General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Staffing for Law Firm Technology

By Stephen P. Gallagher

There is a substantial and rapidly expanding body of evidence that speaks to the strong connection between how firms manage their people and the economic results achieved. It is becoming quite clear that success comes from delivering value to your client, and the ability to deliver value comes from having sound understanding of what clients want and value and of knowing how to organize and manage people to produce that value.

It is important to understand some of the trends that are reshaping the legal landscape before we can discuss staffing requirements for law firm technology. Managing people to produce greater client value and developing systems and controls to deliver this value to clients cannot be delegated. In today’s turbulent legal marketplace, creating greater client value requires more than just excellent service within existing parameters, it requires experimentation and innovation to produce new approaches.

If you are looking to foster innovation in your growing firm, you may need to be receptive to hiring people with different skills and competencies, thinking and working styles. You may also need to consider hiring individuals with a much broader range of technical expertise than you ever imagined, and you will need to be prepared to provide them with leadership, even though you do not fully understand the work your so-called subordinates do. So, the first order of business—before you hire anyone—is to be open to new ideas and be prepared to listen to and work with your new hire.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a leading figure in working with innovation and organizational change, and a former editor of the Harvard Business Review writes that "Success for companies today comes from the capacity to create change. Sustainable competitive advantage is based on organizational capacity to master change. In short, organizations that are focused, fast-moving, flexible, and ‘friendly’ to key connections are more likely to sustain their ability to weather market shifts and even to create new markets." (Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Rosabeth Moss Kanter on the Frontiers of Management, Harvard Business School Press, 1997, p. 27). The second order of business—before you hire anyone—is to recognize that your organization will need people to help you remain focused, fast-moving, flexible, and "friendly," and you will need to be prepared to create change within your
organization.

In Peter F. Drucker’s book, Post-Capitalist Society, he speaks of the primary resource in the post-capitalist society as being knowledge and the leading social groups will be "knowledge workers." According to Drucker, "Modern organizations need to become organizations of equals, of ‘colleagues,’ because no one knowledge ‘ranks’ higher than another. The position of each individual on the team is determined by his/her contribution to the common task, rather than by any inherent superiority or inferiority. Where workers throughout history could be ‘supervised,’ today, knowledge workers cannot, in effect, be supervised. Unless they know more than anyone else in the organization, they are to all intents and purposes useless." (Peter F. Drucker, Post- Capitalist Society, Harper Business Publishing, 1993, p. 64). The third order of business—before you hire anyone—is to acknowledge that your organization needs to be an organization of equals. Your new employees will probably not be all lawyers, but these "knowledge workers" will be needed to add the value your clients will learn to expect.

The final trend that needs to be understood is that in the legal marketplace, the idea of Leveraging is being replaced by the concept of Teamwork; and hourly billing rates are being replaced by fixed fees for services of determinable value. "In the years ahead, the key to financial success will not be to cause the maximum number of hours to be worked, but rather to cause the maximum number of valuable events to happen for clients in the minimum amount of time." (F. Leary Davis, "Back to the Future: The Buyer’s Market and the Need for Law Firm Leadership, Creativity and Innovation," Campbell Law Review, Vol. 16, Spring 1994, No. 4., p. 67-68). The fourth and final order of business—before you hire anyone—is to recognize and accept the fact that hourly billing rates are being replaced by fixed fees for services, so you will need to attract "knowledge workers" whose value will be determined by their contribution to a common task.

Setting the Stage

Before discussing how one might go about hiring staff, it would be helpful to know something more about the firm and the position or positions needed to be filled. Let me start by developing a hypothetical law firm to be used as our model.

You have been working with a midsized law firm in Manhattan since graduating from law school four years ago. In the past several months you have decided to join a friend from law school in starting a law practice in a rural part of Upstate New York. You are fortunate that your new partner has been practicing law since graduation with her father in this rural community. The father only recently has decided to retire to Florida with his wife—the firm’s paralegal/bookkeeper—creating the opportunity for you to join the practice.

One of the first challenges you face is to familiarize yourself with the computer network and the other systems and procedures the father and daughter team have developed over the past four years. While working in your previous firm, you had no exposure to the firm’s computers other than becoming comfortable with drafting your own documents online, and developing a relatively good system to capture your billable hours each week before leaving the office on Friday afternoon.

Your second immediate challenge was to begin hiring support staff to replace the paralegal/bookkeeper—your partner’s mother—who was joining her husband in Florida, and begin exploring the possibility of hiring other support personnel as needed.

Start with the Here and Now

Within a day or two of joining the firm, you quickly came to realize that the former senior partner—who had just retired to Florida—was the only person in the office who had any knowledge of the computer network the firm had put in place. Although your partner had a good understanding of the clients and their legal needs, she had absolutely no interest in any of the office systems, including the software programs time billing and accounting.

In the past, whenever the firm had problems with any of their computers, the father was able to "do something" or "call someone" to get the problems resolved. You realized that from this point forward you needed to develop a basic understanding of the workings of the office technology, and begin to find the right people to keep your computers up and running, so you might be able to return to your first love—the practice of law.

One of the last things the former senior partner had done with the computer network, before retiring, was to install Corel’s WordPerfect Suite 8 Legal Edition. Although you were comfortable with WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, you had no experience with Windows95, and you had never used any of Corel’s other products such as Quattra Pro, Presentations, or Paradox, which were included in the Suite. You had heard good things about Amicus™ Attorney, the Suite’s case management program, but you had no exposure to this or the other third-party software programs included in the Suite. You were particularly interested in experimenting with the voice-recognition software, Dragon Naturally Speaking, but you knew you faced a number of significant challenges that had to be addressed first.

Challenge One

Before you can plan for the future, it appears that you will need to do something to help your partner and yourself manage the daily work flow. Within the first day or two, I would propose that the new partner contact a temporary employment agency to hire one or two people, who are comfortable with the Windows95 operating environment, and familiar with WordPerfect 7.0 or greater. You do want an opportunity to become familiar with the new software, but your immediate concern should be to get the work out the door to keep current with client demands.

One of the advantages of hiring a temporary employee is that it will give you additional time to evaluate the existing office systems, and to study the skills needed in a new full-time employee. Ideally, a temporary employment agency should enable you to find someone proficient with WordPerfect, and equally comfortable with the routines of legal practice. By contracting with a temporary employment agency for a paralegal or legal secretary for a designated period of time you should be able to learn a great deal from the temporary employees’ experiences in working with your new software. The job description developed for one of the temporary employees is found in Appendix A. We are clearly not looking for someone with "the capacity to master change" at this time; if the first temp does not demonstrate the skills you are looking for, you should not be shy about trying someone else.

Although it would have been nice to have found the perfect problem-solving, initiative-taking, full-time employee, who would go the extra mile for your client—while remaining focused, fast-moving, flexible, and friendly, I would propose that you start by hiring one or several temporary employees to provide you with the time needed to think.

Challenge Two

The second major challenge you face is the computer network. Recognizing that you had neither the skills nor the contacts to "do something" or "call someone" to get the computers working, immediate action will be needed before problems with the network were to arise. The place you need to begin finding service for the computers would be with the company that installed the computer network in the first place. If maintenance contracts were not in place, this would be an opportune time to reconsider this option. I personally think this is one of the next challenges that needs to be addressed.

Although you may later choose to hire someone to maintain your computer network, at this point in time you cannot afford the uncertainty of being without your computers, so check with other law firms of comparable size, or check with your state bar association to get names of network consultants in your immediate area. Signup for the hardware service agreements and hire an outside network servicing company to provide you with the necessary 24-hour support service you may need. This should again give you more time to become comfortable with the systems you have in place.

Challenge Three

Let’s review where we are. You have now been in Upstate New York for two months. You have hired two temporary paralegal/secretaries, a part-time temporary bookkeeper; you purchased maintenance agreements for the computer hardware; and you have signed a one-year service contract with a network consultant. You feel pretty good that you are becoming comfortable with the operations of the office, and you are beginning to believe that you may be able to return to the full-time practice of law in the not-too-distant future. You have not hired any full-time support staff as yet.

Since you are now more comfortable with the computer network, you need to begin identifying specific tasks and skills needed to keep the system running. At some point in the future, you may need to group a number of these tasks into a single job description. Law firms that hope to build effective teams of "knowledge workers," increasingly need greater technical expertise, so you will have to begin to recognize the skills you need.

The easiest and most effective way to expand your knowledge in this area is to use the technology that is available to you. Log onto the Internet, and spend the time to familiarize yourself with any of the national news services or legal publishers that maintain online career services. The best way to develop your own job description is to cut-and-paste statements from a variety of job descriptions that appear in employment sites on the Web. A sample job description for a Manager of Information Technology that has been compiled from several different job descriptions can be found in Appendix A.

I am not proposing that you commit the time to looking for the ideal person described in our job description. I am not even sure such a person exists, but I do want you to begin to think about the various skills and competencies you will be needing to maintain your existing systems; and more importantly, to assist you in creating your firm’s future with new opportunities and challenges. In New York alone this past year close to 8,000 new attorneys were admitted to practice. If any of these JDs have the technical skills and qualifications described in our job description, I would certainly want to interview such an individual. If I found this candidate to be focused, fast-moving, flexible, and "friendly," I would certainly try to convince him or her of the benefits of staying in Upstate New York.

Changes are taking place with technology so quickly and so profoundly that no one individual can be expected to keep current in all areas. On the other hand, it is reasonable to expect that if you bring in the right people—working with outside partners—you should be able to establish teams to keep ahead of your current clients’ expectations for value. I return to Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s statement that "organizations that are focused, fast-moving, flexible, and ‘friendly’ to key connections are more likely to sustain their ability to weather market shifts and even to create new markets." The only other elements I will end with is that it still stands to reason that firms that generously compensate their employees and provide family-friendly benefits will have an advantage in attracting and keeping the key employees you will be needing to manage technology. n

Stephen P. Gallagher is director of the New York State Bar Association’s Law Office Economics and Management. Steve serves as liaison to NYSBA’s General Practice Section and the Electronic Communications Task Force, which is NYSBA’s Internet advisory group.

Gallagher is cochair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section’s Practice Management Advisors, which is a group of bar association and law society staff, who work in the area of practice management, systems and law office technologies.

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