Law Office Management
LOMA : Articles
PERSONNEL ISSUES IN THE TECHNOLOGY AGE

By Patricia Yevics
Director, Law Office Management
Maryland State Bar Association, Inc.

This month's column is going to focus on new personnel issues for solo and small firm practitioners in the new age of technology because there are going to be a new set of personnel problems created by technology. Very often we become so awed by some of the new technologies we see that we overlook that it will still be people who use these new products and devices. Unless you work completely alone - just you and a computer, then you have personnel issues and at times they can be the bane of your existence. (This is also true in larger firms but they always have someone assigned to handle the problems.) Both secretarial and legal staff are the backbone of a firm and in a small firm, they can actually make the difference between success and failure.

The use of technology has changed the way we live and the way we practice. It will also change the people we hire, the tasks they will handle and the rules and procedures we will implement. Listed are some issues we must begin to consider to be prepared for this changing personnel landscape.

NEW TYPE OF EMPLOYEE

The days of hiring "secretaries" to do heavy typing (and word processing) is quickly changing because so many attorneys have computers and will do much of their own simple word processing because it is easier and takes less time. In many cases, practitioners are much more mobile using computers on the road and at home where they do not have the typical secretarial support. They are becoming more and more accustomed to handling many administrative tasks once delegated to secretarial staff.

New and younger associates and practitioners are much more comfortable with a keyboard than those of us who entered the work force before the proliferation of PC's. They do not view using a PC and a keyboard as "typing" and would not consider having a support person do a simple letter or memo.

In addition, the improved voice recognition software and the low cost of the memory to run it will allow the keyboard-challenged to use this software to create documents that may or may not need to be edited by an administrative staff person.

Secretarial and administrative staff will need to be more capable of editing documents that others have created. They have to have a more in debt knowledge of your practice and your clients. The secretary who only types what is put in front of him/her without an understanding of what is being done is very quickly becoming obsolete.

WHAT ARE THE MINIMUM STANDARDS FOR STAFF

These new employees should be expected to come with advanced knowledge of a variety of software products. Administrative staff must know word processing and spreadsheet software. Ideally, they will have some knowledge of using the Internet and e-mail software. It would also be an advantage if they were familiar with some type of billing or bookkeeping package such as Quickbooks or Quicken. While you may not use these specifically, their working knowledge of them will allow them to more easily learn the billing or bookkeeping software you use.

Any new associate should have the ability to use legal research software, the Internet and e-mail. He/She should have familiarity with some type of calendar, case management or personal information manager software, even if it is not legal specific. Ideally any new associate should have his/her own computer at home. It would be unthinkable in this day and age to hire someone for a professional position who does not have phone and the same should also be true of a home computer. Home computers are becoming necessities for anyone in a professional position.

The more software products that an employee or potential employee has used the more valuable he/she will be to your practice.

The preceding paragraphs referred to new employees but what about current employees whose skills are not what you need now or in the future. It is critical that all employees who work for you have a minimum standard of technical ability. Th (This minimum standard also applies to you.) This is critical for solo and small firm practitioners because they do not have the luxury of having employees who cannot do many tasks. In a small firm, there are fewer people and they will need to be experienced in many different areas and technology is one of those areas.

In a small firm, it is completely unacceptable for any staff person to not have a comfort level with software. If you currently have staff who need to improve their skills, then you need to make certain that they get the training they need. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways.

1. In-house training by other staff who have more experience

2. In-house training by an outside company. In many areas, community colleges will now do training at your office.

3. One or two day courses at local software training companies.

4. Software training by using the Internet. The best one is http://www.learnitonline.com. It is a tutorial that people can use anytime and the cost is fairly reasonable.

Another technique for improving skills is to schedule a Tips Lunch once a month in the office. Have sandwiches sent in and have everyone in the office get together for an hour to come up with tips and techniques that they use with various software. You will be amazed at how much information and skills they have and they can share it with others. It is important that everyone in the office, including you, participate.

WHO YOU GONNA CALL????

Our dependence upon technology has created a new type of service problem for the solo and small firm practitioner. Who is going to take care of all this hardware and software? Although our employees will have a greater knowledge of technology and how to use it more effectively, it is unrealistic to think a solo or small firm will be able to afford anyone with the high level of expertise to handle a lot of the network and compatibility issues related to this sophisticated equipment.

As a result it is important to have a software and hardware vendor that you can trust and can depend upon to be reliable. You will also have someone is your office who is able to communicate with this vendor(s) and to have enough knowledge to know what seems reasonable and what may not.

YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR?

More and more potential employees have these technical skills and abilities but as their skills improve and they become more valuable, the cost to hire and retain these employees becomes quite high. Employees with experience in a variety of software are becoming very valuable. All businesses need employees with technology skills and are willing to pay for them. In some cases we may have to re-think salaries for good employees who can contribute to your practice with their software and hardware skills. If these employees are valuable to you because of their skills, they are just as valuable to many other businesses.

NEW RULES AND PROCEDURES

With these new technologies come the need for new rules and procedures. Some of the rules that need to be considered are:

1. Rules for using the Internet

2. Rules for using e-mail

3. Rules and procedures for accepting file attachments

4. Rules for telecommuting and working at home or away from the office

5. Checklists and procedures for technology disasters

If you would like a list of rules for some of these topics, some are listed on the MSBA website at http://www.msba.org/departments/Loma/articles/articles.htm.

In the practice of law, there are two things that are going to used for quite some time - people and technology. It is important that they work in conjunction with each other.


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