Six Mistakes Lawyers Make with Staff, Part I

In my career as a legal recruiter and law practice management advisor, I have witnessed some regrettable decisions involving staff.  I’m not referring to hiring, evaluating, or terminating employees.  I’m talking about day-to-day choices made by lawyers – those decisions that seem reasonable at the time, but have a way of coming back to bite you.  Here are four of the top six:

Lawyer as Controller

The lawyer who hires staff, but refuses to delegate any real responsibility always mystifies me.  You and your staff are a team.  Clients expect you to spend their money well.  This includes proper utilization of legal staff.  If you’re not sure where to start, please visit the blog of Vicki Voisin, The Paralegal Mentor, where you will find marvelous posts, including:

Vicki is one of my favorite paralegal bloggers.  You can follow her on Twitter @VickiVoisin.

Another source of spot-on advice is Lynne DeVenny who blogs at Practical Paralegalism.  Check out these posts:

Lynne’s blog is worth viewing for her excellent content, terrific sense of humor, and helpful links.  You can follow Lynne on Twitter @ExpertParalegal.

“I Don’t Have Time to Train”

Is it me, or is it just a bit ironic that busy lawyers who need help are “too busy” to train?  Training is time consuming – at first.  The payoff comes after the training when your secretary or paralegal takes over a task and runs with it. 

You can make the process of training much easier by creating and maintaining an office procedures manual.  Sound daunting?  It would be if you attempted to write the manual from beginning to end in one sitting.  Use the “step at a time” approach instead.  If you anticipate hiring staff soon, start your manual now.  Include copies of your client intake form, file closing checklist, fee agreements, and other common office forms.  Document procedures as you perform them.  If you learn how to restore a file from backup or change the ink in the postage meter, write down the steps.  (Even if you never hire staff, having an office manual will help you remember how to do tasks that you don’t perform often.)  If you already have staff, ask them to gather office forms and take a stab at documenting procedures.  Review their submissions and make any necessary corrections.  (Be sure to explain why you corrected the procedure – this is another opportunity to train!)  A sample Procedure Manual is available at no charge on the PLF Web site.  Select Practice Aids and Forms, then Office Manuals.

Staff Don’t Need CLEs (Do They?)

Absolutely!  Many a legal secretary or paralegal has trained a law firm associate.  If you truly want to build a crack legal team, support continuing legal education for staff.  CLEs are just one of the ways staff can improve their knowledge and help you get the job done.  In many cases, bar associations and legal organizations allow staff to attend CLEs at a reduced cost. 

Networking Isn’t Just for Lawyers

Encourage staff to belong to professional organizations like NALS: The Association for Legal Professionals, the National Association of Legal Assistants, and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations.  These organizations and their chapters offer annual conferences, monthly CLEs, webinars, legal publications, professional certifications, vendor directories, membership discounts, and networking opportunities galore.  NALS: The Association for Legal Professionals is particularly active on social networking sites.  The official NALS group on LinkedIn has over 1,900 members.

Professional organizations and CLE boost your staff’s competence, expertise, and effectiveness.  When you support professional certification, membership in a professional organization, or CLE, you enhance your staff member’s curriculum vitae.  Enhanced credentials greatly improve the client’s odds of recovering paralegal fees in actions where attorney fee awards are available.  It’s a winning proposition for everyone.

Copyright 2011 Beverly Michaelis

 

Why Should You Hire a Paralegal?

The short answer?  To save time and money!  The long answer involves seven excellent points made by Florida paralegal Linda McGrath Cruz, ACP, FRP and Vicki Voisin, The Paralegal Mentor.

If you want to increase revenue, free up billable hours, improve delivery of client services, and reduce stress, read this postTeamwork can make a big difference in the financial success of your firm.  For tips on how to interview a legal assistant or paralegal, check out this post.

Improve Your Practice & Avoid Malpractice with TEAMWORK

By Lynne J. DeVenny

In a perfect world, you and your staff, including your paralegals, are a highly efficient and successful business team, committed to serving your clients well and to being part of a reputable and profitable law firm. All of you are professionals, possessing your own special skills and training essential to the team’s function – and all of you are needed to make your practice successful.

But sometimes in the real world of a fast-paced, deadline-oriented law practice, the team is not as effective as it could be, for many different reasons.  The supervising attorney, as the team captain and coach, is ultimately responsible for the team’s success, including producing a high quality work product and avoiding costly malpractice errors.

An emphasis on T-E-A-M-W-O-R-K is what it takes to lead a team that not only makes few mistakes, but is also invested in and proud of the final work product.

T-E-A-M-W-O-R-K

T ~ Train your staff members well. The higher the level of their competencies, including legal and technology skills, the lower the chances are of them committing costly errors.  As the leader, it’s equally important for you to keep your own competencies current.

E ~ Encourage your staff  members to learn new skills.  Emphasize the importance of their participation in appropriate CLE offerings and professional association activities.  Send staff members to annual ethics classes, and make sure they are attending CLEs in their specialty areas to stay up-to-date with the law and technology.  For those staff members interested in obtaining voluntary professional certifications in their field and/or specialty areas, pay their fees as a benefit of employment.

A ~ Assess your staff members’ performance regularly. Review their work product, and provide constructive feedback in areas where they can improve. Make sure evaluations are held regularly and that expectations are clear – and fair. 

M ~ Make staff relations a priority.  Treat everyone as valued professionals and get to know them. Even small gestures, such as asking how their families are doing, taking them to lunch once in a while or attending a professional conference together, can make a difference in everyone’s comfort level – and ability to communicate openly and professionally.

W ~ Write down your office policies. Pay particular attention to procedures for maintaining client confidentiality and complying with ethics rules. Make sure all staff members have a copy, and ask them to acknowledge in writing that they read and understand the policies.  Ask for their feedback as to how existing policies can be improved.

O ~ Observe your staff members’ strengths and weaknesses. Give positive feedback and praise for projects well done whenever possible, but make sure that everyone is held accountable for errors – including you. Give staff members an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.  Assign work to staff members whose skills are best suited to the tasks.

R ~ Recognize good work.  Reward talented staff members with recognition and thanks, as well as appropriate salaries and financial incentives, such as profit-sharing, matching retirement contributions or bonuses, when possible.  You’ll be more likely to retain talented staffers, and they’ll stay motivated to maintain high standards and provide an excellent work product.

K ~ Keep your door open to your staff. Let them know that you’re available for questions and concerns, and encourage them to come to you for appropriate supervision and feedback. Make time for regular team and case meetings, and make time at the beginning of each day to establish the priorities for the day.

You’re all playing for the same team, the one that is passionate about the law and the success of your practice. Everyone benefits when the team plays well – and plays well together.  You’re ultimately responsible for the final work product and compliance with ethics rules, but when you make everyone on the team feel professional and valued, they’ll respond by making you and your firm look like a World Series winner.

 Lynne J. DeVenny is a North Carolina State Bar Certified Paralegal employed by Elliot Pishko Morgan P.A. in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She blogs for paralegals (and lawyers who want to  get to know paralegals better) at Practical Paralegalism and co-hosts the monthly podcast, The Paralegal Voice, at Legal Talk Network.

The Paralegal Voice

I recently had the pleasure of participating in my first ever podcast with hosts Lynne DeVenny and Vicki Voisin on The Paralegal Voice.

Our discussion touched on a little bit of everything – practice management, ethics, and technology.  It was a lot of fun and Lynne and Vicki are great interviewers.  If you don’t subscribe to their blogs or follow them on Twitter, you should.  

The Unanswered Question

As you might suspect, our time went by quickly.  Here are my thoughts on one of the questions we hoped to tackle — how paralegals can help market their firms and improve client relations. 

Don’t Damage the Client’s Case Before It Begins

As a legal support professional, potential clients may approach you and want to talk about their case.  Resist the temptation.  You cannot give legal advice.  The person you are talking to is not a client.  Any conversation you have is not privileged, and it may be discoverable by the other side.  

Instead, steer the person firmly but politely to your firm.  The prospect can make an appointment with a lawyer and discuss his or her private legal matter in confidence.  This approach protects you, your firm, and the client.

T-R-E-A-T Clients Well

Once a prospect becomes a client, you can play a major role in promoting positive client relations.  The key is to TREAT clients well:  be Timely, Responsive, Empathetic, give Assurance, and deliver great Tangibles. 

Timeliness and Responsiveness

Make every possible effort to respond to client phone calls, e-mails, and requests in a timely and responsive manner.  If you see a delay developing (the lawyer is out of the office and won’t be able to return a call as promised), inform the client of the delay.  Keep deadline dates on your radar screen and prompt the lawyer.  If the deadline can’t be met, the lawyer can call the client and negotiate a new date.  (Not always an easy call for the lawyer, but clients are far more understanding than we give them credit for–provided they know what’s going on in their case.) 

Empathy

Treat all clients with empathy and practice good listening skills.  Often the most important client need you can meet is the need to be heard and understood.  Keeping the human touch makes a big difference.

Assurance

Assurance is defined as certainty, confidence, and freedom from self-doubt. By giving assurance, we inspire client confidence in our firm and in ourselves as individuals.  

You may think this element of client relations is outside your control, but it isn’t.  If you are confident in mind and manner, clients will be too.

Tangibles

Tangibles are the production end of the business: letters, e-mails, pleadings, and other documents that clients see, feel, and touch.  Of all the elements of client relations, tangibles matter the least to clients (timeliness, responsiveness, empathy, and assurance are judged to be more important).  Even so, tangibles are a reflection of our professionalism, and we should always take pride in producing quality work.

Remember T-R-E-A-T and you will be well on your way to improving client relations.

Copyright Beverly Michaelis 2010