Law Office Management
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PERSONNEL ISSUES: NOT JUST FOR LARGE FIRMS

By Patricia Yevics
Director, Law Office Management
Maryland State Bar Association, Inc.


Over the past few months, most of these columns have focused on technology and as important and all consuming technology is, there are other equally as important law practice management issues for solo and small firm practitioners. However, due to limited column space (and time) I often have to choose between the two.

This month's column is going to focus on personnel issues for solo and small firm practitioners. Unless you work completely alone - just you and a computer, then you have personnel issues and at times they can be the bane of your existence. (This is also true in larger firms but they always have someone assigned to handle the problems.) Staff, both secretarial and legal, are the backbone of a firm and in a small firm, they can actually make the difference between success and failure.

Despite their importance, I am often amazed at how poorly personnel issues are handled (if they are handled at all) in solo/small firms. In small firms, there is a greater need for clearly defined expectations, consistent outstanding performance and shared commitment to client service from all levels of staff.

As solo and small firm practitioners you have many other daily tasks facing you and you tend to allow personnel matters to take care of themselves until there is a problem . This does not and should not be the way things are done. There are easy and practical steps which all firms can take to prevent problems from ever occurring and methods for handling situations if they do occur.

In the May/June issue of the Bar Journal, there was an excellent article by Frank Kollman on personnel issues from a more legal point of view. This article will talk about specific techniques for solo/small firms for dealing with staff.

INTERVIEWING AND HIRING

If this were a perfect world, we would have a huge pool of qualified candidates from which to choose and once we decided on the best employee for our firm, he/she would stay with us until we retired. This is not a perfect world and we do have to replace employees with more frequency than we would like and we have to choose these employees from what seems to fewer and fewer qualified candidates. The best way to have a good employee is to hire well from the beginning .

In order to hire well you must know exactly what you want the potential candidate to be able to do when you hire him/her . Write a detailed job description of all tasks you expect the person to perform. Be honest with this description. If you expect the person to wash out the refrigerator once a month, then put it on your list. Another issue which should be considered for some positions, especially in solo/small firms is what tasks you may want this person to perform in the future. For example, if you are currently hiring for a secretary, there are certain skills which this person will have to have to be able to be a secretary at your firm. It might be wise to have a separate list of tasks you would want to have this person perform if your firm starts to grow and you have additional needs, such as bookkeeping or supervisory skills. As difficult as it may be to believe, not all employees want to be any more than what they were originally hired to be and all the wishing and hoping on our part that they will take some initiative to expand their

skills will not make it happen. This need not apply for all positions but it is an aspect of hiring that most people rarely consider because we are so concerned with hiring for our immediate needs.

After making your list of tasks which need to be performed, make another list of qualities or personality traits that you must have in this employee. If you are hiring for a receptionist then it is important that you hire an individual with a pleasant personality. I am often shocked when I call some law firms at how indifferent and even rude some receptionists can be. Do you need someone who can handle pressure, is punctual and can take some initiative? If you do not know what you expect from an employee, you most assuredly will not hire the right person.

Write a detailed classified advertisement. It is worth the extra effort. In a small firm, hiring mistakes can cost you much more than an expensive ad. They can cost you time and in some cases clients. If the first set of resumes, does not produce the results you want, try again. It is worth using temporary help until you can find a good permanent employee.

When interviewing, be honest. If there are a lot of last minute projects which cause overtime tell the candidate. If you expect associates to work weekends, let them know. If you are a fanatic about punctuality, let people know.

Never offer a candidate a job at the interview. Always take at least one day or two to make a decision. Do not hesitate to ask the person to return for a second interview. You may even want the person to meet others in your office with whom he/she will work. In solo/small firms, it is even more critical that people be able to work well together.

Once you have offered a candidate a position, immediately send a letter welcoming him/her to the firm, stating the agreed upon salary, start date, starting time, person to report to, if not to you, and any other pertinent information. If you have other staff, inform all of them the name and start date of the new employee.

Beginning a new job is stressful for both the new employee and for you. It is your responsibility to make the transition smooth. Needless to say this is not always possible. I once had a new receptionist start on the same day that an employee was killed in an auto accident. I was not able to spend any time with the new employee, but I explained the situation and it worked out well. Prepare a checklist of items which you or someone in your office needs to go over with a new employee. The checklist could include items such as filling out the necessary forms, location of bathrooms, how to use the phones and when to take lunch. It should include all items which need to be signed, discussed and understood. Check off the items as you go through the list, have the individual sign it and put it in their newly made personnel file. (I am assuming that all of your employees have personnel files, even if this is your first and only employee.)

Taking the time to be prepared for a new employee can make a great deal of difference for both the firm and the employee. If you are a solo or the person in a small firm responsible for personnel and you have a new employee starting on a Monday, take some time on Friday or over the weekend to prepare the work space for the employee. Unless there is an emergency, make certain that you are in the office to greet the employee. If necessary, introduce the person to everyone in the office. There are many advantages to being in a solo/small firm and personal relationships is one of them. Make the most of these advantages with all employees.

EMPLOYEE MANUALS

I believe any business with more than one employee should have two types of manuals. The first is a policy manual which lists information about the various policies for the firm which can include information about such issues as vacations, sick time, holidays, expenses, insurance, dress code, etc. Do not make the manual more complicated than it needs to be. Do not put in writing any policy that you cannot or will not enforce. It need not be long, should include certain disclaimers and be reviewed by a lawyer familiar with labor law. (Please see May/June issue of Bar Bulletin for a more detailed discussion of employee manuals.) If you do not have a written manual, start immediately to write all of your most obvious policies like those listed. If you need a list of items which could be included in a manual, please call my office.

If you currently have a manual, make certain that all employees have a copy and have signed a statement (which in their personnel files) that they have read the manual. If you cannot remember the last time you reviewed it, this may be the time to do so. Keep in mind that each time you make a revision to the manual, that you distribute the change to all employees and make note in the manual on the date of the revision. This will ensure that employees have the most current policy. Employee manuals can be put in three ring binders for ease of revisions.

The second type of manual is a procedure manual. This is a detailed description of all the day to day procedures performed in the office. I think firms of all sizes should have these but I am amazed at how few actually do. One of the reasons most firms do not have them is that the task can seem daunting to even contemplate. It need not be if started small. I first started a procedure manual when I got a call at 11:00 pm on a Saturday night from a partner who did not know how to change the fax paper. (This was when fax machines used thermal paper.) At midnight, on the drive home from the office after changing the paper, I decided I was going to begin to write descriptions of every procedure performed in the office, starting with "How to Change Fax Paper" and "Location of Fax Paper Supplies."

The process began simply and took almost 18 months to complete. The procedure manual was kept in the same binder as the employee manual and was updated and revised often. Although I was an administrator and not a practitioner, I believe that this can and should be done in even the smallest firms. You have a certain expectation on how you want certain tasks performed and they should be written so current and future employees will know what is expected. It also makes it easier for new employees.

You are probably thinking that as a practitioner there is no way you can devote the time to do this. I am saying that you can if you begin simply. Listed are just a few tips for solo and small firm practitioners to begin to write a procedure manual for your firm.

1. You are too busy to do this alone. You will need to include your secretary or some other employee to assist you with the project. However, as a solo/small firm practitioner, you will have to be responsible for its review and completion.

2. For one week have your secretary make a list of all procedures and tasks performed in the office. As you think of some, have your secretary put them on the list. If there are other employees in the office, ask for their input. In fact, tell the others you are preparing an procedure manual. Most of them will probably think "It's about time." Reassure the employee(s) that there is no right or wrong answer and they are not being evaluated on this. Remember, one of the advantages of small firms is that it is easy to get input from others quickly.

3. After the list is completed, review it.

4. Choose three or four of the most common procedures and have the person or persons responsible for performing the procedure, write a detailed description of the task. The description should be step by step instructions which can be followed by someone not familiar with the task. Allow approximately one week for this to be completed. Give a specific date for the task to be completed and returned to you. If more than one person performs a task, have each write a description. You may be surprised that different employees perform the same procedure very differently.

5. Once the descriptions are submitted to you, review them. Do not take longer than one week to review them. If you feel that you cannot review three or four procedures in a week, then only assign one or two procedures at a time. As you review them, make whatever changes are necessary . You may discover after reviewing the procedures, that some changes need to be made. If tasks are not being performed the way you had planned, revise the procedures. Review the revisions with the person(s) responsible for the task.

6. Once you are satisfied with the description of the procedure, have it distributed to all employees and inserted into their new manual. Repeat the process as often as is reasonably convenient until you have completed the list.

7. If you create new procedures, have these written and distributed immediately. If changes are made to procedures, revise the manual as needed.

Preparing this manual can be very painless but it should be prepared. It could save a lot of time in the future as your practice grows and you add or change employees.

If you would like any of the lists or articles listed, please call Pat Yevics at 410-685-7878 or 800-492-1964, ext 3039 or e-mail pyevics@msba.org   Please leave your mailing address and fax number.


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