Maryland Bar Bulletin

Publications : Bar Bulletin : January 2012


In many solo and small firms, there is great dependence upon one or two very key employees. I have often heard practitioners say, “I do not know what I would do without him.” Or, “She is the engine of this firm.” 

These descriptions could be for partners, associates, paralegals, IT staff, administrative staff, or anyone you may depend upon to keep things going. This is usually the case with partners or staff who have been with the firm for some time. 

And this type of reliability is a double edged sword.  

While it is comforting to know that there are partners and staff you can always count on to get the job done, have you thought about what you would do if that person was gone either suddenly or with just two weeks notice?  What would you do if the person was suddenly very ill and you had to step in to handle some of his or her responsibilities?  Do you really know what this person does on a day to day basis?  You might be surprised, even horrified, to discover how tasks were being done. 

I am currently in that position, which is what caused me to write this article.  John Anderson, the MSBA Web Coordinator for almost 13 years gave me two weeks notice that he was moving to Florida to take a new position.  While I was very happy for him, two weeks really was not going to be enough time to review the site and determine what type of person we would need to replace him. And, although I was the person to whom he reported, I am not really technically qualified to review the site and be solely responsible for determining our future needs. 

After a sleepless night, I decided to use this as an opportunity to review the site and write an article to help practitioners be ready for such an event. For us, nothing terrible is going to happen while we review and revise the site and find the next person but there could be some awful results if a key person in a law firm suddenly was unavailable. 

Step One: Making a List

You need to know what your employees or partners do and how they do it. Make a commitment to have your staff or partners start to keep a detailed listing of all the functions they perform. This exercise will take some time, but you should give some sort of deadline. 

Once they make their lists, you should review with each person. This means you should also make this list.  If you have a partner, you should all take time to share the information with each other. This is just as important, and in some cases an even more important issue to address. All partners in a firm should know what is going on with other cases and clients. 

It is important that you stress to your staff and partners that this exercise is for the sole purpose of protecting the firm and the firm’s clients in case someone is unable to perform tasks or suddenly is unavailable. The purpose, at this point is not to evaluate or criticize performance or work habits. Staff and partners should not be afraid to list their duties and responsibilities. 

You might wonder why, if you use a time and billing package to record your time, you would need to this. While practice management packages will track all of time and tasks specifically performed for clients, most do not track non-billable administrative tasks or other important but not billable duties. 

Step Two: Review the Information

Once the lists of duties are created, it is necessary to then meet to discuss the duties. This can be done in a variety of ways depending on your firm.  These meetings can also be different depending on the individuals involved. You might have different settings for administrative staff than for partners or legal staff. You may even want to consider using an outside facilitator when having these discussions with partners. 

You need to determine whether to meet in short meetings until all the tasks are discussed or take an extended amount of time to go through the lists. This step should be taken seriously and completed in a reasonable amount of time. 

Step Three: The Devil is in the Details

Once everyone has listed his or her tasks, duties, and responsibilities, have the individuals then write in detail how the tasks are done.  Each person should be able to write directions about how to perform most tasks so that someone could perform the task in an emergency situation. This may not be as easy to do when dealing with some of the work done by partners, but all partners should know how to step in to help clients in case of an emergency. 

This step will take some time, but it should be done and there should be a reasonable deadline to have it completed. You could even set interim deadlines depending upon the workload of your office and number of tasks/duties.

If you have someone in the office who can be responsible for monitoring the progress of the project, then delegate that responsibility. If there is no one, then it is your responsibility and you need to take is seriously because this is really about the continuation of your practice and the safeguarding of your clients. It is not busy work. 

Step Four: Everybody is a Critic

Once everyone has completed his or her description of duties, it should be put into writing and shared with everyone else in the firm. Note, that there may be some partner tasks and duties that you will not want to share with non-partners and those should be excluded. All other tasks should be included. Make copies for the entire firm. Set a date for all staff members to review the information and give feedback.

Again, this is not an evaluation of anyone’s performance or even writing ability. It is about making certain everyone in the firm knows how to help in an emergency. 

Step Five: Now What

This document should be kept in a location (on your network) so that it is always available. Anytime that it is changed, everyone should be informed. Depending upon the size of your firm, you can create a simple procedure for making changes. You can decide that only one person can make a change or anyone can make a change to the descriptions. Regardless of how you choose, it is important to remember to date and initial all changes.

It is also important for everyone to know who is responsible for what duties and a list of these is also available for everyone to review. This will be especially helpful if you need to hire a new person.  

Depending on your practice or client base, you can also use this as a marketing tool. Let your clients know that no matter what may happen to anyone in your firm, their work will not suffer if there is an emergency in the firm. A well-run firm is a successful firm. 

Here are some other critical points to consider:

  • This listing and describing of duties and responsibilities is to be available for emergencies, which will happen. 
  • This is not an evaluation of staff or partners. This will not work successfully unless the staff or partners are comfortable knowing the purpose of the project.
  • Someone needs to be responsible for keeping everyone on task. 
  • Everyone must participate and understand the importance of the project.
  • Regardless of how busy all solo and small firms become, this project must be treated as important and not just ignored when it gets too busy.

There is additional information on the MSBA Website on How to Write a Procedure Manual, How to Hire and Fire Staff, Firm Dissolution and other similar topics. Information can be found at the MSBA LOMA Webpage under either Info Packets (for MSBA Members Only) or Articles.

previous next
Publications : Bar Bulletin : January 2012

back to top