AS SEEN IN THE SPRING 2013 LEGAL LEAGUE QUARTERLY, LIZ LAMAR TALKS MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES
Promoting from within can be one of the most powerful management tools leveraged by a default law firm.
Conversely, it can be disastrous - one of the greatest pitfalls if not done with certain care. As studies suggest, promoting from within improves staff productivity and morale. After all, employees are motivated when their firm looks for future talent among the company's current pool of employees. It also serves as a recruitment tool for attorneys and support staff who wish to pursue a long-term career path within an organization. So, why has promoting from within proved to be so challenging for law firms in the default industry? This article explores the pros and cons of promoting from within and examines the two most common challenges faced by default firms, as well as provides tips for avoiding the pitfalls.
The Pros and Cons of Internal Advancement
First, let's examine why it makes sense for law firms to adopt a policy of inside hiring.
The positives include the following:
- Inside hires already understand the firm's culture, mission, and inner workings. Since they are already a part of the team, the learning curve in this area is less severe.
- The performance level of an inside hire is often better than an outside hire.
- It is less expensive to promote from within. Firms save on advertising and orientation costs, for example.
- Inside hiring acts as a motivator for staff to work harder in order to be promoted. It can also result in multiple promotions since vacancies become available as people are moved up the ladder.
- Inside hiring sends the message that the firm values loyalty and performance.
- By promoting from within, external hires are generally kept at entry level. The benefit to this is that entry level positions are less expensive to fill and the financial impact of a bad hire is significantly less.
- Promoting from within fosters greater employee retention for those looking for security.
While there are many more benefits to inside hiring than those listed above, there are also downsides to promoting from within.
The negatives include:
- If no 'suitable' internal candidate is found, a policy of giving internal candidates preference could result in promoting someone with the wrong skill set for the job. In addition, it may create conflict within the organization when unsuitable internal applicants are passed over because they do not have the right qualifications for the position.
- Internal placement programs can be slow if management is not electronically distributing lists of available positions within the firm. Posting of positions on boards in office common areas or distributing paper lists are not efficient and do not always reach potential candidates.
- People can become frustrated if all job postings are not "truly available." In other words, sometimes managers advertise available positions to comply with firm policy even though they have already made their choice of candidate.
- Many inside hiring policies are based on seniority, which may not always produce the best hire.
- Internal promoting can create office politics and jockeying for positions, which can distract staff from production and be bad for staff morale.
- If there is no good training or development program available, staff may be slow to reach their full potential.
- Inside hiring policies can encourage firms to promote the most experienced and skilled person into a position of leadership even though that person does not have management experience or the skills to be a leader.
Common Challenges and Solutions
Just because an employee is a skilled or experience worker does not mean they can lead. Likewise, just because an employee has a great deal of substantive knowledge does not mean they can manage.
One of the gravest and most common mistakes made by default law firms is to promote skilled and experienced workers into management positions, even though these workers do not have management experience or the skills necessary to lead their teams to success. Effective managers understand that managing is both an art and a science. It involves a well-rounded mix of substantive subject-area knowledge, good organizational and leadership skills, and excellent people skills.
It is not uncommon for default firms to promote paralegals into management positions simply because they know how to do their current jobs well. Similarly, managing a large department of people is very different from supervising a small handful. In order to supervise a small group, it may not be necessary to have the strong leadership skills required of a large-team manager. Soon, a paralegal who once was solely in charge of her own workload, or who was overseeing a small group, is managing her entire department's workflow. This is an extremely risky practice unless management knows and is confident that the paralegal candidate has solid management skills to bolster her substantive knowledge.
When considering promoting a skilled worker into a management position, several key skills must be considered:
- Thorough knowledge base of their area with full understanding of everyone's roles and tasks.
- Good "people" skills. Consider what the candidate's relationship is with their co-workers. Is this person capable of resolving disputes in a manner that encourages cooperation and does not negatively impact production?
- Ability to lead others to success. Does the candidate have the leadership skills that co-workers respect and admire? Are they confident decision-makers, and are they critical thinkers and problem-solvers?
Another challenge for default law firms is that they often promote paralegals to managers without having a solid training program in place. By not properly training new managers, firms delay staff from reaching their full potential. Even in those cases where management promotes a paralegal that has been identified as possessing all of the qualities of a manager, training is necessary to ensure a smooth transition into her new role. Part of adapting to a new role involves understanding the new responsibilities that come along with that role.
When developing a training program for new managers, law firms should ensure that the training includes the following, at a minimum:
- An overview of the manager's new duties; a job description.
- The expectations that accompany the employee's new role as a manager.
- Materials and exercises that develop the skill of setting goals, providing effective feedback and conducting alignment discussions.
- Materials and exercises that develop communications skills.
- Materials on the art of influencing and motivating others.
- Materials and exercises that develop delegation skills.
- Sexual harassment and diversity training.
It is not enough to simply identify the right skill set in staff, promote them, and then leave them to their own devices to adjust in their new roles. They must be given the right tools, to adjust as quickly as possible, to develop their skills, and to be successful.
Although promoting from within can be one of the greatest management tools available to law firms, it has its pros and cons. Default firms have long struggled with the challenges that are inherent in inside hiring. While it benefits employee productivity and morale, it can also be disastrous when the wrong candidates are promoted and when promoting is done without a strong training program in place.
By identifying the right skills in good workers and by giving those workers the right training and tools to make them successful once they are promoted, firms can ensure that their operations remain strong, stable, and prosperous. Regardless of whether organizations look to within or hire or externally, having the right staff in the right positions is an important component in the foundation of any successful business - and law firms are no different.