The Ups and Downs of Staffing Your Law Firm

If your practice is growing and you have more work than you can reasonably handle, it may be time to hire staff.  Oddly, what seems like a natural progression can also be stressful.  Among other things, you may be wondering:

  • Can I really afford to hire someone?
  • Should this person be a contractor or an employee?
  • How can I best use my staff person?
  • What issues do I need to be aware of when hiring?
  • What if I have to fire my employee?

Let’s tackle these one at a time.

Can I afford to hire someone?

More often than not, the answer is a resounding yes!

  • The typical Oregon lawyer can net a profit of $91 every time his or her highly paid paralegal bills one hour of time to a client.
  • If a highly paid paralegal bills just under 13 hours during the course of a 40 hour week, the lawyer paying the paralegal will break even.
  • If the same paralegal bills 15 hours per week for the entire month, the lawyer will earn a profit of $1,260.84 after the paralegal’s salary and benefits are paid.
  • In the meanwhile, the lawyer has successfully shifted 60 hours of billable work and approximately 100 hours of nonbillable work to an employee: paper filing, efiling, scanning documents, calendaring, running conflict checks, billing clients, banking, running errands, opening files, closing files, and answering the phone.

See this post for the details and mathematical breakdown.

Should this person be a contractor or employee?

While it is tempting to treat legal staff, a contract lawyer, or any kind of help as an independent contractor, you may find yourself regretting this decision later.  It is almost impossible to go wrong classifying someone as your employee.  In fact, I don’t know how you can.  But bad outcomes abound if you label someone an independent contractor when they aren’t under Oregon law.  So before you go down this path, please read Mission Impossible? Working as an Independent Contractor in Oregon and Are Contract Lawyers Automatically Independent Contractors?  And this is critical, please review Lisa Brown, “Independent Contractors or Employees?” In Brief (April 2016), available on the PLF website at Practice Management > Publications > In Brief.

How can I best use my staff person?

Other than avoiding the unauthorized practice of law, there aren’t any limitations on the type of tasks you choose to delegate to a staff person.  However, there are some things to avoid.  Check out these posts: Six Mistakes Lawyers Make with Staff, Part I and Six Mistakes Lawyers Make with Staff, Part II.  Also review the staffing resources available on the PLF website.  Select Practice Management, then Forms, and choose the “Staff” category.  For specific tips, Google “how to best use a legal secretary” or how to best use a paralegal.”

What issues do I need to be aware of when hiring?

On May 28, 2015, the Professional Liability Fund held a CLE on how to hire with confidence.  The program is available at no charge on the PLF website.  Select CLE, then Past CLE, and look for Employment Practices for Lawyers: Hiring with Confidence and Avoiding Trouble at Termination.  Download the materials or checkout the highlights here.  One resource you should take advantage of: the Technical Assistance Support Line through the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI).  Also see:

What if I have to fire my employee?

The CLE referenced above has you covered.  For the key takeaways on avoiding trouble at termination, check out this blog post.  Also see the “Checklist for Departing Staff,” available on the PLF website.  Select Practice Management, then Forms, and choose the “Staff” category.

Parting Thoughts

While it is more than possible to regret hiring a specific person, I’ve never met anyone who regretted the decision to add staff.  Once you hire an employee, you will probably wonder, how did I ever get along without help?

[All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2016]

The Year in Review – Top Posts in 2015

Thank you loyal readers!  As 2015 comes to a close, here is a look back at the year’s top posts:

Working Effectively – Time Management, Staffing

File Management – What to Keep, What Not to Keep

Marketing, Business Development, and the Attorney-Client Relationship

eCourt

Fees – Getting Paid, Finances, Credit Cards, Trust Accounting

Security

Technology – Macs, TECHSHOW, Office 2016, Windows 10, Paperless, and More

Potpourri

[All Rights Reserved 2015 – Beverly Michaelis]

How to Delegate Successfully

If you belong to the “do it yourself” school, believe that you can’t afford to delegate, or have no faith that those reporting to you can do the job, please read this recent post from Tips for Lawyers. Here is an excerpt:

How To Delegate Properly (and to be delegated to)

First, identify the task with enough precision. Sometimes greater detail will be needed than others, and sometimes the task will be wishy washy. But either way, ensure that the junior knows exactly what is expected of them.

Set a realistic deadline, after speaking with your intended junior. This involves ensuring that your own time to review or settle the product is included, and you have provided a time by which the junior staff member must bring their draft (or results, or whatever) to you.

Identify how long, in real time, you think it should take. For example “the research shouldn’t take you more than 2 hours, and then 1 further hour to put together the draft letter”. Ensure that the junior comes back to you if those estimates are turning out to be impossible. This avoids two problems:

First, time getting written off because it took longer than you thought;
Estimates provided to the client being inaccurate.

Somebody take notes of the discussion (guess what – this will be you, junior lawyer).

Don’t call it urgent if it’s not. OK this is a bit of a pet peeve, but some seem to think that they will jump to the top of the priority list by calling everything they do “really urgent”. The task is then completed (at the cost of the other tasks that had to be set to one side) and then not looked at for two days. If it’s urgent, that’s fine – but don’t be the “boy who cried wolf” on this one, or people will just start ignoring you…

Make sure you have an open door policy in case the task requires clarification. Point ‘n’ shoot doesn’t work in the law – often complex tasks develop while being undertaken, and so more information might be needed or clarification of the intended path might be required.

Finally, ensure you provide enough facts. I have seen time and time again a wonderful task be completed and then the senior lawyer say “oh but X doesn’t apply because Y and Z are applicable to this one”. Was that a great exercise in how to waste somebody’s time and the client’s money? Yes. Was it good delegation? No. Providing sufficient context to a task also allows the junior lawyer to understand the real world impact of their task, which will often provide motivation and build a better team mentality.

All Rights Reserved – Beverly Michaelis [2014]

Know Who You Hire

The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

Love him or hate him, this quote from Dr. Phil says it all when it comes to hiring legal support staff.

Before joining the Professional Liability Fund in 1996, I operated the Multnomah Bar Association’s Legal Placement Service.  During my tenure, I interviewed and screened thousands of potential applicants.  We did not place lawyers, but we filled every other available position in a law office or legal setting. 

My experience at the MBA taught me many things, not the least of which was the importance of checking references. 

Applicants can be very charming, professional, and appear to have spot-on experience.  In fact, they may truly possess all these qualities.  But none of this really predicts how well they will do on-the-job.  The only way to find out is to check references. 

By contacting former employers you may learn that your charming applicant is an embezzler, exaggerated his experience, or threw a plant at her former boss.  (I did.)

This is not to say that there is an abundance of poor candidates – far from it.  The point is:  you need to know who you are hiring. 

With the caveat that I am not an employment or labor law specialist, here are some questions you might ask of a reference:

  • What position did this employee hold at your firm?
  • When did the employee work for you?
  • Can you describe the employee’s responsibilities?
  • Why did the employee leave your firm?
  • Was the employee dependable and reliable?  Did he/she have any issues with absenteeism or tardiness?
  • Did any personal problems affect this employee’s work performance?
  • Did the employee communicate well orally and in writing?
  • How would you describe the employee’s clerical/secretarial skills?  Did he/she turnaround work quickly?  Was the employee’s work product accurate?
  • Did the employee take instruction well?  Did he/she seem to grasp new responsibilities quickly?
  • Did he/she get along well with others in the firm?
  • Did the employee have contact with clients?  If so, did he/she ever encounter angry or upset clients?  How did he/she respond?
  • How did the employee handle pressure?  Stress?
  • Did the employee make sound and timely decisions?
  • Was this employee a self-starter?
  • What do you think is this employee’s strongest quality?
  • Is there an area this employee could improve upon?
  • Do you think this employee will perform well as a [job title]?
  • How would you describe the employee’s overall performance?
  • Would you re-hire the employee?
  • Is there anything of significance you’d like to add?

Don’t underestimate the importance of being systematic in your approach to hiring.  Develop a set of questions to ask references and applicants, then create and use forms or checklists to ensure that your hiring process is thorough and consistent.  You won’t be sorry!

Copyright 2010 Beverly Michaelis