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Keeping levity in the law office

Jane Pribek

Jane Pribek

When I learned our new managing editor’s name is Casey Laughman, I asked, only half-kidding, if he has a sense of humor.

Grasping that baton of a bad joke, a couple of people on the Law Journal staff responded that he’d been administered a battery of tests of his trivia knowledge of Monty Python movies and any movies starring former cast members of Saturday Night Live. Thankfully, he passed.

The conversation got me thinking about just how much I appreciate working with others who make me laugh. It costs them nothing.

I also started thinking about the importance of maintaining morale in the workplace. We’re professionals, we find our work fulfilling … but if the daily entrance through the office doors instills uncontrollable feelings of despondency, we’re on the path to burn-out and/or frequent staff replacement — both of which can get costly.

There are ways to keep a sense of levity in the workplace, according to a few members of the Wisconsin legal community who’ve employed some creative tactics to achieve that end. And of course, since I’m writing about it, their suggestions are all budget-friendly or free.

Puppy love

Debra Blommer’s creditors’ rights practice is, as one might expect, monumentally busy these days.

Blommer Peterman SC in Brookfield is a 70-person firm, and it’s staff-heavy, with just eight lawyers. Employees sometimes field calls from distressed borrowers. It’s emotional work, and the firm acknowledges that by offering ways to decompress.

For starters, Blommer brings her three dogs, two Golden Retrievers and a Shepherd mix, to work. Blommer says the pups provide affection and playfulness, roaming the office freely and taking turns sleeping at everyone’s feet. Workers who want exercise and fresh air alternate walking them during breaks.

The firm doesn’t have excessive amounts of client traffic, and the clients who do pay face-to-face visits all know (and love) the dogs — as do the mail carrier, Fed Ex and UPS drivers, all of whom typically bring dog treats.

“It’s one of the questions we always ask people when we’re interviewing — ‘Do you mind having the pups around?’ But by then the dogs have already greeted them, and we usually know the answer,” Blommer says.

Blommer didn’t take her cue from Google, which probably has the most famous “dogs-at-work” policy. Rather, she says she just started bringing the pooches into work because when she left the home office, she couldn’t bear to leave them behind. The boost in morale for others was a happy surprise.

Fire up the grill

Another virtually free perk at Blommer Peterman is the staff-organized weekly cook-outs/potlucks. All Blommer and her law partners do is provide the grill and supplies and allow staff time away from their desks for cooking and then socializing over the meal. The few times that the weekly meal has been called off, that’s been a staff-driven decision.

Lest you think only workers at private-sector law firms are allowed any lightheartedness over lunch, at the Ozaukee County District Attorney’s Office, prosecutor Jeffrey A. Sisley and staff recently commemorated National Camping Day with a cook-out. If you’ve never heard of National Camping Day, perhaps that’s because Sisley “made it up as an excuse to have a lunch hour cook-out in early spring.” Temperatures reached the balmy upper 30s this year for the celebration, which is always held on the last Friday of March.

Grilling is also popular at The Schroeder Group SC Attorneys at Law in Waukesha, says the firm’s Chief Operating Officer, Sandy McGee.

Of course, foods of any variety and prepared just about any way are generally appreciated, she adds. The firm has a longtime practice of providing lunch on holidays; on Valentine’s Day, the owners expressed their love for staff with steak and lobster.

A recent, related addition that’s cost the firm practically nothing is to host cook-offs. Workers have fought ruthlessly to win the coveted titles of best chili, cheesecake, soup and salad so far, the prize being bragging rights and the power to choose the next category for competition.

The firm has a workout room, McGee notes, as a countervailing balance.

Other ideas

By Googling “unusual employee benefits,” I found lots of articles on the topic. An HR World article suggests a plethora of ideas including a “no-shoes policy” and — get this — sending a handwritten thank-you note to deserving employees. Kind of sad that that’s become a cutting-edge management idea. But when was the last time you received a thank-you note from a client? Didn’t it make your day, and didn’t you keep it?

Another article suggests offering discounts for local merchants, or tickets to concerts or sporting events.

So, what are the lines of work of some of your clients? Is there a hair stylist, car detailer, laundry or maid service among them, who might pay off part of your fee with services, which you, in turn, can offer to employees? Just remember to keep the IRS in the loop regarding the first part of such arrangements.

Jane Pribek can be reached at janepribek@bellsouth.net

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