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For many law firms, employee turnover is a constant problem. When paralegals and staff walk out the door, it’s tough on morale and budgets, and may impair the firm’s ability to deliver the best client service possible. But there are ways for law firms to keep employees happy besides throwing money at them. Proactive management, special events, and small perks can go a long way toward retaining employees and making the firm a more pleasant — and even fun — place to work. The key is treating attorneys and staff as equals, and — as basic as it sounds — holding everyone to the golden rule: Treat others as you would have others treat you. At our firm, the 46-person Columbus, Ohio, office of Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs, we’ve found that the golden rule has become essentially self-enforcing. People simply expect to be treated fairly and with respect. The first step comes during the hiring process. Our firm uses an organizational survey called the Predictive Index System when someone applies for a position. The survey tells us about the candidate’s work behaviors, such as level of assertiveness, introspectiveness, level of formality, attention to detail, level of patience, and other characteristics. This tool assists us in the interview process to give us a good picture of how this person will behave in a work environment. Once an employee is on board, we don’t let problems linger. If someone is out of line, whether it is an attorney, paralegal, or secretary, that person will be spoken to about his or her behavior. We do not allow our attorneys to scream at anyone in the office. We also stress to attorneys that their secretaries are a part of the team, not their personal secretary. Proactive leadership and regular team meetings within the firm reinforce this message. Proactive leadership requires the managing partner or office administrator to anticipate or promptly address conflicts as they arise. The firm’s team meetings include attorneys, paralegals, legal secretaries, and the office administrator gathering as a cohesive group several times a year to review how effectively the team is functioning. The office administrator serves as the facilitator, and every player on the team is treated equally, with the common goal of success. These meetings provide an opportunity for the entire team to communicate openly what is working and what needs to be improved. For example, we may have a business attorney and a workers’ comp attorney sharing the same legal secretary. During a team meeting, the attorneys will learn more about how their counterparts are utilizing the secretary and what tasks are appropriately delegated. Such discussions also take the secretary out of the middle — the attorneys discuss workload issues directly to figure out the real priorities. FROM BOWLING TO EASTER BUNNIES Recognizing that attorneys can sometimes be viewed as intimidating, we emphasize events that promote interaction among attorneys, paralegals, and staff. For example, each year our office holds an employee appreciation event recognizing support staff for their hard work and dedication. Events have included bowling parties, a murder mystery cocktail party, game show skits, and talent shows. Attorneys, paralegals, and staff all participate in these events, which have proven to be a great way for all employees to unwind and enjoy spending time with each other. Of course, at law offices with hundreds of lawyers and staff, it might not be practical to do all of these things on a firmwide basis, but attorneys and staff within specific practice groups could stage such events on a smaller scale. Another way that we’ve been able to break down walls within the firm is by inviting support staff to nearly every social event in which the attorneys participate. At our firm, it has become common to see attorneys and staff members having lunch together. Impromptu summer “happy hours” also convey to the support staff that they are important and respected. Firmwide leadership is not immune to these strategies. When our current president took his position, we wanted everyone to have the opportunity to get to know him. To accomplish this, he and our chief operating officer dressed in aprons, pushed a snack and beverage cart around the office, and served and chatted with our attorneys and staff members. At Easter, Peter Rabbit (an attorney dressed in a rabbit outfit) hops through the office passing out candy. At Halloween, it’s not unusual to see one of our attorneys dressed as a cow grazing through the office with candy. On one occasion, our managing partner, a construction lawyer, dressed up as Bob the Builder and let employees throw pies at him for charity. These fun and silly activities make everyone laugh and boost morale. There is no better stress relief than laughter. If for some reason laughter doesn’t help, a massage does. Occasionally, our office offers free 15-minute chair massages for all employees. To generate new ideas for social activities, we have convened an events committee that includes a paralegal, two attorneys, two secretaries, and the office administrator. Past activities developed by the committee include a basketball “Final Four” party and periodic pizza parties. The events committee also selects a charity for the office. Through the years we have supported numerous nonprofit organizations. To add a competitive element to fund-raising efforts, we often divide the office into several teams that compete against each other for contributions. Each team is required to conduct an event during the fund raiser period. For example, one team prepared a putt-putt golf course through our office, another staged a jelly bean counting contest, while yet another team sponsored a baby picture contest. The firm also supplements the efforts of the events committee with brown-bag lunch presentations throughout the year. Speakers have included a nutritionist, personal trainers, financial advisers, and a psychologist. We’ve also held special breast cancer awareness programs. SUMMER BREAK Finally, we have enacted two policies directed exclusively at our support staff. First, in the summer months we divide the support staff into three teams. On any given Friday, the members of one team leave the office two hours early. That means that every third Friday, each member of the support staff can leave two hours early. To keep current with their workloads, staff members make up this time during the week by taking shorter lunches, staying later, or coming in early. This early-Friday is a much-appreciated perk that allows our staff to jump-start their weekends. Second, because our office does not have a “floater” legal secretary, each secretary covers for others when a vacation is scheduled. In return for all the hard work, we hold a drawing each month to award one secretary a half-day off with pay. This is a very popular policy. When things are particularly hectic, we have also ordered in breakfast or lunch to express our appreciation to staff for their hard work. There are many elements that make our workplace fun and productive. While some activities, like the firm president serving snacks, are one-time events and others are seasonal or ongoing, all contribute toward making our firm into a place where people like to work. True, not all of our ideas have been big hits. One year at Christmas, we gathered volunteers to sing to residents of a nursing home. We had spent time making books of Christmas music with candy cane spines and one of our attorneys dressed up as Santa Claus. One visit was scheduled during the week, but we only had five people from our office participate. We believe the low turnout was due to the time of year. Families are busy with social, school, and church activities, and it is hard for them to take time for another event. We learned on our food drives that we need to incorporate competition — it makes the events more fun and more successful. A couple of times, we just put a box in the kitchen to collect food, made flyers and sent e-mails, but this approach yielded results that were short of our expectations. As we’ve learned what works, we’ve found that many of our events have been adopted at other the offices of Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs. We continually look for new ways to provide relief from the everyday pressures of working for a law firm. The investment of time is not huge — but the returned benefit of community, increased productivity, stability, and job satisfaction is immense. Linda Dupuis is the office administrator, and Donald Leach is the managing partner of Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs LLP in Columbus, Ohio. Founded in 1913, the firm provides a full range of legal services and has offices in Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Columbus, Ohio, and in Boca Raton, Fla.

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