Too Fragile for Law?

In this episode, I cover the topic of whether or not some personalities are too fragile to work in a law firm. In other words, I want to help you hire employees with suitable personalities for your organization. After my conversation with a client who raised an issue about a particularly sensitive employee in their law firm, this topic came to me. 


I describe various types of personalities that I often see in a law firm as Employee Avatars. The big issue here is how to train your employees effectively while allowing them to be their best selves in your law firm.


Tune in to today’s episode to find out more.


In this episode we discuss:

  • Are some personalities too sensitive to work in a law firm?
  • The scattered, the moody and the church mouse employee avatars.
  • Thinking about which type you are most like and your response to each type.
  • An interesting exercise that may cast a reflection of your own behavior.
  • How our past experiences help to trigger our responses to these different types of employees.

Allison Williams: [00:00:11] Hi everybody, it’s Allison Williams here, your Law Firm Mentor. Law Firm Mentor is a business coaching service for solo and small law firm attorneys. We help you grow your revenues, crush chaos in business and make more money.


Allison Williams: [00:00:24] Hello, everybody, and welcome to another episode of The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast, I am Allison Williams, your Law Firm Mentor. And on this week’s episode, we’re going to be talking about the seminal question of whether or not there are some people that are just too fragile to work in the law. In other words, are you hiring too fragile employees? Now, this question comes up as ironically from one of the many different experiences that we share here with our clients in Law Firm Mentor. So one of our clients actually raised an issue about a particularly sensitive employee in that person’s law firm. And I remember thinking through not just how to help coach that person through ultimately shepherding their employee through a different way of being in the workplace, but also really asking the question, is this person just too fragile for a law firm? And I wanted to to actually raise this issue because I had to do my own thought work in order to to really manage my mind around that topic, because I have often been told by people that I am intimidating and I’ve often been triggered when that comment comes up, because I pride myself on trying to to treat people well and trying to give people an opportunity to be their best selves in my workplaces. And so it’s really kind of been almost like a, you know, a big fat F on my report card when I hear things like this person is supersensitive around me.


Allison Williams: [00:01:58] Right. And to some degree, you have to expect that some people, depending on what their life experiences have been, they’re often very sensitive because of things that have nothing to do with you, just your very status as being the owner or the business leader or the manager or the supervisor or the CEO or whatever your title is. It’s a higher status than they have. So they are particularly vulnerable, in their view, to your thought processes. So sometimes it’s not really about you, but there are times where we look at employees and we see problematic behavior and we often internalize that behavior, which makes it harder for us to get to the right decision making process of can I, should I coach this person into better performance or is this a person whose behavior is such that we can’t remediate it and we need to end it sooner rather than later?


Allison Williams: [00:02:50] So let’s think about some of the classic problematic behavior where some of these questions are triggered. So the first is that stereotypically scattered person, right? The employee who’s always late, they’re always forgetful, they’re never quite honest. They’re kind of what you refer to as a hot mess. Right? They’re inconsistent. They try really hard, but they never quite get there. They’re that person that is always giving their best effort, but their best effort is never quite good enough. And they’re not all right. They’re not the person who is is just not good at their job. Like this can be somebody who is actually good at their job. It’s just that there’s so much drama around their getting to the place of being good at their job that by the time they get there, you’re annoyed and frustrated with them because you’ve already had to deal with whatever, whatever ways in which they have dropped the ball. And it’s caused some level of frustration in your business. So that’s number one.


Allison Williams: [00:03:51] Here’s another example. Think about the type of employee who’s the moody or bitchy employee, OK? This could be the guy who just withdraws socially, does the job well when they do it. But there’s always kind of a little half grimace on their face if you ask them to do anything that’s not on the defined list of activities, the name, rank, serial number in their job description, they roll their eyes. They’re not really a team player and they’re kind of hard to be around. But in those moments when that person is performing their role, whatever their role is, whether it’s paralegal or file clerk or marketing assistance, when they’re doing the thing that they are hired to do, not necessarily some of the warm and fuzzy of being a part of a community, contributing to the help of others, etc. But when they’re just doing what they’re supposed to be doing in their defined role, they’re actually very good at it. Right. But they just don’t give you a warm and fuzzy feeling they might not be all right. So when I say moody or bitchy, I’m not talking about somebody who’s just a jerk to deal with. I’m more talking about the person who, for whatever reason, their general aspect is that they’re not in the happiest mood and not the easiest to be around.


Allison Williams: [00:05:10] OK, think about this third type of avatar of employee. The person that I referred to as the church mouse, and this is the person that we would typically refer to as fragile. They’re afraid to do anything, anything without coming and asking somebody first. Even the things that you have in your written manual, you have them as a part of a documented system. The person has been trained on them. The one and only way you do the thing that they’re asking about in the office is done in a particular way by everyone consistently over the life of the time that you own the firm. Yet they have to ask before they do the activity. Right. And in fact, one of my favorite movies was on, was on television over the weekend, The Shawshank Redemption. And there was the moment where Morgan Freeman was was packaging groceries at the same grocery store where Brooks Hatlen had previously been, had been working before he took his life.


Allison Williams: [00:06:13] And so Morgan Freeman is there. And at some point in time, he has to go to the bathroom. He actually asks the store manager, boss, permission to go to the bathroom. And the guy’s like, you don’t have to ask me. Just go. If you need to go, just go. Right. And one of the reflections that Morgan Freeman had is that after being in jail for 40 years, I can’t squeeze a drop without getting permission. Right. It’s very much ingrained. It’s been a learned response that this is the way that I exist in the world. So think about it that way. That church mouse person is the person that cannot function without asking somebody for permission to do the very basic things. And there’s a timidity, a fear that runs through them and just about everything that they do. So even when you’re asking relatively benign questions like, you know, hey, did you get that letter out? Yeah, yeah, yeah. I didn’t think was kind of like almost like a trigger response, like somebody that you might experience as even having a little bit of PTSD. Right, and that person oftentimes is uncomfortable to be around, in part because not just that they are disruptive because they have to constantly ask for feedback or reaffirm reaffirmations they’re doing the right thing, but also because they are so afraid of their own shadow that every time that you have to engage with them, you have to develop a strategy around how to communicate with them because you’re so concerned that they’re going to fall to pieces as soon as you ask them a simple question.


Allison Williams: [00:07:49] Right. So if you think about those avatars, OK, we’re going to call them scattered, moody and church mouse. If you think about those three employee avatars, I want you to ask your question. Ask yourself a question. Who are you relative to these employees? So do you see yourself in any of these or do you see yourself as having a strong response or reaction to any of these? OK. Now, before answering that question, I want to give you a little exercise. And one of my favorite authors, I think I’ve referenced her before, but her name is Byron Katie. And she goes by Katie, but her actual name is Byron. Yes, it is a man’s name. And yes, that is her name. And Byron Katie has a wonderful book called Loving What Is. And there’s actually an app dedicated to the process that she walks people through in loving what is which is really about reframing and looking at the ways that the way that we see other people is often a projection of what we see in ourselves or our projection of what is repelled in ourselves. So in other words, things that we would have been very sternly punished for. Sternly punished is probably the wrong characterization.


Allison Williams: [00:09:13] But when I use that phrase, I’m not necessarily talking about physical discipline. It could be that, but it could be just a withdrawal of love or a parent becomes frustrated or annoyed with you when you engage in certain behavior, when you start to see a certain pattern of behavior as negative and you have a strong reaction to it, it is often because either you have that tendency somewhere within you and it was punished out of you or seen as very negative by someone else. Or it could be that you desire to be that type of behavior, but you were never allowed to be. So I want to give you this exercise, and I actually, I went through this exercise, one of my coaches many years ago took me through this exercise and I remember how, how profound it was when it struck me what actually came up from it. So here’s the exercise in a nutshell. OK, so of those three client avatars or employee avatars, the scattered the moody and the church mouse, I want you to just pick one. Just pick any employee that you have right now that fits into maybe one of these categories or maybe another category altogether. They just have behavior that irks you, right? Something that isn’t the worst thing in the world. It isn’t something that makes you pull your hair out, but it’s something that annoys you on some, on some level.


Allison Williams: [00:10:34] OK, and then I want you to write out a list of adjectives about that problematic employee that you find distasteful. So it could be that the person is histrionic or that the person is that they don’t take personal responsibility. Or maybe it is that the person is moody. It could be that the person is indifferent to your needs, that the person is not responsive. However you characterize the person, whatever you think about them, that would have you say, yeah, this person gets on my nerves, is not the right person, is not, doesn’t behave in the way I want. Write out the adjectives that apply to that employee. OK. Now. After you’ve done that, I want you to come back to that same list of adjectives and I want you to put I am in front of each of those negative adjectives. So let’s say you’ve described the person as rude. Disrespectful. Indifferent to your needs. OK. Then I want you to put I am in front of those adjectives. So you were right. I am rude. I am disrespectful. I am indifferent to the needs of others. OK. So you’re basically just owning all of those negative characteristics that you see in another person, you’re owning them as your own. And then I want you to ask yourself, do you agree with that assessment? So in other words, do you agree that you are rude? Do you agree that you are disrespectful? Do you agree that you dismiss or disregard the needs of others? OK, and if so, I want you to realize that that’s why you resent that behavior in other people, because you see a mirror, that person is holding up a mirror to you of the things in yourself that you don’t like.


Allison Williams: [00:12:36] And these are, by the way, some of the hardest employees to discharge, because when a person triggers you and a person engages in negative behavior and you see elements of yourself in that person, this person shows up late, you show up late. So for a lot of people, when you see that type of behavior and you see it reflected in yourself, oftentimes it’s challenging to let that person go when that behavior is not serving your business. Because you have a question in your mind of what right do I have to release someone who does X, Y, Z if I myself don’t do it right? It’s almost like there’s cognitive dissonance that builds up between what you say you require for your business and then how you actually show up. So this may actually be very healthy for you to start to do some reprograming around your own behavior so that you can show up more positively in your business. But even aside from that, we don’t necessarily have universal rules.


Allison Williams: [00:13:34] Right? So you own the business. You can have rules for yourself that are not necessarily the same as the rules for your team. And when you have a challenge with letting someone go, even though it’s clear that their behavior is not serving your business, this is often why. Now to reject that person is oftentimes seen as a rejection of the self. Right. And so it hurts to hire or to terminate that person because it hurts to feel that you would ultimately be discarded under such circumstances. So I just want you to think about that, and I want you to consider that if you are seeing problematic behavior in your team members and you are willing to let them go, that oftentimes is a greater sign of emotional health than holding on to them. And quite to the contrary of our culture, our culture of lawyers and law firm owners in particular, is that there is some type of altruistic measure involved in keeping the underperforming employee. Give them one more chance to see the good in them, make sure you give them every opportunity to succeed, even when what they are doing is behavior that you yourself have either overcome because you were never allowed to be scattered. You were never allowed to be moody. You were never allowed to be emotionally fragile like the church mouse. Right.


Allison Williams: [00:14:59] So when you see that behavior, you recognize those strains deep, deep inside you and you say, I would have loved to have someone show me grace when I was scattered. I would have loved to have somebody understand when I was in a bad mood. But you weren’t allowed that. And so first, because you’re not consciously aware of this, I should have noted that earlier, when we when we see these behaviors and we see them as reflected in ourselves, we oftentimes are not seeing that at a conscious level. We’re seeing that at a subconscious level. So we oftentimes are not aware that this is a behavior that we have within us that’s actually triggering us in the first place.


Allison Williams: [00:15:35] What we really see is that this behavior is problematic. And if you were to ask us, hey, are you that scattered person, you’d say absolutely not. Look, I own a law firm and I run my law firm well, and I go to court and I manage my clients affairs and I get good results and I manage my household like I’m not scattered at all. That type of defensiveness that comes around, the idea that you are not the thing that annoys you often comes from the fact that you weren’t allowed to be. That even though one would not suggest that the best way to be in life is to be scattered. One could certainly acknowledge that it is a human condition. And if you at some point in time displayed that tendency and had a really strong reaction from those in positions of authority over you, you might now have a very learned response that says you’re not a good person if you have this tendency.


Allison Williams: [00:16:34] But yet your ethos is telling. You have some patience with the person that has that tendency because you would have loved to have had that for yourself, even though you’re not conscious of any of this conversation. All right. So, again, I want you to do this exercise for yourself. It can actually be very elucidating for those of us that have employees and even for those of us that don’t but recognize that there are some type of triggered pattern behavior that we saw in employees that work in other businesses where we worked. And we were actually frustrated by them and got to a place where we said, you know, this is this is not something I would ever tolerate in my business. I want to really do the work and ask yourself why that is. Because sometimes what we see on the other side of it is an opportunity for us to feel something inside ourselves that’s going to make us much more effective as a law firm owner. All right, everyone, I’m Allison Williams, your Law Firm Mentor. You’ve been listening to the crushing chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast, and I’ll see you on the next show.


Allison Williams: [00:17:47] Thank you for tuning in to the Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast. To learn more about today’s guests and take advantage of the resources mentioned, check out our show notes. And if you own a solo or small law firm and are looking for guidance, advice or simply support on your journey to create a law firm that runs without you, join us in the Law Firm Mentor Movement free Facebook group. There, you can access our free trainings on improving collections in law firms, meeting billable hours, and join the movement of thousands of law firm owners across the country who want to crush chaos in their law firm and make more money. I’m Allison Williams, your Law Firm Mentor. Have a great day.

Allison Bio:

Allison C. Williams, Esq., is Founder and Owner of the Williams Law Group, LLC, with offices in Short Hills and Freehold, New Jersey. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, is Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Law Attorney and is the first attorney in New Jersey to become Board-Certified by the National Board of Trial Advocacy in the field of Family Law. 

Ms. Williams is an accomplished businesswoman. In 2017, the Williams Law Group won the LawFirm500 award, ranking 14th of the fastest growing law firms in the nation, as Ms. Williams grew the firm 581% in three years. Ms. Williams won the Silver Stevie Award for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in 2017.  In 2018, Ms. Williams was voted as NJBIZ’s Top 50 Women in Business and was designated one of the Top 25 Leading Women Entrepreneurs and Business Owners. In 2019, Ms. Williams won the Seminole 100 Award for founding one of the fastest growing companies among graduates of Florida State University.

In 2018, Ms. Williams created Law Firm Mentor, a business coaching service for lawyers.  She helps solo and small law firm attorneys grow their business revenues, crush chaos in business and make more money.  Through multi-day intensive business retreats, group and one-to-one coaching, and strategic planning sessions, Ms. Williams advises lawyers on all aspects of creating, sustaining and scaling a law firm business – and specifically, she teaches them the core foundational principles of marketing, sales, personnel management, communications and money management in law firms. 


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00:14:59  (36 Seconds)

So when you see that behavior, you recognize those strains deep, deep inside you and you say, I would have loved to have someone show me grace when I was scattered. I would have loved to have somebody understand when I was in a bad mood. But you weren’t allowed that. And so first, because you’re not consciously aware of this, I should have noted that earlier, when we when we see these behaviors and we see them as reflected in ourselves, we oftentimes are not seeing that at a conscious level. We’re seeing that at a subconscious level. So we oftentimes are not aware that this is a behavior that we have within us that’s actually triggering us in the first place.