Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : November 2006

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 SOLO/SMALL FIRM PRACTITIONER

BY PAT YEVICS  

SOLO/SMALL FIRM PRACTITIONER: Getting the Most from Your Staff

In last month’s column, I presented some information about the four generations that are currently working in law firms. I briefly described some of their characteristics to help explain how they work and how to minimize some of the conflicts that might arise from supervising and/or working with a different generation. This month, I will address the area of supervising employees, whether they are administrative or legal.

In his excellent article “Making the Most of Generational Differences,” from the Summer 2004 edition of The Criminal Justice Institute’s Management Quarterly, Jason Goodrich offered good tips on how to manage or supervise the various generations. www.cji.net/CJI/Publications/mq/MQ2004Summer.pdf

  • Traditionals (born 1925 – 1945) need to know that you “respect their judgment, experience, and desire to contribute.” They are extremely loyal.
  • Boomers (born 1946 – 1964) prefer a “coaching approach rather than a dictatorial one.” They “appreciate being granted authority and respect being given to them.” They need continuous challenges.
  • Gen Xers (born 1965 – 1980) need constant feedback to let them know how they are doing. They like “training and skill-development opportunities and resent micromanagement.” Because they have watched their parents work hard only to be downsized, they are not “overly invested in their jobs.”
  • Gen Yers (born 1981 – 2002) will stay focused on the task by “incorporating speed and interactivity into their job routine.” They should be given the same respect as veteran employees. They do not see value in “paying their dues.”

How does all the information help in the real world of a law office? Does understanding these differences guarantee that all of these employees will work out in your firm? This month, I will address some issues related to how we supervise the people who work for us and what we may need to do differently.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has employees that people make a quality law firm. In a small firm, every employee contributes to the success or failure of the firm.

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 you need to make certain that the people who work with and for you are the very best because they can make all the 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.

I have finally come to realize that getting the best from our employees is not really just about us (as the owner or supervisor) and what we expect or want from our staff. It is about how we communicate that information and how they process that information. The onus is absolutely on us to make certain that we communicate our expectations.

How do we motivate and supervise the people in our firm so that we are giving them what they need to succeed and that we are getting the best from them so that our firm can succeed? Although we have briefly addressed some of the differences between generations, we still expect the best from all employees. As solo and small firm practitioners, we do not have the luxury of spending a lot of time dealing with personnel issues. We need good employees and we need the best from them.

Tips for Working with Employees

Communication.
Communication of expectations is critical. Do not assume that your employees know what excellence or quality client service is. It is your responsibility to constantly reinforce to your staff what you expect from each of them. Define what you mean by excellent service and communicate that information to your staff.

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 is contagious.

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 ever-changing technology, it is critical that employees be adequately trained. All employees must be technologically proficient. There is no place in a small firm for any employee that will not learn new technology.

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.

Supervision.
 All employees must have written job descriptions. They should be evaluated using these descriptions. This includes both administrative and legal staff. If you are hiring a new associate, it is just as important for him/her to know what is expected. This is necessary regardless of the level of experience.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

As often as possible, give your secretary/staff adequate time to complete assignments.

When you assign a task to an employee and you are comfortable he/she understands your request, allow him/her to proceed unsupervised. 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 it is their responsibility to inform you in advance if they will have difficulty in meeting the completion date. You should also regularly informally check to see if the matter is moving ahead.

Never angrily criticize or correct an employee in public. When correcting an employee’s performance, your goal should be in making certain the employee understands the error and will not make it again. The most effective way to ensure that an employee will not continue to make the same mistakes is by asking him/her to tell you what he/she plans to do to improve performance. Make employees responsible for their progress.

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

All employees should be evaluated formally in writing using their job description at least once a year. But in the end, if someone is not working out after being given an opportunity to improve, you may have to make the decision to fire the person. This is never easy but usually necessary.

I hope some of these tips help. Working with and supervising employees can sometimes be the most difficult part of your day. However, if we try to “supervise” staff the way that works best for them, we may be able to make it less stressful.

Have a good Thanksgiving!

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: November 2006

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