This article is Part 1 of 3 in a series on law firm staff coordination by Megan Zavieh, Esq. Read Part II here.
Everyone has had that moment – that moment when the task before them was insurmountable. Dreaded. The very last thing they wanted to do. Everyone has experienced that feeling, but what happens when you have that feeling every day?
For an employee sitting in the wrong seat, given the wrong job, it can truly feel like every day is the worst day at work. And even if they do not realize they are in the wrong job, they certainly know they do not want to go to work every day, they don’t enjoy their tasks, and they are not thriving in their performance. Co-workers and managers know, too, and they think this employee is not very competent, or lazy, or just unpleasant.
Each employee dreading work was interviewed and hired. They thought the job was something they would like, and someone hiring them thought they would do well in the job. What went wrong? Perhaps it is not the person, but rather it’s the seat that’s to blame.
Everyone Has Strengths, Not Just Skills
We’ve heard it said in many ways: Everyone has certain talents. This is not a narrow concept.
Some of us are better at using Word’s styles, and some of us are better at public speaking, but there is more to it than just the skills we have developed. We also have traits about us that make us better at some tasks than others.
For instance, some of us are more naturally inquisitive about people; we want to sit and listen to a full conversation about the history of their legal problem, the emotional fallout they are experiencing, and their fears as they enter the legal process. Others of us are more analytical, not really interested in listening to the whole story of their emotions but rather wanting to understand which facts fit into the legal analysis.
This is not a judgment of someone’s character; it is an observation about a person’s natural inclinations.
The hard wiring of each employee in an organization makes different seats more or less appropriate for them. The employee who loves to listen in great detail to someone’s story would make a fantastic intake person; the more analytical person not so much. But the analytical person would be the right one to outline the legal arguments to be made in that client’s case.
Another employee might be highly inventive when it comes to problem solving; their talents would be wasted at the reception desk. Yet another might be highly assertive and tenacious, making them a great candidate to design new processes and take on added responsibilities in the firm.
Before Assuming the Employee Is Not Right, Check the Seat
When someone’s natural abilities collide with their job requirements, the fallout can be substantial. Even if they have the skills to do their job well, such as the word processing skills, the efficiency to answer many phone calls and transfer them correctly, or the aptitude for numbers to balance the books every week, if their hard-wired traits are not in line with their job requirements, they will be extremely unhappy. Their work will suffer because they will be constantly pushing against their weakest traits to complete their assigned tasks.
If you have an employee or teammate who sounds like this, do not assume they are incompetent or should be let go. First consider whether they are in the wrong seat in the organization.
By way of example, imagine a person who is good at math but really thrives in a social setting where they can collaborate with others. They are creative and inventive and are really good at listening to people’s ideas and translating them into actionable plans. If their math skills lead them to a job in the law firm’s accounting department where they balance the trust account, make deposits, and distribute funds, they are not utilizing their best skills. Even though they are good at it, it is unlikely they will stay long in that position, and probably they will begin to make mistakes because they are spending long hours alone staring at a computer screen.
Now consider if that person found another seat in the firm where their math skills were used to start measuring key performance indicators. Their aptitude for figures is still a key part of their job, but now they can collaborate with lawyers within the firm to find out what information would be most useful to them. They could work with marketing personnel to help guide strategy based upon numerical data being gathered. The former bookkeeper would be able to collaborate with the IT department to determine how data can be mined from systems already in place, and also create new systems to collect additional data for the numbers-focused employee to crunch. They would thrive.
Determining the Best Seats
A major challenge in finding the best place for an employee in an organization is that neither they nor the hiring director may know the right questions to ask. In an interview for a secretary, the interviewer likely asks about their phone skills, typing skills, ability to multitask, and other day-to-day function questions. The candidate will be keen to highlight for the interviewer the number of matters they can handle at once, the high-level partner who was their last boss, and other indicia of competence. But what really matters to placing the right person in that secretary’s seat? Is it their social ability? Patience? Logical mind? Autonomy?
This issue has become recognized enough that there is an entire industry surrounding the concept of placing people in their best seats. There are consultants who help identify behavioral-based interview questions, and who can guide an organization through reorganizing existing employees and hiring new ones.
Even short of hiring a consultant, for the smaller firm that does not see outside help as being in the budget, get more creative in your hiring. Look beyond skills. Think about the personality traits and inclinations that a successful employee in that position will possess. Ask the interviewee questions that are completely not what they would expect, but rather which are designed to get beyond their skills to questions about their authentic selves. It may be off-putting to the candidate expecting rote interview questions, but that is the point. You can test proficiency on software easily enough, but it is not the most important thing you need to know.
And for the employee in the organization who is struggling to perform in their current role, ask them what it is about their job that they would most like to change. If they can identify something larger than a tool or a task they would modify, perhaps you can open the door to a job transition into a better-suited role.
Megan Zavieh earned her J.D. at age 21 from the University of California at Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall) in 1999, graduating Order of the Coif. After clerking at the U.S. Court of International Trade in New York, she went on to practice securities litigation at three top firms in the New York area. In 2009, Megan began working with members of the California State Bar who were facing disciplinary action. She has provided full scope representation and associated counsel assistance at all stages of the disciplinary process. From 2011 to the present, Megan has maintained her California ethics practice from physical locations around the globe, including Sydney, Australia and Atlanta, Georgia. Using the magic of technology, Megan’s virtual practice has taken on a nationwide scope. Megan is admitted to practice before the state courts in California, New York, New Jersey and Georgia, several Federal District courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, and the United States Supreme Court.