Don’t Take it Personally: Creating Boundaries in a Boutique Firm

When I launched Griesing Law in 2010, I had practiced law for nearly 30 years in government and Big Law settings. By that point, I realized I had an opportunity to create a different kind of law firm, where attorneys, especially women, could be happy and successful practicing law. My goal was to create an environment where attorneys didn’t have to fit into the traditional big firm model to succeed, especially if they were taking care of families or other outside responsibilities.

Seven years later, Griesing Law continues to thrive on a collaborative team approach that discourages internal competition—very different than any other legal workplace I’ve been in. However, with the lofty objectives I set for myself around generating new business and delivering exceptional legal advice and service to clients, I had overlooked the difficulties that would come with leading my own team. I’ve had to learn how to navigate the role of boss and friend in an intimate, boutique setting, both to better serve my employees and to make my work life easier as the head of the business.

When I opened my doors, what I knew off the bat was the type of leader I didn’t want to be: unapproachable, difficult and arrogant, among other things. Dr. Larry Richards, a psychologist who studies the personality traits of lawyers, found that while attorneys score higher on skepticism and autonomy, they score lower than average on sociability, resilience, and empathy. These outlier qualities attributed to lawyers can be contradictory to the characteristics that produce a good leader. This trend among attorneys was sadly unsurprising to me, as it reflected what I had experienced in the profession over the course of my career and supported my reasoning for taking a different approach in my own firm. With the status quo for legal leadership in mind, I set out to do the opposite.

As any entrepreneur will tell you, your blood, sweat and tears go into growing your business from the ground up, and that was certainly the case for me. Given that, I wanted my team to know that the passion and vigor I had for the success of my business paralleled how I felt about them. I aimed to circumvent that “cog in the machine” feeling that happens all too commonly to employees. And if I expected to create this new type of law firm environment, my actions had to follow suit and set an example. I made it a priority to create a culture where I invested time and money in my team, so that they felt appreciated in their contribution and supported in achieving their career goals. I developed very close relationships with each member of my growing staff, guiding them through personal and professional hurdles and successes to reinforce the idea that we’re all in this together.

As my firm blossomed, it seemed that this approach was working—we brought in new clients, received awards and gained a reputation in the local legal community. But over the years, I came to realize that I had been giving too much, and it was taking a toll. After dedicating my financial and emotional reserves to my team, I didn’t see the results I wanted in return, which left me feeling depleted. For example, some did not take advantage of what I offered by dropping the ball and missing opportunities I had presented to them, while others eagerly sought out my guidance and suggestions, only to then move on to other firms and organizations. The closeness that I had established with my team resulted in instances where my authority and decision-making were questioned, and I wasn’t garnering the respect I thought I showed towards them. With several of these instances under my belt, I had a rude awakening: in my attempt to steer clear of the poor management styles I’d seen in the past, I had overcompensated and gone too far with my intimacy and generosity.

Instead, I had to learn to protect myself and my business by setting appropriate boundaries in my firm. This is not to say that the actions that I took as a leader were ineffective or wrong, but rather that I needed to strike a better balance of congeniality and professionalism with my team so that expectations were clear. To do this effectively, it was important to acknowledge that while my business is incredibly personal to me, it is not personal to everyone else—that is what makes me the boss. A leader must ride out the lows and the highs, and cannot assume that each and every employee will do the same. Getting too close with my employees, without a reciprocal response back, is what left me feeling frustrated and unappreciated for the investment I was making in them.

Rather, I started to realize that leaders can give their employees a sense of purpose and belonging while maintaining a professional distance. Like most things, the first step in making a change is admitting that you can do better. This can be more easily identified by bringing in an outside perspective, such as a leadership consultant or organizational development expert, who can evaluate the dynamics within the organization and offer more objective strategies for improvement. Based on the size of the organization, an audit can be conducted on the firm level, or focused on certain employees to determine how to make the most of the professional relationship.

For example, at my firm, I enlisted an outside consultant to work with a member of my team on leadership development, to enable them to take on additional responsibility and work more independently rather than relying heavily on me for feedback and direction. In addition, we have sponsored several of our lawyers and other professional staff to attend outside programs that grow their network and business development skillset. These programs have allowed me to delegate some of the responsibility of bringing in clients and developing talent to others, while also providing constructive feedback in safe environments where employees feel less vulnerable.

As it is more difficult to give honest and sometimes critical feedback when you have a close relationship with a colleague, developing performance metrics became particularly important in my business. Even for a boutique firm like mine, measurable assessments of performance and behavior must be in place to ensure fairness and consistency when evaluating team members. Rather than relying on ad hoc conversations when issues arise (although these are inevitable), it is critical to implement a formal review process which includes regular feedback on how things are going. These lines of communication should be reciprocal, but centered on business objectives rather than personal feelings. To that end, we implemented a feedback system where senior lawyers provide detailed written reviews that are then discussed in regular meetings with staff members. Although we did not want and need to have all the formality of larger firms, it became essential to do so to maintain performance standards fairly.

In terms of morale, there are many methods to show support for members of your team that foster the mission of the firm without overstepping boundaries. Professional development and civic engagement have always been priorities for me, and I strongly encourage my team to partake in them as well. I support all my attorneys in building their own personal brand based on the areas of law that interest them. Nominating employees for awards, proposing leadership opportunities outside of the firm, as well as financing continuous legal and business development training have proven fruitful for my team and the firm as a while. Team members are recognized and congratulated across the firm for their successes, and I always try to attend events where they are honored for their accomplishments. Lastly, I want my employees to enjoy coming to work every day. Employee benefits and activities such as summer Fridays, lunch and learns and holiday parties are small tokens to show how much I value them and also bring about a sense of comradery. These are some of the critical steps I took to make managing my team a rewarding effort rather than a draining one, which creates a better work environment for everyone.

Attracting, retaining and supervising a growing team, especially a tight-knit one, has been one of the most unexpected challenges of creating my firm. It can be a slippery slope when you take on the role of manager and confidant. Instead, my advice to firm leadership is it be neither friend nor foe, but to fall into a new category as professional mentor and champion. Communication is crucial to promoting this dynamic with your team, but it must be done in an appropriate and constructive way. The term “NSFW” or “Not Safe For Work” applies to leaders as much as it does to employees. If you wouldn’t want your employees doing or saying something, you shouldn’t do it either. I had to learn that the hard way.

About the Author

Francine Friedman Griesing is the founder and managing member of Griesing Law, LLC, and has earned numerous awards and accolades in 35 years of practice. She would like to thank Emily Griesing, marketing manager at Griesing Law, LCC, for her contribution to this article.

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