Are You Poisoning Your Solo Practice?

Poison 2It’s Spring, traditionally time for a little Spring Cleaning. Toss out the old, start fresh. For the solo attorney, that often means purging ourselves of bad habits and setting some new goals.
This Spring, I recommend that you stop being toxic to your business. Yeah – you heard me. YOU are toxic to your business. And you need to stop it!

When I left Big Law (more years ago now than I actually worked at Big Law), I had come to realize that I was that person in the office: the negative, nothing nice to say, disgruntled and unhappy employee. Normally, I’m a pretty positive and upbeat kind of gal, but the grind at Big Law had worn me down. I did not see a future there, and I was depressed and worried about having any future in the law at all. I complained so much that I was bringing my co-workers down with me. I never smiled. I never spoke to a co-worker or staff member without saying something negative. I was demanding and unsatisfiable. People started to avoid me, and I can’t say that I blame them. When I realized what I was doing – that my behavior was toxic for the entire firm and that I was the problem – I started taking the steps I needed to leave Big Law and hang a shingle.

I’ve said it before: the one person in your business you can’t escape is you. Your good and bad habits. Your positivity and negativity. Your procrastination and diligence. Your personality. Your depression and anxiety. Your ego or lack of self-esteem. Your failures. Your successes. You. And that means that you are likely that person in your solo practice, just like I was at Big Law, and just like I can be in my solo practice.

I get anxious and depressed. I worry about everything. I spin my wheels at my desk, procrastinating. I gossip with my staff about this client, that opposing counsel, or the other problem(s) we seem to be having. I get grumpy and demanding and ridiculous. I’m still that person, only now it’s my firm in which I’m being toxic. I can be as unhappy working for me as I was working at Big Law, and I’m sad to say that sometimes it shows.

Being that person is toxic for everyone around you. It hurts your staff. It hurts your clients. It hurts your professional reputation. Ultimately, it hurts your bottom line. Your negative mindset costs you the ability to focus and do your job. When that negativity becomes a habit, it lowers your productivity and your firm’s profitability.

To stop being that person, you’ve got to confront your negativity problem head-on. First, identify that you have a problem and what behaviors you engage in that negatively affect your business. Are you an Eyore, constantly verbalizing things negatively? Do you not smile at work anymore? Do you avoid talking to clients and referral sources? Are you suffering from depression or anxiety? Take a long, hard look at yourself and try to see what other people see when they see you acting this way.

Then, identify more positive ways to behave. Some suggestions:

  • Tackle the worst thing you have to do today first thing in the morning so that it is off your plate;
  • Have your assistant call you out on your attitude – give him or her permission to tell you when you are being negative;
  • Record your staff meetings and then go back and listen to what you say. Hearing your own negativity can be a wake-up call;
  • Make a “gossip jar” for the office (get caught saying something negative about a client/attorney/staff? Add $1 to the jar);
  • Make yourself wait 10 minutes before clicking “send” on that angry email;
  • Literally force yourself to smile when talking on the phone;
  • Make yourself take scheduled breaks between tasks, and do something that makes you feel better, like reading daily affirmations, doing yoga at your desk, hula hooping for two minutes, or just about anything that makes you relax and maybe even smile;
  • Set a time limit for venting – I can talk trash for ten minutes and then I am done; or
  • Leave the office for a few minutes to take a walk every day.

Bottom line: find a way to better handle your negative moods. If your problem is deeper-rooted, like addiction or depression, seek treatment.

Remember that the main reason you are doing this is to improve your productivity. So put some measures on that too. Make yourself accountable for bringing in X Dollars every week, billing however many hours, or whatever measure makes sense. Just recognize the link between a positive attitude and positive cash flow.

What if you do all of that, and it turns out you aren’t that person. What if it’s your assistant or paralegal? The same principals apply. Identify the problem. Bring it to their attention. Ask them to formulate an action plan of steps to take to stop the office negativity. Reward them for creating a positive atmosphere at work.

Also recognize that you, as the employer, may be creating a toxic work environment such that your employees can’t help but be negative. It is up to you to recognize and remedy such conditions. Communication, training, staff development, staff involvement with operations, and feedback are key to keeping things running smoothly. You’ve got to listen to your staff when they tell you that there’s a problem. You can’t change things arbitrarily, and you need to get your staff’s buy-in when you do make changes.  

Bosses have a habit of punishing good workers for being too good. The stellar paralegal gets more and more work to do, while the less-than-excellent performer is given less work. Usually for the same or only slightly higher pay. It makes no sense whatsoever! If you notice that one employee performs better than expected, maybe you should consider giving that person a raise or a vacation or a promotion. Maybe insist on training for the under-performing employee or, if that doesn’t work, fire them and hire someone who better fits your firm’s culture.

Negativity in the workplace is expensive. In a solo or small firm, it can be especially toxic, infecting everyone at the office. As the business owner, it is up to you to develop a more positive, less toxic work environment. Starting at the top.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

This entry was posted in Guest Bloggers, Savvy Solos, Solo & Small Firm Practice, Subjective Opinions, The BS-Free Zone, Tip of the Week and tagged suzanne meehle. Bookmark the permalink.

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3 comments on “Are You Poisoning Your Solo Practice?

  • Great article Suzanne. One big thing that attorneys need to consider is that happy workers are busy workers and that happiness spreads. The more one spreads an heir of positivity then the more productive workers will be and, also, employee turnover will be greatly reduced.

    One big thing that I would add is the impact of escaping the office for lunch. Too many attorneys just grab something on the go or, if they do take an actual lunch, they spend half the time on their phone talking or responding to work emails. Taking an hour of the day, to actually decompress, will raise the positivity factor of the office immensely.

  • Good advice. I also expect many such individuals will need to honestly look in the mirror and admit it to themselves first, if they are in denial in regards to their toxicity. Self-honesty is no doubt not for everyone… particularly lawyers?

  • Absolutely great article. Some of your comments were spot on for me, another lawyer that left Big Law to start my own office because I found myself becoming That Person. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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