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The Gifts That Keep on Giving

Schmoozing Law Firm Staff Pays Off in Loyalty and Productivity

Posted Sep 12, 2004 11:23 AM CDT
By Margaret Graham Tebo

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Day trips to Las Vegas, the Ba­hamas, Churchill Downs. An afternoon off to shop at the mall—with your boss’s money. A week-long cruise with your colleagues, paid in part by the firm.

Sound like the sort of benefits only available at those big sweatshop firms? Think again. These are just a few of the perks provided by two tiny law firms to their support staff. The idea is to let secretaries, paralegals and receptionists know that they are a much-valued part of the team—and, hopefully, to keep them happy enough to stay.

“This job is so stressful, not only on attorneys but especially on the staff because they get caught in the middle a lot,” says Jeffrey Rocker, who works at a firm with five lawyers and 10 support staff in Columbus, Ind. “We are in a small city. The number of paralegals and secretaries here is so small, we need to keep our good people happy,” he says.

Rocker’s firm is the one that takes staff on day trips to exotic locales. The firm also takes the employees and their families to a Christmas tree farm every holiday season. Each family is invited to select and cut a fresh tree, for which the firm pays. And because a client owns the Christmas tree farm, Rocker says it strengthens a client relationship as well. After all, he says, when you’re a small-town law firm, “You can’t have a restaurant as a client and never eat there.”

Dallas lawyer David Leon understands that feeling of community, too, even though his three-lawyer, three-staff-member firm is in a much larger metropolis. A few times a year, when stress is at its peak, the firm closes the office for an afternoon and treats everyone to a posh lunch and then takes them to a local mall. The lawyers hand out gift cards to each employee and everyone shops for a few hours before reassembling for cocktails.

“The unofficial rule is you must spend the gift card amount on yourself, not on gifts for others,” says Leon.

A CONTINUOUS COMMITMENT

Leon’s firm also helped pay for a staff cruise. But he and Rocker say that, while the fancy trips and gifts are great for morale, they know that they must be receptive to their employees’ needs year-round. Leon regularly ends his weekly staff meeting by asking employees what can be done to improve their working conditions.

From those discussions has come a more user-friendly computer system and a different procedure for handling incoming calls. Lawyers never would have known about these problems if they hadn’t asked, and the changes have made a big difference in employees’ work lives.

Leon says the attention to the small matters affecting his staff’s day-to-day work pays off in loyalty and a sense of collaboration. “I can get a lot more done if they’re invested in the process, so they can just tell me what I need to be doing that day.”

Rocker agrees. The lawyers at his firm also make a habit of soliciting feedback about the little things from support staff. He cites the example of installing a mini­fridge near the reception area to make it easier for staff to offer cold drinks to waiting clients.

Rocker says he learned the importance of creating a collaborative, family-like atmosphere from his firm’s founder more than 30 years ago. “He always put his needs second to those of his staff because he understood that if these folks aren’t happy, things weren’t going to run well. They are the bottom line. A lot of employers miss that idea, to their detriment.”

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