the American way. And frankly, those who excel get ahead. But there are different ways of
competing. Do paralegals in your office strive to produce the highest quality work, or do
they play political games? Does a clear line separate healthy competition from stabbing
colleagues in the back? A distinct difference exists. All may be fair in love and war, but
the same can’t be said for the workplace.
Before evaluating individual actions, it’s important
to consider the bigger picture. What’s happening in the marketplace heavily
influences what occurs behind the doors of a firm or corporation. While the economy is
thriving and opportunities for growth abound, there is intense competition between law
firms to secure new business. Work cultures have changed as a result. There’s a focus
on improved technology to provide faster and more specialized legal services. To keep pace
with corporate environments and retain employees, business attire is no longer required in
many offices. Business casual is no longer relegated to Fridays.
American companies now compete on a global scale.
Likewise, large law firms are opening offices outside the continental United States to
provide services to clients. Corporations are downsizing to become more cost efficient and
nimble. Today, businesses are often expected to do more with less. Law firms feel the
impact because clients put the same pressures on legal counsel. Clients, therefore,
challenge legal costs and expect increased speed in the delivery of legal services.
We work in a high-speed world that demands instant access
to information and rapid responses. It’s fast-paced, chaotic and stressful.
Competition has never been more aggressive. When employees observe their employers using
aggressive and sometimes questionable tactics to get ahead, they may feel it gives them
permission to operate in the same manner. It doesn’t.
Genuine success for an individual requires different
rules. First, you’re interested in long-term results, not short-term triumphs.
Second, you’re involved in relationships with people, not battles over business. And
finally, the individuals you may view as "competitors" are perceived by
management as your "teammates." Whether you realize it or not, your mutual
success benefits the entire office.
Setting the Stage for Paralegal Competition
If the world was a perfect place, you could simply
perform your job to the best of your abilities, your supervisor would recognize your
contribution and you would excel. But it doesn’t operate that way, does it?
Paralegals have two distinct challenges that set the stage for competition. Time
constraints often affect performance. Attorneys may frequently inquire about the progress
of a project or demand that it be completed in an unreasonable timeframe. In your desire
to appease, you may make mistakes — overlooking important data or neglecting to
carefully proofread documents. You become vulnerable to "attack" from your
Another dilemma legal assistants face is the constant
struggle related to billable hours. Those with consistently high numbers are held in high
regard, yet paralegals don’t control the reporting process. It’s not unusual for
attorneys to reduce time billed to an amount they feel they can personally justify to the
client. In addition, since the billing rate for associates is higher than the rate for
paralegals, work traditionally given to paralegals at times may be shifted upwards to pump
up the coffers. This could become a critical issue when there’s not much work coming
through the door, again, creating an exploitable "weakness."
Anatomy of a Backstabber
Healthy competition is good. Motivated achievers who work
hard and perform well set high standards for the workplace. They may elicit jealously
— or sometimes be regarded as brown-nosers — but it’s hard to argue with
the excellent results they produce. It’s actually quite easy, however, to determine
when someone crosses the line into unhealthy behavior — it occurs when they begin to
shine by making the performance of their colleagues look poor in comparison. Even when
it’s unintentional, there’s a subversive twist to their achievements. Signals
- Gossiping about colleagues’ mistakes or weaknesses
- Pointing out others’ mistakes in group settings or to
- Taking credit for work completed by a group or another
- Blaming others for mistakes they created instead of taking
- Consistently showcasing their own work in way that makes
others’ performance look poor
- Constantly singling out the poor performance of one person
- Undermining a colleague’s performance by causing
others to doubt their abilities.
Avoid Becoming the Target of a Backstabber
Interestingly, the same rules that guide fair play in the
workplace also will protect you from backstabbing colleagues. Frankly, it has a lot to do
with building personal credibility. These are the guidelines that I recommend:
1. Take Responsibility when You Make a Mistake.
We all make mistakes. Own up when it’s your fault,
even if it’s painful. Once you admit a failure, the healing process can begin and you
can help develop a remedy. In addition, if you’ve established a reputation for
accepting blame for your mistakes, you’re less likely to be blamed for the mistakes
of other people.
2. Give Credit Where Credit is Due.
Call attention to the contributions and accomplishments
of others. If a colleague helped you meet a deadline, let your attorney — and his or
her supervising attorney — know. Teamwork is appreciated and you recognize the
valuable contributions of your colleagues. Justified praise will enhance your
relationships with your co-workers and they will be more likely to acknowledge your
talents and protect you from unfair competitors.
3. Build Trust.
Create a strong sense of trust so that people in your
office believe what you say. Be accountable for your actions, accept responsibility and
deliver on your promises. Don’t repeat gossip and always respect information told to
you in confidence. If someone makes a mistake, approach that individual to correct the
problem; don’t talk to their colleagues or superiors about it unless absolutely
4. Keep Records.
Record your accomplishments. Weekly activity reports,
billing memos and meeting notes can come in handy long after an assignment is complete and
it’s time for your performance review. Detailed notes also prove useful if a sticky
situation arises questioning your role or contribution to an assignment.
5. Be Proactive When You Feel Vulnerable.
If you sense you’re vulnerable — either because
you’ve made a mistake or you sense you’ve become the target of a backstabber
— issue a pre-emptive strike. For example, if your computer skills need improvement
and you’ve unsuccessfully solicited assistance from colleagues, enroll in a class.
Inform your superiors and co-workers about your initiative. You could be direct,
"I’ve enrolled in a computer class to improve my skills," or drop it into
conversation, "Let me show you what I just learned in the computer class I’m
taking." If someone has made snide remarks about the time you devote to your family
and you had to leave early to pick up a sick child, let it be known that you met your
deadline by finishing your work at home. You don’t need to become a martyr; you
should simply know your vulnerable areas and respond accordingly. By anticipating the
reactions of your critics, you protect yourself.
6. Respond Enthusiastically to a Colleague’s
When peers accomplish a difficult task or solve a
challenging problem, let them know you recognize their talents, and congratulate them on
their success. This may be particularly helpful when an attorney doesn’t acknowledge
the achievement or complains about some aspect of the project.
7. Create a Positive Work Environment.
The new workplace is more team-oriented than in the past.
Learn the value of collaboration and consensus-building. The person you perceive as your
competitor may become an ally when you have a deadline to meet. Listen to what’s
going on around you; get a true picture of what’s happening. Having a positive
attitude brings out your own creativity.
Some years ago, the slogan "Random Acts of
Kindness" popped up, appearing on bumper stickers and in publications. The idea of
performing thoughtful acts for people without expecting recognition can go a long way
toward generating an atmosphere of goodwill.
If you devote your energy to creating a positive work
environment, your colleagues are likely to support you. A passage from the April/May 2000
issue of the publication "The InnerEdge," captured this sentiment well:
"Environments that motivate through fear literally shut down the potential for
growth. Those that motivate through vision, open us up to express unforeseen