How to Succeed with Staff

By Harold M. Goldner

Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Alan Shepard was the first American to fly into outer space in 1961. Steve Fossett circumnavigated the globe in a balloon in 2002. Each made his voyage alone. But none of these “soloists” could have succeeded without a staff of devoted co-workers committed to the finished result.

Regardless of how you measure success, the most successful law firms make the most of the resources available, and that especially includes staff. Here are six simple rules to keep your firm in top operating form so you, too, can soar.

Rule 1: Find the law process in your law practice. Identifying and standardizing the process of law can help a law firm get the most from its staff. Although the practice of law can involve many intricate and interlinked decisions of how to handle specific fact patterns, ultimately law practice is a process. Personal injury clients are interviewed, an investigation of the occurrence is completed and documented, medical records are collected and analyzed, and ultimately a case is adjusted or put into litigation. Estate-planning clients arrive and are interviewed, an estate plan is developed, and documents are drafted, reviewed, and ultimately signed. Litigation clients begin cases with pleading, move through written discovery, enter depositions, and march onward toward trial. In order to prosper, a practice will generate revenue based on the least expensive but most effective step in every process.

Identifying processes includes recognizing those individual steps and crystallizing them into written job descriptions for staff. Written job descriptions guide the hiring and firing process because they establish objective criteria to evaluate potential hires and measure the performance of current staff. Formal job descriptions also set out the essential functions of the job, which are important in assessing whether an individual applicant is genuinely qualified.

Equally important as the role of each staff member is the interplay between staff members. One of the most frequent complaints employees have is that their accountability exceeds their authority. A firm has to establish both lines of authority and lines of accountability. For example, if a matter is “in dictation,” how much time does the transcriber have to return the finished product, and is there any leeway in fixing obvious mistakes? A lawyer who insists that everything is done “just so” is going to find him- or herself with staff that is harried and frustrated, even though it appears to the lawyer that things are going swimmingly.

Engage staff in identifying your processes. Your office may have processes that you do not even recognize but that staff follow rigidly. Years ago (and well before scanners) while a trial lawyer at a small firm, I noticed that by the time I got cases for suit, the original exhibits were in terrible condition and looked as if they had been run over by a truck. I asked the secretarial staff how this could be and learned that every time an exhibit needed to be sent out, the secretaries removed staples from the original records, copied them, then restapled them. Since the office copier had an automatic sheet feeder, we established the practice of keeping a “reference set” of exhibits that could be updated and then fed through the copier. The original exhibits were kept in pristine condition. That slight adjustment in process helped us put out a better product.

Rule 2: Make effective use of training. One of the complaints I hear most frequently is that employees do not know how to get various tasks accomplished. I find it amusing that some of my colleagues will shell out hundreds if not thousands of dollars for high-end practice management systems but believe they will save money by not hiring consultants or trainers and just turn staff loose on their brand-new systems. This is like purchasing a high-end automobile without any wheels. Sure, the stereo is nice, and you look very stylish in that leather upholstery, but you are going nowhere fast.

Armed with your brand-new job descriptions from Rule 1, you can outline in advance what subject matters need to be covered with each staff member during training, including the ethical rules as they relate to that staff member’s position. Training assists staff members to be better at their jobs and makes them feel better about doing their jobs—which in itself boosts performance.

Make sure that your training vendor establishes a rapport with staff. Make sure you tell your staff that you want to know how they feel about the training. Is it helpful? Are they picking anything up? Just as important, make sure you and your trainer establish measures of success so that you can determine how effective the training has been and what other areas may need to be visited or revisited.

Rule 3: It’s called “human” resources for a reason. Most employees leave jobs for reasons having nothing to do with money. Boredom, lack of appreciation, and resentment are much more significant motivators of staff to seek greener pastures elsewhere. It costs far more to replace a worker than to retain one. I am constantly amazed by offices with high employee turnover and principals who brag about how they do not have to pay a lot of money to keep chairs filled. These practitioners have no grasp of what their poor human resources practices are really costing them.

An employer needs to determine what matters in its workplace. Does staff have to be in at regular or designated hours, or are flexible work shifts easy without any disruption? Are staff assigned to particular lawyers or other employees in the office, or can workers move around as needs arise? Does the office use specialists in a particular area of the law or particular skill set? Is there only one person who does transcription and only one who answers telephones? By addressing these issues, an employer can craft workplace policies and procedures as well as compensation plans that address the employee’s needs as easily as the employer’s.

Creative employers may use job sharing to keep employees with care-giving responsibilities employed, instead of simply replacing them and training new employees. Other employers may keep hourly rates down in exchange for offering more flexible hours. Still other employers may offer attractive benefits packages in exchange for lower salaries. Creative approaches to compensation packages are one other method of ensuring that the employment matters to staff.

Consider also that different age groups have considerably different outlooks on work. Baby boomers grew up in an environment where length of service was important, and loyalty to an employer an admired characteristic. The fact that many have been betrayed by these very beliefs—especially in recent hard economic times—has not changed this fact. Millennials, however, are much more concerned about job happiness. When they were children, everyone got trophies just for showing up at soccer practice, and they expect the same at work. Millennials look at jobs as stepping stones to some other, unknown destination—as opposed to focusing on a single career to which they may necessarily devote their working lives.

And remember, the vast majority of people you hire as support staff—regardless of age group—would quit their jobs in a heartbeat if they won the lottery. No matter how important your firm is to you, your firm may not even be on their radar except as a regular source of a paycheck.

Rule 4: Improve your feedback and make sure the review process is a dialogue. I once worked in a four-lawyer firm where the senior attorney had established such a smooth operation that he could roll in well after 11:00 every morning and spend the day calling clients and schmoozing. Every once in a while he would spend time signing up a new client, but mostly he tended to his external affairs while the firm operated smoothly. Not once in more than a dozen years did I see him take a deposition or appear in a courtroom, despite running a vibrant and successful law practice.

One thing that always amazed me was how he took pains to thank the staff every day when they left, as if they had done something special that day. It wasn’t the verbal equivalent of a peck of a kiss at the train station. It was a genuine thank-you, which he made sure the employees heard, as though something they had done that day had been particularly special. His employees were fiercely loyal, and he could worry less about the practice because he knew staff had things well in hand.

When is the last time you thanked your secretary? When did you last show appreciation to an associate in your office? People want to feel like it was worth the ordeal of getting out of a warm and comfortable bed in the morning, battling with child care, stressing over public transit or the highways en route to work, and settling into a workplace in which they have no ownership interest. A little recognition and appreciation can go a very long way.

Make sure your firm institutionalizes a feedback loop. That means setting up regular staff reviews and a method for staff to safely tell you how and what they feel about working with you.

Staff should be reviewed at least annually. Better still, review staff every six months, with compensation tied to a review only annually. That way the non-compensation review can be a free and open discussion of what the employee has and has not accomplished, what that employee’s strengths are, and what areas for attention are noted.

Terminated employees are almost always stunned to learn that they were not performing up to standards and are likely to look for other excuses or reasons for the adverse job action—possibly looking for legal recourse, even where they were simply incompetent. A good review process will eliminate this surprise. Employees with serious performance problems will learn about them earlier and have an opportunity to address them. Employees with attitude or behavioral issues that interfere in the workplace will get a “heads-up” before there is an incident that requires drastic and immediate intervention by a lawyer who would rather practice law than have to serve as a playground referee.

Rule 5: Have policies and procedures and keep them updated. A simple employee handbook containing all the essential workplace policies creates a road map for peaceful employee relations. Although simple form manuals abound on the web and even in office supply stores, the most effective manual will be one that is tailored to the individual practice and prepared after the firm has consulted with counsel to assess areas for vulnerability and exposure from workplace laws.

Just as most lawyers have an accountant to assist with the financial details of the practice, it can be cost-effective to secure an outside attorney familiar with human resources issues to ensure that the firm is not deliberately or inadvertently falling into the soup.

Rule 6: Remember and follow the golden rule. Just because employees serve at your will does not mean they should be at your mercy. Employees should be paid for all time expended on behalf of the firm. It is exploitative to require a lawyer to bill 2,500 hours but not pay that lawyer for the hundred or so hours the lawyer works getting ready to bill. It is exploitative and ultimately destructive to the workplace environment to be less than equitable with any personnel who works extended hours, whether lawyer, paralegal,  or administrative support.

Think of it another way—if your employees hate working for you, what message are those employees going to send to your clients? Employees who are always treated with dignity and respect are always more valuable assets to a firm. Above all else, remember to treat employees the way you would like to be treated if you were their employee.

Get ready to soar. When I brought my eldest son home from the hospital, I came to the realization that regardless of the fact that I had absolutely no clue what I was doing, he would come to expect that I was “Dad” and knew exactly what Dads were supposed to do. When you hire your first employee, you will have to get over the shock and realization that you are now a boss. Get past all the stereotypes that accompany that role. Focus on why you decided to practice law in the first place. Like other soloists before you, with the help of your staff you, too, can soar.

How to Succeed with Staff


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