Hiring and Management"
By Pat Yevics
We all know too well the
difficulties of managing a practice with the issues of rapidly changing
technology, slowly flowing cash, finding new clients, satisfying current
clients, increasing costs, burdensome workloads, etc. As solo and small
practitioners, there is the added burden of being all things to all
Since there are many areas
of your practice over which you have limited control, it is very important
that you effectively use what control and influence you do have to better
manage your practice.
According to the ABA
publication Compensation for Law Firms, “75 percent of every fee
dollar goes toward compensation in a law firm, be it partner compensation,
associate or support staff salary and benefits.” If this is true, then
make certain that the people who work with and for you are the very best
because they can make all difference in the ultimate success of your
practice. Although we know the importance of our partners, associates and
staff, we often neglect this very vital component in our efficiency and
Managing the people in your
office is probably one of the most important tasks you will undertake in
the course of running your practice. This is true even if there is only
you and a part-time secretary. Having and keeping the best staff possible
is even more critical to the success of a solo or small firm practitioner.
A mid-size or large firm can afford to have a few secretaries or support
staff who are less than outstanding. A solo/small firm practitioner who
has only one, two or three employees does not have this luxury. All of the
employees have to be outstanding.
On the surface, this need
for your employee(s) to be superior would seem to be just one more of the
difficulties of being a solo/small firm practitioner. While attracting,
training and keeping good employees is difficult, it is effort well spent
because these employees will become instrumental in the success of your
Your employees represent
you and your practice. They are a reflection of you. They should always be
an asset to your firm, assisting you with improving the performance and
management of the entire practice. Think about all of the people in your
office – if this is not the case, you have to ask “Why not?” and “How can
the situation be improved?”
Step I: Where to Find Staff
I get more and more calls
from solo and small firm practitioners who are looking for places to find
good staff, both legal and administrative. There is not one place that
fits all practitioners. Where you find staff depends upon your needs. Here
are some suggestions that may or may not work for your situation.
Ask your other employees.
(This can be a problem if the person does not work out, but it is an
Ask friends and family.
(Again there can be problems if the person is not hired or is not a good
worker. It is critical to remind people that it is not personal.)
Ask other practitioners
especially in larger firms. There may be reasons an employee was not
hired by another firm that would not mean the person would not be a good
employee for you.
Review resumes from
previous candidates. I once hired one of my better assistants using old
Consider using part-time
employees or even persons who are retired from other careers. Part-time
workers require you to manage your time effectively, but they also can
be much more efficient. You may even consider two people sharing a
position. Again, this requires a little more management, but you may get
two outstanding employees who can cover for each other.
There are some solo
practitioners who “share” staff. This is not my suggestion, but those
who use it appear to think it works very well.
Contact law schools or
even community colleges for administrative staff. You may even consider
using a person to handle very specific tasks such as billing or
bookkeeping from a remote location.
Consider using a
“consultant” to do the search and initial interviewing. This person
could do the first interview and then recommend two or three for second
interview by you. Although this would be expensive, you need to weigh it
against the amount of billable time you will save. This could be money
Step II: Interviewing
Before you begin to look
for a new staff person, spend some time deciding exactly what you expect
of the person and what the person’s responsibilities will be, both
immediately and in the future.
candidates for a position be brutally honest regarding the tasks that
need to be done and the personalities of the people involved.
You may also want to tell
a candidate what future roles/tasks you may want the person to assume.
This is extremely important if you plan to have your firm grow.
You should also compile a
list of “personal” qualities (beyond work skills alone) that you expect
from a new employee. These can include punctuality, attention to detail,
great phone presence, etc.
If possible, have
prospective candidates meet others in the firm. This is extremely
important in small firms because personalities are crucial.
When a new employee
starts, have a checklist of items to be discussed the first few days and
what tasks you want the person to handle at first.
If you are unable to
offer top dollar, consider flexibility (working at home, flex hours or
Step III: Motivation
Make certain that all
staff, both legal and administrative, are treated like integral members
of the firm and the firm’s success. All employees want to feel as though
they are making a contribution and that the contribution is being
Make certain staff
members are introduced to clients.
It takes very little
effort to say “good morning” or “please” and “thank you”. Ask yourself
if you would want to work for you.
Encourage questions from
your employees about the client work and the work of the firm. It is
important for everyone in your firm to understand as much as possible
about the business and the clients.
Share your enthusiasm for
your practice and your clients with your staff. Share with the staff the
excitement of getting a new client or winning a big case. Excitement and
enthusiasm are contagious. If you are not excited about your practice,
you cannot expect your staff to be excited.
Do not assume that your
employees know what excellence or quality client service is. It is your
responsibility to constantly define and reinforce for your staff what
you expect from each of them. Take some time to write down your
definition of excellence and quality service and then share that with
According to Jay Foonberg,
the guru of running a solo or small law practice, “failure to provide
adequate training is the single worst mistake that lawyers make with
employees.” In this era of constantly changing technology, it is
critical that employees be adequately trained. You might even consider a
quarterly “staff” meeting where staff is trained on a new product or
just a refresher on a current issue, such as client confidentiality or
phone etiquette. Consider sending someone on your staff to a CLE program
then have them share that information with you or others in the office.
Step IV: Supervision
All employees must have
written job descriptions. They should be evaluated using these
Meet with staff regularly
to review the progress of work in the office. This is especially
important for practitioners who may spend a lot of time out of the
office or consumed with one or two extended cases.
Support staff should
always be kept informed about the whereabouts and schedules of persons
for whom they work or those in the office.
Staff should be taught
how to deal with unpleasant or aggressive clients and staff should be
supported when dealing with difficult clients.
All staff should be
taught about confidentiality in the law firm. They should know the Rules
of Professional Conduct and where the Rules can be found.
You should provide
training to staff on a variety of topics, such as ethics for the law
firm, handling trust accounts and law office management, in addition to
secretary/staff to give suggestions on improvement of tasks performed in
the firm. However, never allow an employee to voice a complaint about a
subject without also offering a solution on how he or she would solve
As often as possible,
give your secretary/staff adequate time to complete assignments. This is
not always possible because of client demands but explain why it may be
necessary to have staff do tasks at the last minute. Doing everything at
the last minute should not be the rule. If that is happening then
you need to learn to manage your time more effectively.
When you assign a task to
an employee and you are comfortable that he/she understands your
request, allow them to proceed unsupervised.
Always try to give
employees a completion time or due date for a task, especially for
long-term assignments. It is important to let the employees know that it
is their responsibility to inform you in advance if they will have
difficulty in meeting the completion date.
Never angrily criticize
or correct an employee in public.
When correcting an
employee’s performance, your goal should be in making certain the
employee understands the error and will not make it again.
The most effective way to
ensure that an employee will not continue to make the same mistakes is
ask to him/her to tell you what he/she plans to do to improve
performance. Make them responsible for their progress.
mistakes as they happen. Do not assume that if you ignore them they will
All employees should be
evaluated formally in writing, using their job description, at least
once a year. The prevailing wisdom is that employees should never be
surprised by what they hear in their annual review.
If someone is not working
out after being given an opportunity to improve, fire him/her.
If someone leaves
voluntarily, take a few minutes to ask them why and take their answers
seriously. If the reason for leaving is because of what is happening –
or not happening – within the firm, use the information to make changes
where appropriate and necessary.
LOMA has a variety of
Information Packets on Personnel and Supervision, including job
descriptions, hiring techniques, exit interview forms. For information, go
The Law Practice Management
Section of the American Bar Association has some excellent publications.
Compensation for Law
Firms. Edited by James D. Cotterman, Altman Weil, Inc., 2001.
Easy Self Audits for the Busy Law Office. Nancy Byerly Jones,
Keeping Good Lawyers: Best Practices to Create Career Satisfaction.
M. Diane Vogt and Lori-Ann Rickard, 2000.
Handling Personnel Issues in the Law Office. Francis T. Coleman
and Douglas E. Rosenthal, 1997.
Law Office Procedures Manual for Solos and Small Firms.
Demetrios Dimitriou, 1998.
You may borrow these or
other publications for 15 days from the LOMA department. There is a $5
shipping and handling charge for each publication. You may also come into
Bar Headquarters at 520 West Fayette Street, Baltimore, Maryland to review
the publications. A list of all publications available for borrowing is on
the website at
You may also purchase the ABA publications
from the MSBA at a discount if you wish to add them to your library. For
more information, go to
If you have any questions,
please contact Pat Yevics at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (800) 492-1964, ext. 3039.