The 5 stages of relationships with support staff: from "Good News!" to "Good Bye" in 5 easy steps

Lucky professionals work with talented staff who will generously share their technical skills and institutional memory. Your relationships with these folks will make or break your career.

Stage One: Day 1. From your first interview, most people are prepared to like you, to help you, and to invest in your success. They don't know you yet.

Stage Two: Act like a jerk – just once. Whether you are rude or abusive, you can almost always repair the damage with sincere apologies and absolutely no repeats of the offending the behavior. Flowers, candy and lunch are helpful at this stage.
Three exceptions: (1) Rudeness during your interview is nearly always fatal: few employers are willing to risk hiring someone who doesn't have the sense to behave before being hired. (2) Rudeness to strangers (wait staff) will cost you an offer and mark you for life. (3) Rudeness to clients can be instantly fatal, because the billing partner can torpedo your promising legal career by raising an eyebrow.

Stage Three: Act like a jerk – often. Whether you are rude, abusive, incompetent, lazy or tend to make mistakes and blame others, you are headed for trouble. The support staffers who might have smoothed the wrinkles in your appearance, covered for your small mistakes, and chuckled at your eccentricities, will now happily watch you fall on your face. For example: After a bank’s lawyer had been working for more than six months, staff began to ask How long should it take for him to learn that each foreclosure needs a filing fee check, and that our lead time for a request is 24 hours? and When will he stop blaming us because he forgot to request the check? Nearly half a dozen secretaries stopped covering for him.

Stage Four:
Your staff complains to your boss. Singly and in groups they approach their boss and your boss, saying I cannot believe that he/she did/didn't do X. Your boss will notice when complaints about you begin to take up measurable amounts of her time.

Stage Five: The Piranha Stage. Singly and in groups, they say It is him or us. Try to negotiate a reasonable severance agreement or just pack up the contents of your desk and sneak away in the night. Unless you have a multi-million dollar book of business, the choice between a competent support staff and almost any lawyer is easy – the lawyer loses. Your reputation is in tatters, and the support staff and professional grapevine in your city has marked you for life. People still remember the young associate in Baltimore who threw staplers at his secretary in 1988.

REMEMBER: You can never, ever be too nice to support staff. Flower, candy and lunches are helpful, but even those tokens won’t repair a relationship damaged by abusive behavior and lack of respect .

©Susan Gainen 2009