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Employment & Labour

Less rigid approach to discipline effective for law firms

Rather than abiding by written HR policies, law firms often rely on less formal checks and balances when it comes to dealing with inappropriate conduct by an employee, Toronto employment lawyer Doug MacLeod tells Lawyers Weekly.

“I haven’t seen many codes of conduct,” MacLeod, principal at MacLeod Law Firm, says in the article. “And I don’t recall a single instance of a firm dealing with a disciplinary issue by giving a written warning, followed by a suspension. That’s because lawyers are professionals. If they’re not performing, they don’t stay long.”

As MacLeod explains, law firms and their employees live or die by their reputation, and know they have to conduct themselves in a way that preserves it.

“They have to be careful about how they represent the brand,” he adds.

For associates, he suggests implementing annual performance reviews.

“If there are performance-related issues or if a client complains, it will be brought up during the review,” he tells Lawyers Weekly. “Performance reviews show whether you’re on track for partnership. If the associates are listening, they should pick it up.“

But in relation to issues of conduct or continual mistakes of judgment involving associates, most firms deliver a working notice of termination, says the article.

“Rather than calling the associate in for a meeting to discuss their conduct, the partners will give the person six months to find another job,” explains MacLeod. “The firm may help, and only a small number of people will know that the individual has even received notice. If all goes well, the person gets an offer, then resigns.”

For more senior lawyers, effective discipline can be carried by adjusting compensation, especially at larger firms that follow an elaborate compensation system.

“People on the compensation committee will talk to partners to assess the fairness of their compensation,” he says. “In an open and transparent system, partners will ask why one lawyer makes more than others. That’s an opportunity for an explanation regarding inappropriate conduct.”

Ultimately, says MacLeod, although “professionals sometimes have a greater sense of self-worth,” as they are well-educated and experts in their field, “the same rules should apply to everyone.”

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