The law firm where I work aims to pair attorneys and paralegals in a 1:1 ratio, and with the exception of some of the more experienced paralegals, most of us meet that ratio. Therefore, it’s vital to the success of our teams that each attorney-paralegal pair has a positive working relationship, yet that goal is often overlooked.
Since I started at this firm eight months ago, I have overheard complaints from not only the paralegals in my office, but also the paralegals in our other offices, too, about the relationships (or lack thereof) with their supervising attorneys.
Of my sources, the most prevalent concern is a lack of respect, which I see as a three-part problem:
1. The way the attorney asks them to do tasks feels demeaning, particularly when the attorney tells them to do it, rather than asks. Something about the phrasing feels like the attorney is talking down to them from a holier-than-thou stance.
2. The attorney does not give clear instructions for the task assigned and chides the paralegal for asking follow-up questions — assuming the attorney is even present in the office to answer those questions.
3. The attorney either does not thank them at all, or does not thank them in a way that feels genuinely appreciative. Some paralegals receive a “kaythanks” in passing, without eye contact, while others receive no feedback whatsoever.
Overall, this strikes me as a communication problem.
It’s no surprise that every paralegal who has worked for my boss in the past couple years has enjoyed doing so; he’s polite, takes a personal interest in each of us and asks about our lives, always asks rather than tells us to do tasks, gives clear instructions, is comfortably approachable (and available) for follow-up questions, and graciously thanks us. I’m not sure how much experience he’s had in leadership roles, but it’s a delight to work for and with him.
In contrast, some of the other attorneys to whom my coworkers report are not as pleasant. A few of these attorneys are newer to practicing law and do not have much work experience outside of law school, which is more understandable, but for the attorneys who’ve been practicing for years, I see their leadership style as a grave disappointment. It fosters resentment within those of us lower on the hierarchy and makes the work place feel unnecessarily hostile.
The other problem is that my non-attorney coworkers seem to be uncomfortable with direct confrontation, asking others for help, and accepting necessary help when it’s offered. This, too, fosters resentment among us peons and supplements the lingering hostility because stress and problems accrue without resolution.
From what I’ve heard (and this is entirely speculative), our partners have zero interest in how we interact with each other. Regardless of the truth of that rumor, the staff acts as though it is factual, which has proven disheartening for office morale. Fortunately, our manager is much more involved with — and interested in — helping us resolve interpersonal conflicts. However, when it comes down to implementation, I get the sense that the corporate attitude is, “You’re a team, and we don’t want you here if you’re unhappy. Make it work, or find another job.”
Our firm’s social culture needs help.
“Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork,” management lectures, but we aren’t coached how to implement that ideal, or how it would look once it’s achieved. It’s reminiscent to me of group projects in school. You’re tossed together with a few other classmates, everyone goes about the assignment individually (or slacks entirely), and you’re left to awkwardly weave the fragments together, hoping the half-assed end result is adequate.
I see there being ample room for improvement in our workplace relationships, but we all need to be willing to invest the time and effort toward practicing more effective communication with each other. As with any other relationships in life, it all comes down to a solid foundation of communication, and that takes a lot of practice.