Today I’m concluding my story about hiring my first law firm employees with the final part of this chapter… hiring my fiancée.I wrote the last chapter over a week ago, and talked about hiring my first true legal assistant after making the mistake of altering a job to fit a candidate and hiring my first associate. At the end of that post I said:
I attribute this next mistake to impulsive thinking disguised as genius. I hired my no-legal-experience Pilates instructor fiancée to be my second Kelly.
Oh no, you didn’t! Yep, I did, because, what could possibly go wrong? What didn’t I think of?
Spoiler alert… the answer is a lot.
Let’s talk about that tomorrow.
Well, tomorrow turned into more than a week, and I have an excuse:
I took a brief break to address some pushback I got from one of my posts, and to have a weighty and personal video podcast conversation with Kathryn Burmeister about her journey through the law that led her to rock bottom — and the realizations that led her to create a successful small law firm on her own terms. Toward the end of the interview, Kathryn gave some great advice to any attorney who is feeling stuck, trapped, afraid, or is experiencing other roadblocks that prevent them from starting their own law firm and consciously creating the legal life they want — one that brings meaning to their practice (and that they won’t regret on their deathbed).
So let’s talk about that one time, as a young lawyer, that I hired my fiancée and the lessons that ensued.
Please note that this is my story and my perspective and learnings only.
As a counterpoint to my own limited point of view, let me say that I know many couples that work together in the law, and in other businesses, very successfully. I know lawyer couples who practice together. I know female lawyers whose non-lawyer husbands work in their practices, and I know male lawyers whose non-lawyer wives do the same, ditto for husband with husband and wife with wife.
While I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, they seem happy — or at least not unhappy. Well, except for one enigmatic husband and wife lawyer team that constantly yells at each other, threatens divorce, and calls each other dirty names in front of friends and family, in what appears at one moment to be devastating verbal blows, but then somehow turns a corner and leaves observers guessing whether its a toxic relationship, theater, an inside joke, foreplay, or some unusual combination that just works for them.
Most of the couple legal teams I know are outwardly successful, and some have sustained their life and work partnerships concurrently for years and even decades.
Before I talk about why having my fiancée work for me didn’t work out, here’s how I skillfully deployed impulsive thinking disguised as genius to justify the hire. My list of pros read roughly as follows:
I needed the help, especially on days when Kelly (my legal assistant) was absent.
I didn’t need another full-time employee quite yet.
She would provide flexibility without the commitment of higher costs. In fact, we lived together and my law practice was our only source of income at the time. I was not on payroll and took distributions from the profits, so she could help out as needed without the complication of making her a full-time employee.
She had some business experience managing a Pilates studio that she had owned and that had supported us in the early days of my law practice.
She had customer service experience.
She would have my back.
She was personable and made people feel at ease.
On paper, there was no risk. It was the perfect plan. Impulsive thinking disguised as genius hid the flaws.
For those of you expecting to hear a dramatic tale of love besieged by office politics, sorry: we’ll discuss none of that.
So, sans drama, if you’re still reading, here’s the advice that I’ll give my younger self when presented with a time machine. Before I do, here’s a Seinfeld clip about worlds colliding, to get the conversation started.
When your significant other works in your law office as a non-attorney employee, watch out for the following destructive byproducts of two worlds colliding:
The halo effect… AKA, see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. No matter how little they know and no matter how little power you think they have, if you’re the boss and your significant other works in your firm (or company), your other employees will treat them differently. This is true even if your significant other does nothing intentionally to indicate that they have power or access. Specifically, it’s a lot harder and takes a lot more chutzpah for a non-related employee to tell your boo, or you, that your boo is doing something wrong. This is dangerous in any business, but in a law firm where the lawyer is ethically responsible to supervise, it can be terrifying.
The chilling effect… AKA, the vents are plugged. Employees in every business need a healthy outlet to vent about their day, about their frustrations, about their personal issues, about their job — and sometimes, about you, their boss. This is what the proverbial water cooler is for. No matter how awesome, or in-tune, or friendly, or progressive, or compassionate, or yielding you are, you’re the boss and you have to make hard calls, or eventually your business will be in trouble. No matter how timid you may be, in the eyes of your employees, you hold tremendous power over their daily existence as well as their financial security. There is a certain amount of healthy employee venting that has to happen (in my opinion) for any business to remain healthy. But if your significant other works for you, in a small office environment, that may not happen and your business will suffer because of it.
The hothouse effect… AKA, the vent now pumps into your home. Depending on how your significant other is wired, and the relationship you have, you may experience unfiltered data dumps at home. The data may be about you and what your employees think of you, or it may be about what your significant other thinks of the other employees, or clients. Either way, this is information that you might not otherwise have. While some of it may be actionable or useful, much of it may be problems or perceptions that you can’t fix (and that you would be just as well off not knowing). For lawyers, especially litigators who spend much of their workdays in adrenaline mode, this blending of worlds can be particularly pernicious if it prevents downtime or encroaches in time spent outside of fight or flight.
The boomerang effect… AKA, let’s balance this at home. If you hire your significant other to work in your law firm, you still have to be the boss at work. And even if you’re the best, most patient, and most diplomatic boss in the world, you’re still the lawyer. You still call the shots. You’re still ethically responsible. Even if your significant other is the kindest, most supportive, and nurturing human on the planet, they are still human (and likely a very smart human because they’re with you… right?). The wheel must keep turning, yin and yang must balance, and sometimes blood must have blood.
There are very real efficiencies to hiring a significant other to work in your business or law firm. But there are equal real liabilities and opportunity costs.
I’ll spare the details of why, my fiancée (who I later married), and I decided that working together in that capacity was not a sustainable arrangement.
Based on the questions I’ve been getting about this series, I plan to take a break from telling my story and focus my blogging time on answering some questions, including about how to attract, screen, qualify, hire and develop great team members. There are some great resources out there that we’ve used and adapted at LawLytics. I wish I had these resources when I was a small law firm owner, and I want to introduce them to lawyers who might not otherwise be aware that they exist.
Once those posts are done, I’ll resume telling my story in the coming weeks to talk about the following:
Selling my first law firm in Seattle and starting from scratch in Phoenix, my experience in opening a small firm with an equal partner, the addition of a third equal partner, the dissolution of the partnership, growing my firm while shouldering a grueling trial schedule (which at one point resulted in five jury trials in five weeks). Later, I’ll discuss the ultimate turning point that led me start my first legal tech company, sell my law practice, and then sell my first tech company in order to found and build LawLytics.
In the meantime, here are the other posts in this part of the series: