Staff cutbacks, heavier workloads and lower morale have been inevitable byproducts of recessionary times in corporate legal departments. Stress on legal professionals has increased, as a result.
A leaner staff means that everyone is doing more work with fewer resources, which can lead to diminishing returns. If team members are starting to miss deadlines, make more mistakes or adopt negative attitudes, the increased demands may be taking a toll. Here are some strategies to help ease the negative effects of stress on a legal team:
Setting Clear Expectations
Miscommunication and misinterpretation about responsibilities frequently leads to frustration, inefficiency – and, ultimately, unnecessary stress. This is especially true when everyone is working at full speed and effective communication takes a backseat to other priorities. Counsel need to make sure lawyers and other members of their teams understand from the outset of a project what respective roles should be and communicate their expectations for completion of various aspects of an assignment. While micromanaging should be avoided, giving comprehensive direction on the front end will save everyone time and frustration in the long run.
Once employees have a clear understanding of their responsibilities on a project, they need to be given the flexibility to determine how best to carry out the assignment. Counsel should not allow staff to feel as though they’re left to simply “figure it out;” team members should feel free to engage in creative problem solving and finding their own way to achieving a positive outcome. It is important to balance autonomy with support by creating an environment in which employees feel they can always come to their supervisor with problems or questions and don’t have to worry about negative career repercussions if their efforts occasionally fall short.
Some of team members’ assigned duties may have been squeezed out by more pressing priorities. This can add to their stress level, as they may feel significant pressure to carry out both their old and new responsibilities but recognize that they lack the time and resources to do it all. Now is a good time to review job descriptions and re-balance workloads. Alternatively, counsel may be able bring in interim professionals who can relieve the burden on key employees by taking over certain important, but less urgent, duties from core staff.
Encouraging Work/Life Balance
Long work hours may be essential at times when deadlines are looming. Although counsel must ensure that the work gets done, it is ultimately counterproductive to allow top performers to burn themselves out. Eventually, many will end up seeking a less stressful position. Counsel should encourage team members to use their vacation days and take time off for personal or family commitments, and set the example by doing so themselves. This includes making arrangements for employees’ projects to be handled in part by others or bringing in interim legal professionals as needed to ensure core staff can take the breaks they need to regain their physical and emotional energy.
Although moderate stress can be positive – and may lead to greater focus and enhanced productivity – too much of it over a prolonged period can make a legal team feel trapped and helpless. Counsel should remain alert to signs that staff is feeling overwhelmed and take steps to alleviate the pressures on them. Asking employees for their input on the workload balance will go a long way to show that the department is concerned about how stress is affecting them. Together, strategies can be created to benefit the entire team.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.