Every law firm has an “A-team.” These are the folks who can step into chaos, keep things moving ahead, and resolve problems in a prompt and satisfactory manner. These people are willing to pitch in when needed—their experience has helped them develop a high level of trust in your decision-making abilities. These attorneys are the ones you want to keep long-term.
Unfortunately, even the most-willing staff members have limits. Law is often an adversarial environment—most attorneys are competitive types who like to win. But rushing to meet unexpected deadlines and filling in on the spot can wear down even the most dedicated professionals over time.
When staff is overloaded there are inevitable negative effects on employees, clients, and ultimately the firm. These include:
- Decreased productivity
- Lower quality of work
- Clients feel neglected
- Morale drops
- New ideas and strategies that could improve the firm are not getting implemented
- Your firm’s reputation suffers
Below, we share some of the warning signs that your law office is overloaded and changes need to happen fast.
Regardless of career choice, no one escapes stressful situations. Ironically, stress has both good and bad effects on a person. Studies have shown that a moderate level of stress is actually beneficial to employee performance—they are more motivated and meticulous, taking care to cross their “T’s” and dot their “I’s.”
However, stress has a negative impact when there is too much for too long a time. Physicians refer to this situation as chronic stress. Prolonged stress can quickly zap the enthusiasm and morale of individual employees and entire teams. Many victims of chronic stress are the lawyers who earn fat checks while longing for a better work/life balance. Eventually, the effects of this stress begin to creep up in your work.
Signs of stress can show up in a number of unexpected ways. I once worked in a large firm with a 7th-year associate who craved becoming a partner. In spite of being extremely talented in multiple practice areas, she felt constantly stressed, and the result impacted her health negatively. She often complained of headaches, an ulcer, and fretful sleeping habits.
When working, she tended to grind her teeth. After being warned by the dentist that doing so was damaging her teeth, she began sucking on small circular mints placed between her upper and lower molars. The mints stopped her tooth grinding, but over time resulted in circular shaped cavities.
2. Poor Work Performance
Are normally dependable employees missing deadlines or handing in incomplete projects? Do they always seem distracted? This could be a warning sign of work overload. Slip-shod work means lost time and added expense to have things redone.
Sometimes this deterioration will be obvious. At other times, employee work standards could decline so slowly that managers don’t notice until a client complains. Regular performance reports can help you recognize changes before they become disastrous. Run reports on missed deadlines and workloads to understand how your staff might be changing over time.
Even more damaging is the impact poor work performance can have on other employees. Productive employees often grow frustrated and discouraged at constantly waiting for an underperforming employee to finish their assigned aspect of a project.
3. Long Hours at the Office
Every successful managing partner puts in long hours—it goes with the territory. But if you notice your associates regularly arriving at work before you do or staying long after you’re gone, you’ve got a problem. This applies especially to employees working weekends and holidays or not using earned leave time.
Associates hanging around the office at all hours can damage a firm’s reputation. I remember a large firm that everyone referred to as the “Death Star.” It recruited the best attorneys and did excellent work, but word of mouth was that you didn’t want to go there unless you were willing to constantly bill 90 hours a week.
As a young associate, I originally bought into the idea of always being in the office. Now that I look back, it was foolish to be the only one in the office on weekends. Fortunately, a wiser senior associate eventually pulled me aside and explained that my life should be more than practicing law—I was expected to keep normal hours and use my leave time.
4. Woe-is-Me Talk
This warning sign is more heard than seen and goes hand-in-hand with long office hours. Listen to what your attorneys say when speaking with co-workers. They are likely overworked if you hear comments like: “I’m too tired to do anything when I leave work,” or “I’d like to go on vacation, but I’ve got too much work to do,” or my personal favorite, “I’m maxed out on my leave time, but I just can’t get away from work.”
“Woe is me” talk is often said half in jest, but it’s no laughing matter. Listen closely for such comments and take appropriate measures to lighten workloads when needed.
According to Investopedia, absenteeism refers to an employee’s intentional or habitual absence from work. It costs companies tens of billions of dollars annually in lost productivity and burdens management. Frequent absenteeism leaves other employees with extra work and often provokes negative feelings towards the absent teammate.
Occasional work absences happen for a number of valid reasons, such as illness or tending to personal affairs. Employees and employers understand and accept this. It is the chronic “unscheduled” absences that cause trouble.
Be aware of when your employees show up to work—if someone is constantly late, there is usually a reason. Oftentimes that reason is their disinterest or dissatisfaction with how things are going at work. Watch for absences that fit a pattern, like regularly missing Mondays or Fridays.
6. Heightened Employee Emotions
Employee emotions go up and down based upon a number of reasons and there is an acceptable spectrum of variance. However, heightened emotions among normally dependable and stable employees is a clear sign of being overloaded.
These emotions can range anywhere from the “thousand-yard stare” where employees seem distracted or disengaged from work, to those memorable “flying-off-the-handle” moments. In my own career, I’ve seen many uninterested attorneys muddle through their workday, doing just enough to keep from being booted out.
I’ve also seen a couple lose control completely. One of the most egregious examples occurred in a large firm. The secretary assigned to a senior associate lost an almost final draft of an important brief. The associate went nuclear, screaming and throwing things around the office. A partner finally calmed him down, but not before he had torn off his shirt and started stomping on it. He garnered a lot of attention from everyone in the office that day, but I’m sure his actions did nothing to help his annual review.
7. Client Complaints
If you have a good relationship with a loyal client, they will likely feel comfortable letting you know if they are ever dissatisfied with your services. A client complaining that it is difficult to get a meeting, phone call, or email response from an attorney is often a sign that your staff may be too busy.
Long-time clients understand that attorneys are busy and that they won’t always receive an immediate response to their questions, but if it’s a frequent occurrence, you will have to do something about it or risk losing clients.
What to Do About Overload
Overloading your team is counterproductive—it leads to burnout and the expensive task of replacing attorneys who leave for a better situation. If you notice any of these signs of staff overload, move quickly to make changes.
This could mean hiring additional staff. To accommodate your current workload or a growing workload, ensure that you have the optimal number of employees. Determining staff size can be difficult but is crucial to the success of both employees and the firm. This may be done by tracking time, employee satisfaction, and projecting firm growth.
Overload may also be avoided by increasing efficiency. Investing in the right legal technology can save your firm hours of work each day. Don’t underestimate the power of good organization and communication. Case management software and other legal technology can empower your firm to do more work with less effort—relieving employees of the burden of overload.
Successful managing attorneys know that taking care of your people will help them take care of you. Watching for the signs of impending burnout and taking steps to prevent it will pay off in the long run. Your team will be more willing and ready to respond to high-pressure situations when you feel compelled to exclaim, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!”