In this episode’s discussions around the Community Table:
- Our first topic is how to use vacations – including your own breaks – to affirm company culture. How do you get away without fully abandoning ship and leaving your team to fend for itself? You encourage team members to take vacations to renew and regroup, but what about you as the leader of the firm? Company culture starts at the top.
- Prevent your email and calendar from running your life and set your own priorities. Don’t let your email own you, and certainly don’t let your team run your life. You run your life. You run your firm. (It’s harder than that sounds
- When is it appropriate to let an employee know the relationship isn’t working and it’s time to part ways? And, what’s an appropriate severance package
Plus, let’s talk about how to grade support staff. Set expectations and reasonable goals so staffers know what’s expected and you know what to expect.
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Male 1: The Unbillable Hour Community Table, where real lawyers from all around the country with real issues they are dealing with right now meet together virtually to present their questions to Christopher T. Anderson, lawyer and law firm management consultant. New questions every episode and none of it scripted. The real conversations happen here. Our first segment is a discussion on how to use vacations to affirm company culture.
Christopher T. Anderson: Everybody, welcome to the Community Table. Robert Leitner is an experienced law firm leader. He has helped hundreds of law firms to achieve their goals and then find their way through good times and bad and has been a leader and actually working directly in law firms. And I’m really proud to have Rob join us here on the Community Table as one of the guests that we’re going to be bringing from time to time. Rob will probably make several appearances and relieve me of some of the duties of answering every damn question. Because sometimes, you know what? A different perspective can be very helpful. And so we’ll tag team questions. When Rob answers, I’ll disagree with him. When I answer, he’ll disagree with me. But he’ll also remember that it’s my show, so he won’t disagree to it. But disagreement is good. It gives us a variety of perspectives. But that’s not what we’re really here for. We’re here to answer your questions. What could we help you with today?
Ellaretha: So I am going on vacation for a total of seven weeks.
Christopher T. Anderson: Emergency access only?
Ellaretha: Emergency, well, semi. I’ll have weekly management team meetings, but that’s it.
Christopher T. Anderson: Okay. Are you going to take any weeks off from that?
Ellaretha: No. Well, maybe the first.
Christopher T. Anderson: I recommend more than one, but okay. Give them a chance.
Ellaretha: I know, but my managers are fairly new.
Christopher T. Anderson: That’s true.
Ellaretha: I don’t want to just abandon ship.
Christopher T. Anderson: Yeah. Maybe think about one other one. You’ll look at your itinerary. You know what? Once you’re on vacation, it will become much clearer to you which ones you should not attend. It’s so funny. Like, you’re sitting in the office, like, I can’t miss any of these after about a week on vacation, you’ll be like, you know, they won’t miss me this time. That thing that is going on is more important. But anyway, that’s not what you were asking. I interrupted you very rudely.
Ellaretha: Okay. So all of my team knows we’ve been planning for this. They know I’m going. Unlike my maternity leaves, there’s no — baby are acceptable, socially acceptable reason for me to just be gone. I’m going to gallivant. I am struggling a little bit with that, with the perception of what is my team going to think that I’m just out here vacationing for so long and expecting them to still work?
Christopher T. Anderson: This is common. And all the things that you’re thinking that they’re thinking are true. All your fears are completely true. They are thinking that. So I’m not going to sugarcoat it, because that’s what we’ve taught ourselves to think, that’s how we’ve been taught to think. Like if you’re not present, if you’re not there, strapped to the yoke of the business on a daily basis, that’s you’re not doing what you should be doing. And so I see Ellaretha(ph) and Rob, I really want your input on this. I’m not going to use up all the time, but I see this personally as a huge opportunity for you to set the culture of your firm. I think you led it with the exact right words without knowing it. You said when you had a baby you had a socially acceptable reason and now you feel like you don’t.
Christopher T. Anderson: And the first thing you have to understand is that story is in your head before you get to deal with anybody else’s, because socially acceptable meant to you.
Christopher T. Anderson: Yeah. Do you give vacation to your team? Does your team (00:04:09)?
Ellaretha: Then I encourage them to take it. I give them vacation and I encourage them to take it.
Christopher T. Anderson: Is your vacation for – particularly, I’m mostly interested really in this conversation talking about your legal team. Do they have specific PTO or basically whatever they want to take it?
Ellaretha: They have three weeks defined plus (00:04:29) time off.
Christopher T. Anderson: And you want them to take it?
Ellaretha: Yeah. And we encourage them to take it. If someone hasn’t had vacation at mid-year, we generally are having a conversation like why and when are you taking at least a week off consecutive.
Christopher T. Anderson: Yeah. So I would call a meeting with your legal team, not all hands because this doesn’t matter to the paralegals. They will take their cues from the team. And this is not an apology meeting. This is a celebration. And I would — if I were doing this and I’m inviting Rob to disagree with me on this.
But if I were doing it, I would call this meeting as a celebration meeting. I’d probably bring in food, possibly drinks, depending on the time of day, 9:00 a.m. bloody Mary’s and start the meeting with gratitude. I just wanted to call this meeting to let you all know how much I really appreciate this team. When I started this law firm, being able to take a vacation like I’m about to take would have been unthinkable. And I am proud of myself, to be honest, but also really proud of you guys and appreciative that you are a team that works so well. That A, you can take vacations because you know your clients are covered and that your colleagues have your back and that things will go forward and that you’ll be able to relax and if something bad happens, that other people will take care of it. You’ll be able to come back refreshed, renewed and able to take on the day.
And part of my celebration of that, and quite honestly, as part of my ability to test whether the firm is really up to that, I am also appreciative to all of you for giving me the opportunity and making it possible for me to celebrate what we’ve achieved here with my family and to take some much needed time for me to relax and to renew and to come back with a new vigor to lead this team to further growth and opportunity. Those are my words, Ellaretha, but I said them that long to give you the gist, not just to say, hey, make it a celebratory meeting. Right?
Christopher T. Anderson: That’s kind of the message, I think this is a huge opportunity and then to make sure that you and your leadership team, and don’t forget the last time we talked, were you not hiring a PLA or bringing someone on board new for that role?
Ellaretha: Yeah, the PLA we hired didn’t work out. But I do have a managing attorney and a sales director. We have an operations manager who’s starting towards the end of my leave.
Christopher T. Anderson: Okay, so at least the managing attorney. That’s really (00:07:06).
Ellaretha: Yeah. And they go get work done and money will come in. Those are —
Christopher T. Anderson: Yeah, but I’m saying they should be carrying this water, too. And your instructions to them would be like, I do want to make sure that you’re reviewing everybody else’s vacations and making sure that everybody’s taken one recently. Not reviewing them for the purpose of seeing if anybody’s over, but rather has everybody taken their vacation or do they have one on the books and if not, let’s make sure that they’re doing that. And just really setting the cultural norms of your firm to be that this is an important part of the business for me and for you but lead with gratitude. And then instantly, Alakazam(ph), you have made this socially acceptable.
Ellaretha: Yep, okay.
Christopher T. Anderson: Right? Because you’re setting the social norm. Rob, what are your thoughts on that?
Robert Leitner: Well, I think your comments are dead on. The culture starts at the top, and I agree with Chris. This is an excellent opportunity to with a real case, set the culture, set the expectations, lay the groundwork. You know, certainly there’s an issue of this is your story, this is how you’re viewing it in your head. It’s the only viewpoint you can have but understand, it is your story. It’s not necessarily the true story, it’s not necessarily truth, but it’s your story and that’s what’s most important. Listen, you built this firm, you’ve been delegating, you created a team, you made significant investments, you’ve had hardships, you put processes in place, systems in place, resources in place. This is why, so you can reap those rewards and have the business work for you.
The only thing I would add would be that it’s very important to make sure that when you’re not in the office, your team understands the rules of communication when you’re gone, when do you want to be contacted and when don’t you. Is it true emergencies, is it you’re going to check in every Friday, whatever that looks like for you, it’s okay. But they need to know that ahead of time. And they also need to know the chain of command because issues and questions will come up and the ship is going to keep running when you’re not there. This is a great test. Make sure you communicate the rules of communication when you’re gone. Make sure everyone knows who gives the final word on what questions, whether it’s a legal question, strategy, operational question. And just like you encourage your team to take vacations and you support them, and you have generous PTO policies, this is now your time. And it’s perfectly normal and you’re reaping the fruits of everything you’ve laid down. And like Chris said, you have a lot of gratitude for the team for being there and helping build this firm. And personally, I’m super excited for you and I kind of want to go, but that’s another story.
Ellaretha: I’m so excited.
Christopher T. Anderson: Now for a shameless pitch. Law firms that work with Sunnyside Law actually are able to use one of our services, which is we are you while you’re on vacation. So we will stand in your role as the final arbiter of problems or decisions that need to be made while you’re away. And so just that’s a pitch for everybody that firms that work with us get that as a bonus as part of what we do for them.
Ellaretha: First, I want to know if while you’re on vacation, you check your emails to check your calendar. So I get invited to 20 different things every five minutes and so I’m the only one who knows if I want to attend or not. So I have to tell people, add this to my calendar, register me. So how do you handle that?
Christopher T. Anderson: First of all, as you know, because you and I have talked about this before, you shouldn’t be reading your emails. That’s answer one. So the question assumes facts not in evidence, which is that Ellaretha reads her emails when she is there. I’ve been preaching this for years. I’ve never heard it put the way that I just heard it put. I’m reading this book, it was recommended to me, actually, by someone on this call a couple of weeks ago. It’s coming up for air. Sonnenberg, is that his name? But anyway, I’ll look it up in a second. But anyway, he put it this way, which I think is the best way I’ve ever heard it put, which is email is a to-do list that other people can put things on for you. And as a leader of your business, that’s bullshit. You should determine your to-do list.
If you read — one of the things that really got me kicked off on this a long, long time ago was in Verne Harnish’s book, ‘Scaling Up’ where he describes an interaction that Charles Schwab, the founder of Schwab had, when in his younger days starting the business, he hired a consultant because he was feeling like he wasn’t getting anything done. That might sound familiar to us business leaders like, you come to work with all these grand plans and you leave work, you feel like you haven’t gotten anything done. Ten hours later you’re tired as a dog and you haven’t gotten anything done. Is that sounds familiar? Here’s why. And this is what the consultant said and back in the day the agreement was from the consultant was, Charles, you can write me a check for whatever amount you’d like after this engagement. That was it.
And to boil it all down, the advice that he gave him was at the beginning or preferably the night before, but certainly before you do anything on the day of — in the morning when you first sit down at your desk, write down the five most important things you can accomplish for the business today and then start to work on number one. That’s why you should preferably do it in the evening because when you sit down, you look at the list and there’s number one right there and you start on it. If you get number one done every day, you will be head and shoulders above most leaders of their businesses. And that was true, I think this conversation happened in the 70s. There was no email, there were memos, there was inboxes, they were just physical ones. But if it was true then, it’s even more true now. Because the way I used to explain it before this to-do list which I love is this, that email is a mechanism by which people substitute their priorities for yours. And the truth is that some of the things that you write down is number one they’re hard and they’re not often our favorite thing to do and email is an escape. It gives us that little endorphin buzz that A, I’m important and B, I can solve that, and so you do.
And I meet with my EA on these type of topics twice a week. It’s scheduled for 30 minutes, it’s usually 15. And she has a list of things to resolve from the email that she couldn’t resolve herself. Now, understand that’s 15 minutes twice a week out of 500 roughly emails per day that I get. So over the course of a week, that’s about 2500 emails. We spend 15 minutes twice a week resolving the things she couldn’t resolve herself. I forget who I was listening to, but somebody said that the average United States knowledge worker, which is what we are spends four hours a day in email.
Ellaretha: Yes, I believe it.
Christopher T. Anderson: Yeah, I spend about 20 minutes a day on email. It also involves separating internal communications from external communications, understanding the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication, all, by the way, stuff that’s in that book by Sonnenberg, really fantastic stuff on communication. But it is the bane of our existence and we are — now, I’m going to forget what comic strip that was, but we have met the enemy and he is us. We are the enemy, we do it to ourselves. But the only way to stop is to stop. And so if you want to get off that treadmill, it’s time to get an assistant who can manage your email for you and bring to you the things that are important in a way that I teach and others teach, but I teach it the best on how to have someone else manage your inbox.
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Male 2: Are you are a lawyer? Do you suffer from dull marketing and a lack of positioning in a crowded legal Marketplace? Sit down with Gyi and Conrad for Lunch Hour Legal Marketing on the Legal Talk Network, available wherever podcasts are found.
Male 1: For our second segment, a lawyer wants to know if it’s appropriate to give an employee an advanced warning that they will be fired.
Female: My question is this is there a world of a universe? I heard — I don’t know where I heard it, but sometimes when employees decide to quit and they have a critical role in the business, that it’d be nice if they gave you six months’ notice, 90-day notice, whatever it is. I am curious if that concept applies on the flip side, or if it would even make sense to apply on the flip side. So if I have a long-standing person that is not working anymore, like, not capable of the role anymore, and I need to let her go or him, does it make any sense for me be like, look, this isn’t working for me, you’re a great person, blah, blah, blah. I want to give you a two months head start. I need to start sourcing someone. I’d like you to help train them not the bad habits, but the good habits and I want to give you time to find another opportunity. Let’s do this all above board, and I know you need the money in the meantime, so work and know, go off, and I’ll probably help you find another role why I search for the replacement? Or is that completely ridiculous and unrealistic?
Christopher T. Anderson: I will save my snarky answer and let Rob take this one first.
Robert Leitner: I’ll be a little snarky. The answer is, in my opinion, that is a very risky strategy for a lot of reasons. Number one, you don’t know how the person’s going to react. You may think you do, but that may not be the truth. You never want a disgruntled employee at your firm, in my opinion. It’s better to remove them from the situation than have a toxic effect on the rest of the team. So I don’t like that strategy. I don’t think it benefits anyone. And the bottom line is, you have to protect the firm. And this is a risky strategy to the firm even though you want to be a good person and give them lots of notice that they’re gone. Okay? Even if it’s amicable at the beginning, it may turn sour toward the end, especially if they haven’t found another opportunity.
Female: Right. And I guess that’s what severance is for, quite frankly.
Christopher T. Anderson: Yes. Severance is guilt money.
Robert Leitner: That’s a great point.
Christopher T. Anderson: Yes.
Female: A decision has been made. It’s just a function of timing. But between now and the timing of when I want to execute this decision is a nightmare.
Christopher T. Anderson: Listen, he said, you don’t know how they’ll react. I would pile on and say they don’t know how they’ll react. And Rob kind of hit on it towards the end. He’s like, it might start out all kumbaya, right? But if they don’t find a job, maybe it will get sour. If they do, like you’re making all these plans, like, oh, I’m going to be such a nice person. I’m going to give them two months lead time. Well, you know what? What if they find a job? Are you expecting that they won’t take it and move right away? That they should put your lovely motion in front of their future? No, don’t go. They might be gracious to give you two weeks’ notice. They may not, because the notice has already been given. And even if they’re not disgruntled, you know, they’re going to be phoning it in and it’ll get worse over time.
Female: Oh, they’re phoning it in now. What is an appropriate severance for basically a three-year employee, a month?
Christopher T. Anderson: Rob?
Robert Leitner: Let me ask you a question. What grade do you give them overall out of their tenure? 0 to 10, 10 being all-star, zero being horrific.
Christopher T. Anderson: For the full-time they’ve been there?
Robert Leitner: Yeah.
Female: for the full time they’ve been there, I’m probably going to say a B minus. It’s been a recent decline, sharp decline in performance and abilities.
Christopher T. Anderson: What was their high point?
Female: Early in the relationship like the first year and a half.
Christopher T. Anderson: So for half of their time, you would have graded this person A.
Female: An A. Not without issues, but an A.
Christopher T. Anderson: Then it’s been a slide since then.
Female: It’s been a slide since then.
Christopher T. Anderson: And what is their grade today?
Female: I’d say a solid C. Sorry, I do A, B, C, D.
Robert Leitner: You know this is a difficult question. I’m going to defer to Chris one moment. The answer is you don’t owe them anything because you’ve been paying them this entire time. If you want to be generous and take care of your people, which I do recommend, because other people see it and people talk. So when this person leaves, don’t be surprised if other people know kind of some of the details about their departure. I would say probably maybe a week for every year they’ve been there, three weeks, give or take. That would be my estimate. Chris?
Christopher T. Anderson: To me, it’s a calculation of tenure times performance. You know if she’d been a solid A, you could you take what — I think Rob’s Math’s fine. You take that and you add to the multiplier. If it was a C, the whole time, if it’s a C the whole time, I wouldn’t do it.
Female: I wouldn’t do it, yeah.
Christopher T. Anderson: It’d be basically a for cause termination. But Rob’s right, I cynically said it’s guilt money. But Rob actually hit on something that’s much more important, which I believe, which is it has nothing to do with the current relationship has to do with the people that are left behind, that are still with you. That’s who you’re signaling.
Female: Got it.
Christopher T. Anderson: And about what your culture is to be able to take it all the way back to your core values. What do your core values say about this? And what would be true to your core values?
Female: Well, that’s the problem. Well, the reason I’m even in this position, because this person is not adhering to any of the core values in the last six months. So, yeah, I guess protect time and money. I don’t know. I have to go back and look, it’s a really tough predicament I’m in, and I feel like I had like —
Christopher T. Anderson: I don’t think it is. I think you’ve already made a decision, and I think the business will instantly be better for executing the decision.
Female: I agree, but I don’t know how to do that. I would love to do it now, but I don’t have a replacement. It’s difficult. All right, thank you. I appreciate it.
Christopher T. Anderson: Thank you.
Male 1: In our last segment, a lawyer seeks advice on how to grade newly hired receptionists.
Kim: Okay, well, first off, I just want to thank you for doing this. And this is my first time, so I’m super excited. One of the things we were having a conversation about in my last EOS quarterly meeting that I had was scorecards for intake people. What kind of measurements do you do for your receptionists that are answering the phones and things like that? So that way we can kind of give them a grade or making sure they’re meeting certain criteria and for the life of us, we were you know hey they answered the phone. So we’re trying to figure out what do you do for those people in that position?
Christopher T. Anderson: Great question. You know what? Rob’s been living this one, too. So I don’t want to feel like I’m punting everything, but I’d love Rob to take first swack at this.
Robert Leitner: Okay, no problem. Number one, I would want to know what the firm policy is for simply picking up the phone. Is it one ring? Is it two rings? Is it that every time the phone rings, a live person answers it? So that could be one metric. Number two, would be the person who’s conducting the intake, are they capturing all the required data? That’s very easy to look up. So it has to be a full intake every time. Next, some firms provide some type of incentive compensation, whereas if the person the P&C becomes a client, that some type of compensation is awarded, whatever that may look like. So those are the three things off the top of my head. Chris?
Christopher T. Anderson: Yeah. I think you stole the first two. The other one was, Kim, I would ask you what the goal of this person is, because if the goal of this person is to book an appointment, then that would be percentage appointments booked could be a metric. I would be careful with that metric, though, because they might start booking people that shouldn’t get an appointment and so it might be a percentage of people who are booked.
But with a measurement on the other end where someone gets to grade whether the appointment was actually qualified pursuant to whatever your firm’s definition of qualified for the appointment is. You Know, for some firms who are booking, like family law firms that I know that have an intake booking the appointment with the sales or the consult, the definition of qualified is has a family law problem in our jurisdiction. That’s it. Some people might add and is financially qualified, but some people don’t want the intake person dealing with that question. And so it just really depends on how you state what your sales qualified leads should be and so your percentage of sales qualified people who are booked. And that’s the only other metric I would add.
If you want to get more fancy, but something that I’ve been wanting to do and probably won’t do for another year or a little bit more is, I think, what Delta, if anybody flies Delta, what Delta does when you used to call them like I don’t think I’ve called Delta in over a year. But when you used to call Delta Airlines, when you finished with your call, immediately a voice would come on and say, please take a moment to review the call you just had based on a scale of one and it’s one question. It’s kind of like an NPS score, but different. I love the question. On a scale of one to five, would you hire the person you just talked to for a customer service role in your firm and one being absolutely not, five being absolutely yes, and boom.
It takes 10 seconds. I answered it almost every time, and I think that something like that could be cool. But that’s a lot of technology to get that one done. But that’s what I would add to what Rob said. Does that answer your question?
Kim: Yes, sir, it does. Thank you.
Male 1: Thank you for listening. This has been The Un-Billable Hour Community Table on the Legal Talk Network.