LOMA : Articles
Staffing a Small Law Office
By Patricia Yevics
Director, Law Office Management
Maryland State Bar Association, Inc.
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 people.
are many areas of your practice over which you have limited control, it is
very important that where you do have some control and influence you use
it effectively to better manage your practice.
the ABA publication, Compensation for Law Firms, "75% 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
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 secretary and if your secretary works only
part-time. 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.
surface this need for your employee(s) to be superior would seem to be
just one more of the difficulties in 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 practice.
employees represent you and your practice. They are a reflection of you.
They should always be an asset to your firm. They should be assisting you
with improving the performance and management of the entire practice.
Think about all of the people in your office and if this is not the case,
you have to ask "why not?" and "How can the situation be improved?"
STEP 1: WHERE TO
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.
1. Ask your
other employees. This can be a problem if the person does not work out
but it is an option.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. Review resumes from previous candidates. I once hired one
of my better assistants using old resumes.
5. 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 the other.
6. There are some solo practitioners who "share" staff. This
is not my suggestion but those who use it appear to think it works very
7. 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.
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 of time you will save. This could
be money well spent.
STEP 2: 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.
- When interviewing
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 a list
of "personal" qualities you expect from a new employee beyond just
skills. These can include punctuality, attention to detail, great phone
- If possible have
prospective candidates meet others in 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
- 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 is 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 reinforce to your staff what you
expect from each of them. Can you define what you mean by excellent
service and have you communicated that information with your staff?
Take some time to write down your definition of excellence and quality
service and then share that with your staff.
- 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 and then sharing that information with you or
others in the office.
STEP 4: 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, law office management in addition to
- Encourage your
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 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 it is their
responsibility to inform you know 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.
- Constructively correct
mistakes as they happen. Do not assume that if you ignore them, they
will go away.
- 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
Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association has some
Compensation for Law Firms, edited by James D. Cotterman, Altman Weil,
Easy Self Audits for the Busy Law Office, by Nancy Byerly Jones, 1999
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
You may borrow these or other publications for 15 days from
the LOMA department. There is a $5.00 shipping and handling charge for
each publication. You may also come into Bar Headquarters at 520 West
Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 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
If you have any questions, please contact Pat Yevics at
firstname.lastname@example.org or at 800-492-1964, ext 3039.