Most of us would never retain a lawyer who promised we would be her “24th most important case this month.” But the reality is that good attorneys take every case seriously. That’s what makes them effective lawyers and enables them to stay in business. Law firms must have a strong client base to earn their money, and that means taking care of the people they represent.
Employee complaints about their legal counsel come from the misconceptions about this interaction—the seemingly unbridgeable gap between client expectations and attorneys’ concepts of customer service. The client is laying out thousands of dollars, and he wants the lawyer’s response to match the outlay.
The biggest shock may come in the courtroom, where clients may be surprised to find their attorneys discussing other cases with the judge or other lawyers. Most employees have no mechanism for understanding the legal system and how attorneys work. Without such understanding, it appears to the litigant that his or her case is going nowhere, and this impacts time, productivity and focus at work. This is especially jarring for employees who engage with the legal system for the first time while trying to maintain their jobs.
Human resource managers, line supervisors, and others involved in managing work processes and the employees who perform them must understand the degree of stress that financial and legal problems can cause their workers. Such tension may result in lowered productivity, and the root cause of the drop in the worker’s output may not be fully understood by HR and line management.
There’s hardly anything that affects a worker’s morale and stress levels more than being unexpectedly cast into the legal system. And there is not always comprehension about how such problems contribute to negative attitudes and performance on the job. Repeated continuances, delays and postponements in court cases are extremely stressful. Many times an employee takes off work an entire day, and then is told, without explanation, that her case is being continued, pushed off to another day of uncertainty and confusion. It only takes a judge five minutes to make such an announcement, but it costs the worker a whole day away from her job, plus the time she had to spend in preparation for her aborted court appearance.
Many cases don’t even involve the employee directly, but the employee’s family members, as was the situation of a man who told of having to miss work because of attending court hearings related to his son’s legal issues. The process can become unwieldy for individuals who prefer to hire their own attorney.
The problem human resource managers face has two components. First is the increased stress levels employees experience when they suffer through financial, debt, credit or legal problems. Secondly, the court and hurdles within the legal system can exponentially increase the already high stress levels that lead to frustration, anxiety and anger, sometimes requiring physical or mental treatment. These issues intensify the longer the case drags out.
Merely being involved in a legal matter can cost employees and their employers hundreds and even thousands of dollars per year in lost productivity and work time. Workplace accidents and injuries abound each year, many attributable to the lack of concentration or the anger and frustration associated with being involved in a lawsuit. Many of these battles can be heated, as when parents are fighting one another for custody of their children.
When employees become involved in the legal system, frustration reigns and morale often suffers. When employees with legal problems are thrust into a system that appears to have no immediate solutions—and a number of serious obstacles and costs—they can become discouraged and upset. And when they receive bills with attorney charges for these endless and seemingly unnecessary delays, the feelings of frustration and low morale are compounded.
One of the most frequent and painful challenges is litigation surrounding divorce, especially when child custody issues are involved. Much of this litigation can be contentious and vindictive.
The next most common example of employees feeling powerless and plunging into serious mental and physical stress are those involving credit and debt issues, like collections, repossessions, foreclosures, wage garnishments, and judgments. These problems can make employees feel there is no help anywhere.
What if employees have many more legal problems than HR is aware of? What if HR is missing the breadth of employee legal problems? What if the loss of productivity and the cause of many accidents and injuries on the job are related to legal issues? What if employees’ legal problems are running up health care costs? What if lawyers can actually help to increase employee productivity?
There may be more to employee absence, lack of productivity, accidents and injuries, and increased prescription and medical plan usage than is obvious to HR managers. In many instances, given the private nature of financial and legal problems, there is a possibility employees may not be revealing the true nature of many of their most serious problems. Thus, there may be a much more serious need for legal and financial help for employees than is currently understood.
By understanding the breadth of employee stress issues, it may be possible for HR to institute programs to help manage the causes of stress and thereby decrease accidents, increase productivity and decrease health care usage and costs without huge costs to the employer.
It’s critical to understand the causal connection between employee legal and financial problems and the stress caused when employees do not have resources or help to handle and solve these difficulties. Many studies have addressed the connection between stress and financial and legal problems. One presented the shocking conclusion that “workplace stress is rife in 70 percent of organizations; the fact that companies are not viewing stress from a scientific, strategic, preventive perspective is extremely worrying.”
HR managers might help their companies benefit from a better understanding of how legal problems affect employees, how employees misunderstand the American legal system, how misunderstanding the system can create huge gaps in expectations, and how disruptive litigation can be for employees.
Understanding this potential for disruption is the key point for HR managers. Such disruption may not be mere inconvenience or mild discomfort, but often goes to the heart of a worker’s family structure, creating serious problems that lead to missing work or lack of attention and focus while at work. The costs to the employer each year in increased health care and emotional distress treatment and prescription drug costs are skyrocketing, and they mandate a new approach to managing this stress and the toll it takes on marriages and children. Actual costs of employee stress related to legal and financial matters can be found all over the American workplace in increased absenteeism, more mistakes, accidents and injuries, and decreased work productivity.
The real problem for employers is that when an employee has one or more of these major stressful legal and financial problems, it becomes the employer’s problem too. The good news is that there are measures and programs available to HR that can help decrease accidents and health care usage and associated costs, and increase productivity. In contemporary culture one of the best things a business can do for its employees and itself is explore and implement a plan for helping workers faced with legal problems.
Such a benefit plan can make significant progress in closing the customer service expectations gap between clients and attorneys, and ease the stress that tracks the employee home every night, then trails the worker back to the job every morning.
Bob Heston is president and chief executive officer of Legal Access Plans. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.