Becoming a better boss

I like to consider myself as being a reasonably competent lawyer. Occasionally — OK rarely — I do receive some form of external and objective validation of that fancy. But over the Winter Solstice holiday, I received an external and objective confirmation that I suck at being a boss. In fairness to me, Good Boss 101 is not a course offered at law school or during the bar admission course when I was a student. It should be.

In any event, an off-hand remark made by a colleague while we were gloriously out of the office, enjoying the new-fallen snow with our doggies, led me to the epiphany that I am a Bad Boss. My colleague mentioned she had popped into the office in the period between Boxing Day and New Year. There, she observed several of our diligent and clever associates toiling away like a bunch of modern day Bob Cratchits. My colleague expressed sympathy for them, as it appeared they were not just cleaning out their inboxes and accumulated bits of busy work. No, they had their noses to the grindstone. “Well, how about that? Heh, heh!” I laughed, guiltily. “I think that might be my fault.”

Seriously, I knew it was my fault. I am a Bad Boss.

I’m not a Bad Boss because I assigned work to junior colleagues with a due date of Jan. 2. Even those with no formal boss training know that sort of due date falls squarely into the Scrooge category. I didn’t do that. Rather, what I did was fail to follow up with these associates after I had assigned significant projects to them. I failed to provide sufficiently clear instructions including firm deadlines and expectations. I also failed to communicate with the other lawyers in the office with whom these associates worked to ensure the other work-assigners were also aware of who was engaged in significant projects, so that these associates would not become over-burdened and overwhelmed.

The result of my failures was a few complicated and time-consuming assignments had fallen to the bottom of the pile as these junior lawyers struggled to meet the demands of other, more insistent, or less daunting projects. Because my junior colleagues are Good Lawyers, they were left burning the midnight oil to complete the tasks I had assigned before year’s end.

Now armed with the realization that my leadership skills leave a lot to be desired, I intend to make a fresh start. My New Year’s resolution is to become a Better Boss.

I still haven’t had any formal boss training, so I am going to play this by ear and hope for the best. I will try not to draw too heavily from either Charles Dickens or Downton Abbey, and definitely not from Mad Men — though all those workplace fictions do serve as a good reminder that working co-operatively and in a collegial and respectful atmosphere generally achieves better results and makes for a more productive and happy workplace.

I am also mindful of the fact that despite the law societies’ Justicia Projects and the ensuing public awareness of the continuing loss of women in the private practice, our profession still has a long way to go before it will achieve real equality between the sexes and before the exodus stops. So the first thing I am going to do on my quest towards being less bad is do more to ensure women who are starting their legal careers at the same time they are starting their families are receiving adequate support and encouragement.

This support and encouragement does not mean subjecting junior lawyers to war stories about the olden days where female lawyers were dictating letters from the delivery room. We are so done with that! Support and encouragement does mean ensuring workloads are not crippling during pregnancies and on return from maternity leaves. It means genuinely easing up on productivity expectations — and not being critical of the reduced workload. It means being mindful of our colleagues’ health — both physical and mental. And it means ensuring our associates continue to be engaged in interesting and career-enhancing work while they raise their young families.

Being a Good Boss means looking out for the personal and professional welfare of your colleagues at each stage of their life and career.

Not being a Bad Boss means being more involved. I, quite frankly, had no idea that my associates were completing my assignments in the last week of December. I should have known that, but I did not check in with them before departing for my own holiday  — which was selfish. From now on I am going to make a concerted effort to build teams, and not just hand out random assignments as some bright idea occurs to me.

Building teams means involving all the team members in understanding the case, including the short and long-term strategies. It means working together towards achieving the intended ultimate goal. And the triumphing in the end game isn’t just about successfully resolving any particular case. The objective is to promote the next generation of lawyers to be better than we are, so not only will they be great lawyers, they will also be great bosses.

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