Bar Bulletin

June, 2004

 SOLO/SMALL FIRM PRACTITIONER:

BY PAT YEVICS  

"Effective Staff Hiring and Management"
By Pat Yevics

We all know too well the difficulties of managing a practice with the issues of rapidly changing technology, slowly flowing cash, finding new clients, satisfying current clients, increasing costs, burdensome workloads, etc. As solo and small practitioners, there is the added burden of being all things to all people.

Since there are many areas of your practice over which you have limited control, it is very important that you effectively use what control and influence you do have to better manage your practice.

According to the ABA publication Compensation for Law Firms, “75 percent of every fee dollar goes toward compensation in a law firm, be it partner compensation, associate or support staff salary and benefits.” If this is true, then make certain that the people who work with and for you are the very best because they can make all difference in the ultimate success of your practice. Although we know the importance of our partners, associates and staff, we often neglect this very vital component in our efficiency and success.

Managing the people in your office is probably one of the most important tasks you will undertake in the course of running your practice. This is true even if there is only you and a part-time secretary. Having and keeping the best staff possible is even more critical to the success of a solo or small firm practitioner. A mid-size or large firm can afford to have a few secretaries or support staff who are less than outstanding. A solo/small firm practitioner who has only one, two or three employees does not have this luxury. All of the employees have to be outstanding.

On the surface, this need for your employee(s) to be superior would seem to be just one more of the difficulties of being a solo/small firm practitioner. While attracting, training and keeping good employees is difficult, it is effort well spent because these employees will become instrumental in the success of your practice.

Your employees represent you and your practice. They are a reflection of you. They should always be an asset to your firm, assisting you with improving the performance and management of the entire practice. Think about all of the people in your office – if this is not the case, you have to ask “Why not?” and “How can the situation be improved?”

Step I: Where to Find Staff

I get more and more calls from solo and small firm practitioners who are looking for places to find good staff, both legal and administrative. There is not one place that fits all practitioners. Where you find staff depends upon your needs. Here are some suggestions that may or may not work for your situation.

  1. Ask your other employees. (This can be a problem if the person does not work out, but it is an option.)

  2. Ask friends and family. (Again there can be problems if the person is not hired or is not a good worker. It is critical to remind people that it is not personal.)

  3. Ask other practitioners especially in larger firms. There may be reasons an employee was not hired by another firm that would not mean the person would not be a good employee for you.

  4. Review resumes from previous candidates. I once hired one of my better assistants using old resumes.

  5. Consider using part-time employees or even persons who are retired from other careers. Part-time workers require you to manage your time effectively, but they also can be much more efficient. You may even consider two people sharing a position. Again, this requires a little more management, but you may get two outstanding employees who can cover for each other.

  6. There are some solo practitioners who “share” staff. This is not my suggestion, but those who use it appear to think it works very well.

  7. Contact law schools or even community colleges for administrative staff. You may even consider using a person to handle very specific tasks such as billing or bookkeeping from a remote location.

  8. Consider using a “consultant” to do the search and initial interviewing. This person could do the first interview and then recommend two or three for second interview by you. Although this would be expensive, you need to weigh it against the amount of billable time you will save. This could be money well spent.

Step II: Interviewing and Hiring

  1. Before you begin to look for a new staff person, spend some time deciding exactly what you expect of the person and what the person’s responsibilities will be, both immediately and in the future.

  2. When interviewing candidates for a position be brutally honest regarding the tasks that need to be done and the personalities of the people involved.

  3. You may also want to tell a candidate what future roles/tasks you may want the person to assume. This is extremely important if you plan to have your firm grow.

  4. You should also compile a list of “personal” qualities (beyond work skills alone) that you expect from a new employee. These can include punctuality, attention to detail, great phone presence, etc.

  5. If possible, have prospective candidates meet others in the firm. This is extremely important in small firms because personalities are crucial.

  6. When a new employee starts, have a checklist of items to be discussed the first few days and what tasks you want the person to handle at first.

  7. If you are unable to offer top dollar, consider flexibility (working at home, flex hours or other ideas).

Step III: Motivation

  1. Make certain that all staff, both legal and administrative, are treated like integral members of the firm and the firm’s success. All employees want to feel as though they are making a contribution and that the contribution is being recognized.

  2. Make certain staff members are introduced to clients.

  3. It takes very little effort to say “good morning” or “please” and “thank you”. Ask yourself if you would want to work for you.

  4. Encourage questions from your employees about the client work and the work of the firm. It is important for everyone in your firm to understand as much as possible about the business and the clients.

  5. Share your enthusiasm for your practice and your clients with your staff. Share with the staff the excitement of getting a new client or winning a big case. Excitement and enthusiasm are contagious. If you are not excited about your practice, you cannot expect your staff to be excited.

  6. Do not assume that your employees know what excellence or quality client service is. It is your responsibility to constantly define and reinforce for your staff what you expect from each of them. Take some time to write down your definition of excellence and quality service and then share that with your staff.

  7. According to Jay Foonberg, the guru of running a solo or small law practice, “failure to provide adequate training is the single worst mistake that lawyers make with employees.” In this era of constantly changing technology, it is critical that employees be adequately trained. You might even consider a quarterly “staff” meeting where staff is trained on a new product or just a refresher on a current issue, such as client confidentiality or phone etiquette. Consider sending someone on your staff to a CLE program then have them share that information with you or others in the office.

Step IV: Supervision

  1. All employees must have written job descriptions. They should be evaluated using these descriptions.

  2. Meet with staff regularly to review the progress of work in the office. This is especially important for practitioners who may spend a lot of time out of the office or consumed with one or two extended cases.

  3. Support staff should always be kept informed about the whereabouts and schedules of persons for whom they work or those in the office.

  4. Staff should be taught how to deal with unpleasant or aggressive clients and staff should be supported when dealing with difficult clients.

  5. All staff should be taught about confidentiality in the law firm. They should know the Rules of Professional Conduct and where the Rules can be found.

  6. You should provide training to staff on a variety of topics, such as ethics for the law firm, handling trust accounts and law office management, in addition to technical training.

  7. Encourage your secretary/staff to give suggestions on improvement of tasks performed in the firm. However, never allow an employee to voice a complaint about a subject without also offering a solution on how he or she would solve the problem.

  8. As often as possible, give your secretary/staff adequate time to complete assignments. This is not always possible because of client demands but explain why it may be necessary to have staff do tasks at the last minute. Doing everything at the last minute should not be the rule. If that is happening then you need to learn to manage your time more effectively.

  9. When you assign a task to an employee and you are comfortable that he/she understands your request, allow them to proceed unsupervised.

  10. Always try to give employees a completion time or due date for a task, especially for long-term assignments. It is important to let the employees know that it is their responsibility to inform you in advance if they will have difficulty in meeting the completion date.

  11. Never angrily criticize or correct an employee in public.

  12. When correcting an employee’s performance, your goal should be in making certain the employee understands the error and will not make it again.

  13. The most effective way to ensure that an employee will not continue to make the same mistakes is ask to him/her to tell you what he/she plans to do to improve performance. Make them responsible for their progress.

  14. Constructively correct mistakes as they happen. Do not assume that if you ignore them they will go away.

  15. All employees should be evaluated formally in writing, using their job description, at least once a year. The prevailing wisdom is that employees should never be surprised by what they hear in their annual review.

  16. If someone is not working out after being given an opportunity to improve, fire him/her.

  17. If someone leaves voluntarily, take a few minutes to ask them why and take their answers seriously. If the reason for leaving is because of what is happening – or not happening – within the firm, use the information to make changes where appropriate and necessary.

Some Resources

LOMA has a variety of Information Packets on Personnel and Supervision, including job descriptions, hiring techniques, exit interview forms. For information, go to www.msba.org/departments/loma/index.htm.

The Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association has some excellent publications.

Compensation for Law Firms. Edited by James D. Cotterman, Altman Weil, Inc., 2001.
Easy Self Audits for the Busy Law Office. Nancy Byerly Jones, 1999.
Keeping Good Lawyers: Best Practices to Create Career Satisfaction. M. Diane Vogt and Lori-Ann Rickard, 2000.
Handling Personnel Issues in the Law Office. Francis T. Coleman and Douglas E. Rosenthal, 1997.
Law Office Procedures Manual for Solos and Small Firms. Demetrios Dimitriou, 1998.

You may borrow these or other publications for 15 days from the LOMA department. There is a $5 shipping and handling charge for each publication. You may also come into Bar Headquarters at 520 West Fayette Street, Baltimore, Maryland to review the publications. A list of all publications available for borrowing is on the website at www.msba.org/departments/loma/index.htm.

You may also purchase the ABA publications from the MSBA at a discount if you wish to add them to your library. For more information, go to www.msba.org/departments/membership/discounts.htm.

If you have any questions, please contact Pat Yevics at pyevics@msba.org or (800) 492-1964, ext. 3039.

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