Making Staff Integral to Your Mission: A Successful Firm Is an All-Inclusive Firm

08/01/2010
Published in Amicus, August, 2010, Vol. 8, Issue 8

Involving everyone in the office so they feel a sense of inclusiveness will produce more harmony and productivity and therefore increase the firm's profitability.

Lawyers and law firms typically employ assistants to aid in the firm's practice, persons who may go by the designation of secretary, administrator, intern, paraprofessional, patent agent or many other titles. These persons are, or should be, under direct lawyer supervision, but their role has traditionally been seen as a limited and, in some ways, a suspect one. The ABA's Model Rule 5.3 (Responsibilities Regarding Non-Lawyer Assistants) gives a rather tepid endorsement to their activities, saying that the firm itself, and lawyers with supervisory responsibility, must make "reasonable efforts" to give "reasonable assurance" that an assistant's or staff person's "conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer," and take "reasonable remedial action" if that conduct falls short.

Such a viewpoint vastly understates the potential of staff, administrative and professional assistants to serve as a true law firm resource. Lawyers come and go, but staff and administrators are the foundation on which the firm can build for the future. Yes, there have been staff layoffs and administrator terminations during the Great Recession; yes, firms have found that some staff activities—transcription, data entry and the like—can be outsourced offshore with an ostensible cost saving of up to 80 percent. However, no law firm can successfully meet the challenges of recession and a changing profession without the help of staff members who truly understand what their firms face and work to respond to the challenge.

Service and Communication

Everyone who works in and for law firms must understand that today's conditions are different from those in past downturns. More than recession alone, firms are contending with basic changes in the way law is practiced. Clients ultimately get their understanding of a firm by the way in which everyone, lawyers and staff, conducts themselves. A successful law office or law firm should be a team that creates quality service and work product for the benefit of clients. Involving everyone in the office so that they feel a sense of inclusiveness, understanding their roles and looking forward to exercising them, creates a better and more successful firm.

Clients should be able to connect directly with the folks of a law office who have an impact on their matter or who can provide clients with the answer to their questions. The client who walks away with an answer, even if not from the mouth of the lawyer, is generally far more satisfied or less agitated than he or she would have been with merely having to leave a message for a later return phone call. The happy client with an answer is a satisfied client, one who will more likely sing the firm's praises and provide new business referrals. This in no way means that the staff person is practicing law, in the sense of Rule 5.3. It does mean that properly trained and supervised staff is integral to the firm's service mission.

Unfortunately, such integration is too often difficult for lawyers, who tend to be more skeptical, impatient and intense, and less interactive and able to take criticism, than people in general. Such a lack of inclusiveness, made more intense by the pressure of today's economy, can create a dysfunctional firm. Lawyers may ask firm members and staff for achievements that are beyond their reach without providing explanations or resources. Accurately or not, the lawyers are seen as trying to fool the other members of the firm by saying things that cannot be believed, and anger is too often the result. An angry law firm is one doomed to failure. It's far better to be open and honest about what a firm needs to achieve, and to work as a team with everyone having the same agenda, using sufficient resources to achieve agreed-on goals.

Education and Understanding

Education and personal growth are essential for everyone in a law office. In the larger picture, building a team is inseparable from giving everyone in the office—including staff—the opportunity to learn skills that provide better service and enhanced performance to clients. Everyone in the office should take hours of client service education programs each year. Education and training are not and should not be just a function of CLE courses for lawyers. Giving staff the right training and support will give any lawyer enhanced confidence in the law office team. Training on business realities may be had at a local community college or in a nearby city. The worth of the program always has to be assessed, but if staff and administrators are expected to truly contribute, the value of training becomes all the more important.

For staff persons to properly apply such training to their jobs, they need to have a very clear understanding of what they are suppose to do and are responsible for. Having a comprehensive job description for every staff position in the law office is essential. The absence of such descriptions promotes inconsistency and threatens objectivity in job evaluation. Descriptions should include the specific, significant tasks of each position and the performance standards by which the accomplishment of these tasks is judged. When staff persons understand what they should be doing and how they are evaluated, their performance is more likely to be positive and their accomplishments greater, because all team members know and are committed to their roles.

Clear job descriptions can prevent one of the most consistent lawyer failings when dealing with staff: wanting the "perfect employee." What job descriptions support is the role of the "desired" employee—one who is competent, highly skilled, congenial and committed. Just as lawyers represent specialties in the law, so too does the desired staff employee. Defining what the firm's needs are for each staff position and making clear what it takes to meet them is essential to helping staff persons achieve what is expected of them.

Delegation and Recognition

This is the essential of delegation, and lawyers (who, after all, drafted Rule 5.3) are notoriously reluctant to delegate responsibility in their practices. In successfully managed law firms, lawyers allow administrators to administer, so that the lawyers can focus on the work that only they can do—serving existing clients and marketing the practice to potential new ones. The arrangement only works when the right person is doing the work—someone with the right congruency of skill, work ethic and values—and that person is given proper professional recognition.

Such recognition can vary from the simple to the substantial. For example, including staff on a Web site gives clients additional contacts to help them, particularly since these are people who wouldn't expect to issue a bill for the service. It also enhances the morale of the entire firm, as does giving everyone a business card that recognizes they exist and are part of the team. Inclusiveness will produce more harmony for all, increase productivity and therefore the profitability of the firm.

At a higher level, recognition requires giving professional administrators the opportunity to do what they do better than lawyers can: manage the resources of the firm In most firms the administrators who are responsible for accounting, human resources and similar functions will report to a senior lawyer in the firm, such as the CEO or the managing partner, but the reporting relationship is less than ideal. This is often because the criteria for a successful administrator either are not made clear, or are not within the administrator's control. Administrators should be responsible for organization and efficiency, while lawyers—the individual managing partner or CEO, or the collective executive or management committee—should be responsible for the quality of legal services and the firm's strategic direction.

Commitment and Success

Administrators and staff can take active roles in achieving the firm's strategic goals, serving as the impartial facilitators who have only the success of the firm at heart. They have no axe to grind (as in personal billable hours), are only interested in what's best for the entire firm, and have a unique capability, especially at the senior level to be the resource, the go-to person, the guide. To be successful at that role requires an official commitment by firm leadership both to achieving inclusiveness for all in the firm and to the non-lawyers' part in the process—whether as members of client service teams, as the first points of client contact, or as consultants who can recommend the best practices in their areas of expertise.

Change in today's law firm world will create opportunities for those staff and administrators who understand it and respond effectively when lawyers open the door to firmwide inclusiveness. If they have the assurance that their efforts are welcome, the process becomes one of understanding what ought to be done and taking the initiative to accomplish it. Such a firm moves beyond the lawyer-staff dynamic of "we" and "they" and creates a dynamic of "us"! The result can be increased revenue from happier clients, decreased costs of operation, and a firm better able to deal with today's problems and tomorrow's opportunities.

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