3 Reasons I Failed at Managing Contract Attorneys: Virtual Office NYC Lawyer Vivian Sobers

By Vivian Sobers - November 14, 2014
3 Reasons I Failed at Managing Contract Attorneys: Virtual Office NYC Lawyer Vivian Sobers

Virtual office NYC lawyer, Vivian Sobers, hired her first few contract attorneys and quickly realized she has a lot to learn about managing staff.

A few months ago my practice got busy enough that I was not able to be as responsive to my referral partners as I would have liked. After all, I built my practice by being available.

Being busy also cut into my marketing time, and I was afraid of facing a dry pipeline four months from now when all this work wrapped up.

Solution: Hire some extra hands.

Problem: I have discovered I am not that great at managing others.

So, I hired several contract attorneys. I was excited about it. So excited that I wrote an article about it for this blog series.

I worked with a combination of these attorneys for a total of two months. During that time I was actually able to leverage the talents of others who processed my firm’s legal work so I could go out and find more business.

It worked. For a couple of weeks things were going great.

That is, until things quickly started to go downhill.

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Where I think I went wrong.

First of all, let me set the record straight. This is my business. I am the sole owner of this practice and I take full responsibility when things do not work out as planned.

Any problem with staff is my problem, not my staff’s problem.

After reflecting about how things unraveled, here are my thoughts:

1.  I had unrealistic expectations about my staff.

I had assumed that because these attorneys were taking on contract work that they would approach it the same way I take on contract work. I view each project as an entrée into more work. Higher paying work.

I approach contract work from the perspective of someone who is building a practice. Building a business.

From my perspective, it felt like some of these attorneys were not that committed to practicing as a self-employed lawyer (or they had very different ideas about how to build a successful practice). They did not have the same do-whatever-it-takes approach towards work that I have.

This made me frustrated, which ultimately created conflict between these attorneys and myself.

But this was my issue, not theirs. How these attorneys approach their work is their business.

My error was assuming that all these attorneys would be like me. In the future, I will need to get a better sense of a contractor’s work style (and take that into consideration) when I chose attorneys for work assignments.

2.  I made some assumptions about skills and I was wrong.

A couple of the attorneys were recent grads, so I didn’t expect very much in terms of them bringing anything more than basic skills to the table. I expected to have to coach those contractors through the first few projects.

But some of the others were considerably more experienced. The first few projects went off without a hitch. In fact, at one point I felt more comfortable sending the bulk of my work to the more experienced attorneys even though it was more expensive for me.

It was such a relief to work with someone who didn’t require a lot of hand-holding that I ended up getting too comfortable in their abilities. I trusted them too much.

After a while, I realized that they were not infallible. In fact, I had discovered that some of them were making poor decisions; decisions that could expose my practice to liability.

That was surprising to me because these were basic things that shouldn’t have been missed by an experienced attorney.

Was it laziness on their part? Was it that they were careless because, as contract attorneys with no guarantee of future work, they were not vested in my cases?

I do not know, and it does not really matter. What I learned is that I can never be totally hands-off. Not when it’s my reputation, practice and malpractice policy that is ultimately on the line.

3.  My friendly management style got me in trouble.

Not that long ago I was a busy employee of a firm. Before law school I was a paralegal in a personal injury law firm.

I did not like being an employee. I never felt that my talents were fully recognized. I did not want to be “that” kind of boss.

In reaction to my personal experience, I think that my management style was too nice.

I feel like I approached the interpersonal relationships with some of these attorneys as if we were trying to become friends. In retrospect, that was a mistake.

On the one hand, I do not want to be an unreasonable jerk, but on the other hand, I have work that needs to get done…properly…and on time.

That sometimes requires having tough conversations, which are more difficult to have when you are “friends”.

It became hard for me to address my dissatisfaction with the staff’s work product. That made me resentful, and as a result, I ended up just walking away from these relationships.

In the future, I think that my new motto will be, “friendly, but not friends.”

The two weeks when things really “clicked” with staff were spectacular. I got a glimpse of what my practice could be.

And I liked it. A lot.

Enough so to make me more committed than ever to be a better manager.
7 Deadly Mistakes That Prevent Law Practice Success
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Vivian Sobers is a commercial litigator pursuing a solo law practice right out of law school. She is a client in Law Firm Suites’ Virtual Office Program. Vivian’s weekly blog series “Young, Hungry and Committed” documents the trials and tribulations of a young attorney navigating her way through the challenging world of self-employed legal practice.

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