Supervising attorneys: Learn to address recurring issues among staff, associates

Shawn Healy
BridgeTower Media Newswires

One of the most challenging things that a manager is tasked with is intervening with staff members to correct certain behavior. Whether this is in the form of edits via a red pen, constructive criticism in a formal review, or everyday feedback about job performance, frequently a supervisor’s intervention falls short because the underlying ingredients of change are overlooked.

The result is often a temporary adjustment in behavior or performance followed by the eventual return to previous behavior. This is the cycle of frustration that many supervising attorneys find themselves in when trying to manage personnel.

While the list of potential issues that impede change is long, here are a few common ones that play a significant role in why employees might be stuck in unhelpful patterns, and some suggestions for how to respond to them.

Expectations. We all have expectations for ourselves and others. These expectations are often unstated and many times can be unrealistic to some degree.

For example, expecting that an associate will heed all feedback the first time it is given is unrealistic. We all require repetition in order to learn.

When expectations are not met, judgment and criticism are usually the result. If an associate thinks that perfection is the expectation, that associate is less likely to ask questions,
admit that they do not understand something, and do just enough to avoid criticism or judgment, instead of asking questions in order to get to a deeper understanding of the issue.

Tip: Recognize your expectations. Consider whether they are realistic or healthy; expecting perfection is neither. Make your expectations explicit, and encourage staff members to voice their expectations so that they too can be involved in this process.

The big picture. As a supervisor, you are more often privy to information that other staff members are not aware of. If multiple staff members are complaining about the behavior of a particular employee, that employee probably does not see how his behavior is impacting the morale of others.

When employees do not know what the big picture is, or the important role they each play in it, they are more likely to feel powerless. Feeling powerless makes people want to gain a sense of power, which can lead to employees acting in ways that are unhelpful.

Tip: Teach employees about the big picture, whether that is how the firm works, how each part of a case is related to the next, or how interactions among staff impact office morale.

Knowing how their efforts influence the big picture will give them a greater sense of control. When people feel a greater sense of control, they are more likely to feel connected to the organization and feel motivated to have a positive impact on the firm.

Understanding versus following instructions. When time is at a premium (and when is it not?), it can feel as though it is more efficient to give instructions rather than encourage understanding.

A quick instruction is quicker in the short run, but a longer conversation that encourages understanding has a bigger pay-off in the end. If you rely on giving instructions all the time, you basically train your staff to be dependent on you. Encouraging understanding helps each employee develop independence and competence.

Tip: Encourage creative thinking, but ask associates or staff to think about the reasoning behind the arguments they made, the approach they took, or the way in which they handled a situation.

Avoid asking “why” questions. Being asked “why” will immediately put the other person in defense mode to justify his decision. Replace “why” questions with “what” or “how” to encourage discussion and critical thinking.

A discussion will not only give you an opportunity to encourage critical thinking and clarify expectations, it also will give you more insight into what each employee needs in order to develop into an independent employee.

Identify the deeper need. One reason why people get into behavioral patterns is because they are trying to meet a need that is going unmet. An associate who keeps making the same mistake and does not ask for help might be trying to figure it out alone in order to impress his or her supervisor and get the desired acknowledgement.

Above material rewards like more money and benefits, employees who are asked about the things that make their jobs satisfying always list feeling acknowledged and appreciated at the top of the list.

Tip: Assume that at the heart of recurring conflicts or unhelpful behavioral patterns is the employee’s desire to be understood, acknowledged and appreciated. Increasing the employee’s sense that he is understood, recognized and appreciated will result in increased employee morale and improved communication. Doing this in a sincere fashion takes time but produces better results.

At the end of the day, you do not have to solve the problems of your employees. However, your day and the functioning of the firm will go smoother if your employees feel safe to ask questions, think through decisions, and feel confident that they are accepted and appreciated.


Shawn Healy is a licensed clinical psychologist on staff with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts. He also writes and presents on a variety of topics germane to the practice of law. He can be contacted at