team, which isn’t a good idea.
- Offer management education. The new supervisor may have the technical and interpersonal skills to succeed in management, but that doesn’t mean additional training is unnecessary. Match him or her with a mentor who has supervisory experience and encourage the two to meet during and after this transition period. Also offer executive training courses and workshops for those in the legal profession. Support groups are another excellent way to help ease new managers into their role; the state bar association and national paralegal organizations — NFPA, NALA and American Alliance of Paralegals — may have resources to help.
- Let the new manager lead. Old habits die hard. You need to do your part in helping the former coworkers see the senior paralegal, not you, as their boss. When they come to you with complaints, listen patiently. Encourage them to talk with their new manager and to respect his or her leadership style. Only when the problems are more serious — the accuracy of the manager’s work, for example — should you intervene. Don’t be afraid to let the new manager make a few mistakes, as that is how some of the best management lessons are learned.
- Check in often. Don’t assume the new manager will be fine just because he or she knows all the firm’s employees, clients and pending cases. From a legal management practice perspective, meet as often in the early days as you would with a new hire. Encourage him or her to go to the check-in session with a list of questions and issues, and work through them together.
In the legal profession, promotions are an excellent way to retain top performers. However, going from coworker to supervisor is not easy for those chosen to do so. If the transition is conducted poorly, you could be facing the same issues you would if you made a bad hire: poor morale and lost productivity. Help this new manager through the initial rocky phase, and you’ll be rewarded with a talented new manager and a smooth-running team.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal®, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. The company also offers a full suite of legal staffing and consulting services. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major North American and global markets.
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Question & Answer
Our legal team is expanding and, I’m now working with several attorneys and paralegals whose working style is very different from mine. We often butt heads which does little to alleviate our high-pressure work environment. Any advice on how we can improve our interaction?
Working well with others is an essential skill for career success, especially in law practices that often rely heavily on legal teams. But sometimes the most challenging part of getting the job done is working effectively with colleagues who possess a different work style, communication approach or experience level.
Conflicts are inevitable if legal professionals don’t try to reach common ground and learn to adapt.Â So rather than allowing a frustrating and stressful situation to continue, try these tips for improving collaboration:
- Acknowledge differences. Talking about your different work styles allows room for compromise and may even bring some humor to the situation. Once you’ve both acknowledged your different work styles or preferences, it becomes much easier to negotiate how best to proceed.
- Avoid miscommunication. Maybe you keep getting your wires crossed with a team member because you’re trading emails or instant messages on the fly, rather than actually talking. Try to find a better solution, such as more face-to-face communication. Ask leading questions so that the other person gives you specific answers with the detail you’re seeking. If necessary, summarize the information you’ve been given and ask for final confirmation.
- Remember the positive. Although it may be initially challenging to work with someone whose professional style is completely at odds with yours, it doesn’t mean the person doesn’t have unique contributions to make. Once you understand someone’s approach and preferences, working together becomes less about differences and more about taking advantage of each other’s individual strengths.
Taking the time to understand how your colleagues prefer to do their jobs, as well as how you approach work, won’t solve every issue, but it can help you build more effective professional relationships. As a bonus, you’ll be seen as someone with a flexible style who can work well with anyone. And this quality can only help your career in today’s team-oriented work environments.
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