Steven Dorfman of The Perecman Firm: “Maintaining our close congenial connections has been very difficult for obvious reasons”

I’ve tried to bridge the gap presented by our distanced and remote work environment by holding regular meetings with staff, reaching out frequently to personnel and trying to continue to connect with the employees in a way that reminds them that, while we may be separated by distance, we are all still in this together, […]

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I’ve tried to bridge the gap presented by our distanced and remote work environment by holding regular meetings with staff, reaching out frequently to personnel and trying to continue to connect with the employees in a way that reminds them that, while we may be separated by distance, we are all still in this together, working towards a common goal.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steven Dorfman, Managing Attorney at The Perecman Firm, P.L.L.C.

He is a prominent New York attorney with over 20 years of experience representing individuals in catastrophic personal injury matters. During the course of his legal career, Steven has secured tens of millions of dollars in compensation on behalf of his clients, most of whom have been injured, underrepresented construction workers.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?

After graduating from George Washington University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science, I studied at Brooklyn Law School. I graduated with my Juris Doctorate in 1996 and then joined a prominent New York personal injury law firm as an attorney. There, I represented individuals in catastrophic injury matters, including several high-profile, complex cases such as the 2008 Manhattan Crane Collapse, the 2013 Spuyten Duyvil train derailment and the 2015 Metro-North accident that occurred in Valhalla, New York. Through leadership, hard work and commitment to achieving great results on behalf of my clients, I was promoted to Managing Partner of that firm in 2001.

In 2016, I joined The Perecman Firm as Managing Attorney, where I continue to pursue my devotion and passion for representing seriously injured individuals in complex matters. As a first-generation American and the proud son of Argentinian immigrant parents, I feel particularly sensitive to the plight of vulnerable individuals that do not speak English as their first language. Being bilingual has allowed me to connect directly with my Spanish-speaking clients and further my commitment to assisting those who have been seriously injured and unfamiliar with the legal system. In addition to my professional background, I am a proud father of 3 daughters and a very fortunate husband of a smart and caring wife.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I love what I do. The love and devotion that I have for this amazing profession is, in and of itself, the most interesting thing about my career. The fact that I have been entrusted to help people who, due to the negligence of others, are seriously injured and unable to fend for themselves is a tremendous honor and I take that responsibility very seriously. Every aspect of the profession is interesting to me; whether it be a deposition, motion, trial or appeal that I’ve handled, I’ve been enthralled by every bit of the experience.

That said, there have been some unique and rare experiences that I can’t help but be reminded of, such as, (i) my first trial in Federal Court, where I had the honor of appearing before Judge Jack Weinstein, one of the most senior and legendary members of the Federal judiciary, (ii) my first trial victory, where I first felt the exhilaration and pride that I was able to help an injured client, (iii) my representation before the 9/11 Victims’ Compensation Fund of several families and victims that were impacted by the tragic events, and (iv) the honor and privilege to serve as one of the lead attorneys and members of the Steering Committee for the Plaintiffs in the case of the 2015 Metro-North Accident that occurred in Valhalla, New York.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

During the summation of one of the first trials I ever handled, I remember standing before the jurors and passionately stating my client’s case. During my closing argument, I noticed that one of the jurors (we’ll call her Juror #3) kept moving her head left and right, and I could see she was winking at me! I took her gestures as obvious signs of approval and was convinced that my case was won. Once the Judge gave the case to the jurors, I felt confident and excited about the obvious signs of approval that I observed from Juror #3 and was convinced we’d win. After some time, the jurors returned, and we received a favorable verdict. However, when we concluded, I took the opportunity to speak to the jurors to get feedback. I was a young attorney, so I was looking for useful input from the jurors that worked with me for the previous week. I firmly expected that Juror #3 would have nothing but nice things to say, so, naturally, I solicited her opinions first. Well, to my surprise, Juror #3’s “signs of approval” had nothing to do with my eloquence. Indeed, Juror #3 told me that I needed to stand still during my closing because every time I shuffled left or right, the sun would shine on her, causing her to move her head and squint (not wink, as I thought) her eyes! Despite my client’s victory, I was immediately humbled and moderately embarrassed. I learned an essential lesson that day. That is, never think too much of yourself. Since then, I’m reminded that being overly confident can cloud one’s judgment and perspective. Thanks to Juror #3’s advice, I now stand firmly when speaking and always try to remain grounded and humble.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

I try to manage with empathy and concern for everyone that works for us. From the part-time clerk to the most senior attorney in my office, I’ve made a conscious effort to always take the time to speak to each person and show them that I’m concerned for their physical and emotional health. To that end, I have consistently demonstrated that I am accessible to everyone at their request at any time. I also try to bring the group together with team events, whether it be something social, such as bowling, a civic event, like a charity drive or just sitting together for a firm-wide meal. I believe these events help bring us all together and increases the esprit de corps, which, in turn, eases everyone’s tensions.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?

While I’ve had many years of experience as a managing partner at a law firm, I had never managed an entire team remotely prior to this year. One of the greatest challenges we’ve faced as an industry has been the COVID-19 pandemic. With social distancing and stay-at-home orders in place, most New York City law firms have had to pivot regular business practices to keep staff members employed and caseload effectively managed. For our firm, we closed the physical office and facilitated our staff to work from home.

Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?

  1. Maintaining our close congenial connections has been very difficult for obvious reasons. Our work can be very stressful; for that reason, the relationships we’ve made are essential to working together. Everyone has learned to trust and rely on each other in order to get the work done. To battle the sense of isolation and distance, I’ve tried to have regular Zoom meetings with the groups. I found it very important for co-workers to see each other and think we’ve all gained from the experience.
  2. Closely related to #1, maintaining morale is so hard to do in a remote setting. We’ve been working remotely since March of this year. We have been maintaining long-distance relationships with our co-workers for more than six months. The lack of daily face-to-face contact with our co-workers can threaten our morale. I’ve tried to combat that by holding many Zoom conferences. I’ve tried to dedicate large portions of each of those meetings to first discuss personal, non-work-related matters. Wanting to know how people are doing, what little moments they’ve celebrated during the week (say, a child getting into the college of their choice, an engagement, etc.) allow us to feel connected to each other and reminds us of what we’ve missed during our time working at home. Zoom is such an impersonal, one dimensional way of conducting face-to-face business that these personal moments remind us all that the little squares on our monitors are images of the people we’ve worked with for years; they’re the people we still care about and miss.
  3. Measuring work productivity can be difficult to do without the benefit of being present and close to the other employees in the firm. I’ve heard from colleagues at other firms that they don’t believe that their remote employees are putting in a full day’s worth of work. I don’t see things through that sort of lens. I find that perspective to be too cynical and negative for my way of life. Instead, I’ve managed the office with the attitude that our employees are loyal and hard-working and will continue with the same work ethic while working from home. In the truly rare instances that I have been proven wrong, I’ve addressed it on an individual basis with the employee and have discovered that there haven’t been any repeat offenders. I have a lot of built-in tools for measuring whether people are working; between time records and built-in reports in my practice management system, I am able to get a good measure at employees’ productivity, but, ultimately, I am results-oriented and, if the work is getting done in the manner that I expect, I will not disrupt the process and understand that working from home, sometimes with children, spouses or pets, presents unique conditions that will often require our workers to “get up from their desks” for extended periods of time. As long as we’re continuing to serve our clients, maintain profitability, and, most importantly, continue to be healthy, I am satisfied with everyone’s efforts.
  4. Keeping tabs on our employees’ client outreach is quite difficult to do when you’re not in close proximity to the staff. One of the ways I’ve been able to comfortably keep track of our employees’ responsiveness to client’s messages is by maintaining continuous contact with the personnel responsible for those communications. I have regular Zoom meetings with my attorneys and speak with my personnel via phone on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis.
  5. Working remotely has prevented me from communicating with my staff as frequently as I’d like. I believe that successful leadership is developed through trust and mutual admiration. I always try to cultivate these qualities by maintaining a regular and open dialogue with my employees. The disruption posed by working remotely has limited my ability to communicate with my staff as regularly as I care to.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

I’ve tried to bridge the gap presented by our distanced and remote work environment by holding regular meetings with staff, reaching out frequently to personnel and trying to continue to connect with the employees in a way that reminds them that, while we may be separated by distance, we are all still in this together, working towards a common goal.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?

Providing constructive criticism to an employee is always a sensitive moment in any employee/employer relationship. The situation is ripe for taking offense and hurt feelings. Even in the most innocuous context, when an employer reviews an employee’s missteps or errors, it is likely that, at its worst, the employee feels that her job is in jeopardy or, at a minimum, she leaves the meeting embarrassed and possibly angry. The remote work environment makes it even harder to hold these important conversations. That said, in the instances when these conversations must be had, I’ve found three simple rules for conducting the conversation in remote settings:

  1. Avoid criticizing via email. Important conversations, especially when they have the possibility of setting off feelings, should never be done via email.
  2. The meetings should be done face to face via Zoom or a similar platform.
  3. The conversation should always address the behavior or task that was problematic, but, unless it is an error that warrants dismissal, the discussion should always end on a positive note with a reminder to the employee why they are a valued member of the team.

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

I think providing constructive feedback via email is a bad idea and is something that I avoid at all costs. Email does not give the reader the benefit of the author’s tone, facial expressions and physical cues. It is always best to have these sensitive conversations in a face-to-face setting.

Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?

For most of us, we spend more hours of our days at work, in the company of our co-workers, than we do with our families. Indeed, our co-workers are, in many respects, also part of our family. For that reason, once we were forced to work from home, in a remote setting, I felt it was essential to hold regular meetings via Zoom so our employees could, at least for a little while, forget about the loneliness of working remotely and be reminded of their work “family.”

What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?

Communicating regularly with staff is essential to maintaining a healthy work culture. The anxiety brought on by the pandemic and the forced separation from one’s co-workers exacerbates the loneliness felt by the staff working remotely. Communication provides a regular reminder to my team that their contributions are valued, that they are missed and that their job is not in jeopardy.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Limit the use of social media. Popular social media platforms are a poor substitute for human contact. Where once we used to pick up the phone and see how a friend was doing, many of us now rely on “feed” or photo posted to social media to answer the critical question of “how are you?” or “what’s going on?” Moreover, these social media platforms now deliver misinformation posing as news. For the foregoing reasons, I think we could all stand to benefit from putting the smartphones down and stepping away from our social media accounts. Call a friend, read a newspaper or take a walk. Be present in our beautiful three-dimensional world rather than reflecting on a one-dimensional image of a person’s life posted in 25 words.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” — Steve Jobs

“Courageous convictions will drag the dream into existence” — from the song “Vital Signs” by the legendary Canadian band Rush.

As a trial lawyer, it’s completely normal to want to succeed. However, I think lawyers, particularly when we’re younger, fall into the trap of assuming there is only one way to perform a task. It’s not uncommon to be surrounded by experienced and highly successful colleagues that are eager to share their war stories and instruction. Unfortunately, while there may be things to gain from the anecdotes, attempting to mimic someone else’s “voice” rarely leads to success. The only path to victory is painstaking preparation. The information you acquire during your preparation will direct you towards your own path to success.

Thank you for these great insights!

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