Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin

SOLO/SMALL FIRM PRACTITIONER
”Not Your Grandfather’s Employees:
Personnel in the Technology Age”
By Patricia A. Yevics

Very often we become so awed by some of the new technologies in our offices that we forget that these new products and devices are used by people. 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. Both secretarial and legal staff are the backbone of any firm, and in a small firm, they can actually make the difference between success and failure.

The use of technology has changed the way we live and the way we practice. It will also change the people we hire, the tasks they will handle and the rules and procedures we will implement. Listed are some issues we must begin to consider to be prepared for this changing personnel landscape.

New Type of Employee

The day of hiring "secretaries" to do heavy typing (and word processing) is quickly changing because so many attorneys have computers and do much of their own simple word processing. In many cases, practitioners are much more mobile using computers on the road and at home, where they do not have the typical secretarial support. They are becoming more and more accustomed to handling many administrative tasks once delegated to secretarial staff.

New and younger associates and practitioners are much more comfortable with a keyboard than those of us who entered the work force before the proliferation of PCs. They do not view using a PC and a keyboard as "typing" and would not consider having a support person do a simple letter or memo.

In addition, the improved voice-recognition software and the low cost of the memory to run it will allow the keyboard-challenged to use this software to create documents that may or may not need to be edited by an administrative staff person.

Secretarial and administrative staff will need to be more capable of editing documents that others have created. They will need a more in-depth knowledge of your practice and your clients. The secretary who only types what is put in front of him/her without an understanding of what is being done is very quickly becoming obsolete.

What Are the Minimum Standards for Staff?

These new employees should be expected to come with advanced knowledge of a variety of software products. Administrative staff must know word processing and spreadsheet software. They should have some knowledge of using the Internet and e-mail software. They should also be familiar with some type of billing or bookkeeping package such as Quickbooks or Quicken. While you may not use these specifically, their working knowledge of them will allow them to more easily learn the billing or bookkeeping software you do use.

Any new associate should have the ability to use legal research software, the Internet and e-mail. He/She should have familiarity with some type of calendar, case management or personal information manager software, even if it is not legal specific. Ideally any new associate should have his/her own computer at home. It’s unthinkable in this day and age to hire someone for a professional position who does not have phone, and the same should also be true of a home computer. Home computers are becoming necessities for anyone in a professional position.

The more software products that an employee or potential employee has used the more valuable he/she will be to your practice.

In a small firm, it is completely unacceptable for any staff person to not have a comfort level with software. If you currently have staff that needs to improve their skills, then you need to make certain that they get the training they need. This can be done in a classroom or even online. If you have some long-time employees who refuse to make the change to technology, you will have to make some hard decisions.

Who You Gonna Call?

Our dependence upon technology has created a new type of service problem for the solo and small firm practitioner. Who is going to take care of all this hardware and software? Although our employees will have a greater knowledge of technology and how to use it more effectively, it is unrealistic to think a solo or small firm will be able to afford anyone with the high level of expertise to handle a lot of the network and compatibility issues related to this sophisticated equipment.

As a result, it is important to have a software and hardware vendor that you can trust and depend upon to be reliable. You will also have to have someone in your office who is able to communicate with this vendor(s) and has enough knowledge to know what seems reasonable and what may not. (For many reasons, this person should not be you. This is NOT a good way to spend your time. Your time is always best spent working on client matters.)

If you currently have someone in your office who is the go-to person for “tech” questions, you may want to consider some additional training either on software or hardware. This person should also keep track of the amount of time he/she spends with technology issues such as fixing printers, speaking with tech vendor, training other staff on software. It is important to know how much time is actually being spent on tech issues. This will help you determine your personnel needs in the future.

Sharing the Wealth

With technology, especially software, there are so many tips and tricks to help make the software easier to use. Most manuals do not give enough detail and most firms do not provide enough training.

Although many employees learn these tips and tricks, they never get the opportunity to share the information with the rest of the firm. There are a number of ways to give them that opportunity. Your firm should set aside one day a month to have a lunch in the office to ask questions of each other about problems and share tips for using software or other devices. This would be especially helpful when you start to use a new piece of software or an upgrade to an existing software product.

It is important to realize that no technology works on its own. It takes good employees. We must be certain that all of our employees are blazing ahead in these areas.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin : January, 2003 

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