Bar News - June 23, 2006
Law Practice Management: Supporting Staff Is Key To Building Dream Team
By: Nora Lockwood Tooher
Lawyers put a lot of time and effort into marketing, technology and other areas of their practice, but often give short shrift to the people who keep their firms running—their secretaries, assistants and paralegals.
The price of this oversight, according to experts, is a decline in office efficiency and client service, often coupled with increased costs due to frequent staff turnover.
“What you’re trying to do with your support staff is provide better client service and create a happier, more effective, efficient firm that people want to work at,” said Robert Denney, a law firm consultant in Lancaster, Pa.
The solution, according to James Wilber, a consultant with Altman Weil in Milwaukee, Wis., is to treat all your employees, including support staff, with respect.
“To me, the most important factor in hiring and retaining good employees is having an enlightened sense of how to manage people—treating people as human beings and adults, holding them accountable for their performance, but as much as possible giving them the training and ability to do their jobs,” he said.
Bob Henderson, head of RJH Consulting, in Jackson Hole, Wyo., who has advised more than 250 law firms, said one of the most common complaints he hears from staff members is that “the lawyers look down on them…and don’t look at them as people.”
“We try to get the lawyers involved with staff as individuals, recognizing they all have their own lives, their own challenges and problems,” he said.
Atlanta-based Alston & Bird, which has five offices and about 800 support staff, has made a firm-wide effort over the past several years to eliminate the caste system that pervades many law firms.
“We’ve tried to break down the barriers between the different classifications of employees and make the support staff feel they’re just as important to Alston & Bird as the lawyers,” said Cathy Benton, the firm’s chief of human resources.
Several years ago, the firm opened up its “lawyers-only” dining room in Atlanta to all employees. It also includes support staff in the firm’s social events and has extended benefits, such as 15 hours paid time off a year for community service to everyone, not just attorneys.
And monthly firm meetings—historically attended only by attorneys—are now open to everyone. Although many staff members choose not to attend the meetings, it’s important that everyone now has the option, Benton said.
“The main key is that they feel they play a vital role in the organization,” she said.
Lawyers Weekly USA asked several experts for suggestions on how to build a great support team. Here’s what they suggest:
• Decent pay.
Paying salaries comparable to similar sized firms in the area is critical to hiring and retaining qualified staff. “You need to know who your competitors are and what they’re doing in terms of benefits and compensation,” Wilber said.
• Equitable benefits.
Alston & Bird is implementing a new premium schedule in 2006 that charges lower-paid employees a smaller percentage of their salaries for health insurance. “We always charged employees and lawyers the same [amount] for health care coverage, but we found that was a real disadvantage” for staff, Benton said.
• Open communication.
Denney suggests monthly meetings with support staff to let everyone know what’s going on in the firm. In larger firms, he suggests, the managing partner attend occasionally to report firsthand on firm developments and plans.
• Training and professional development.
Henderson said it’s important to educate employees not only in their job functions and the firm’s operations, but also in the types of law the firm practices and the kinds of cases the firm handles.
He also advises involving staff in some of the firm’s internal functions. For example, when Henderson was managing partner at a law firm in Michigan, he divvied up some of the routine administrative functions of the firm to staffers, such as naming one assistant to take charge of the library. “To her it was an honor and gave her new status within the firm, and also an opportunity to learn new skills,” he said.
• Bells and whistles.
Alston & Bird offers a range of extras, including flexible hours, job-sharing, day care, paid leave for community service and a “catastrophic leave sharing” program, which gives employees the option of sharing paid leave with colleagues who have devastating family illnesses.
Flextime continues to be a popular benefit. Reid Trautz, director of the law practice assistance program at the District of Columbia Bar, said he’s also noticed a growing trend toward offering “personal leave” days instead of sick days. This allows employees to use their paid days off to attend a funeral or children’s school activities without fibbing about being sick.
• Little things.
Policies and practices that show your firm respects everyone in the firm can mean a lot to support staff. It can be something as simple as always introducing your staff to clients, Denney noted. Introducing an assistant by name helps the client feel more comfortable asking questions in the lawyer’s absence, and acknowledges the assistant’s role in he firm.
• Fun stuff.
Parties and perks can really boost morale. For example, Mark Robertson, who practices business law in Oklahoma City, Okla., hires a temp to answer the phones one afternoon each spring and takes the six attorneys and five staffers in his office to a ballgame in town. “We’ll load everyone up in a limousine or two, head down to the ballpark, eat hot dogs and drink beer,” he said. “[And sometimes,] when folks get a little on edge, when there’s a real good movie opening, we’ll all go see a movie together and eat popcorn. It’s a nice way of saying thank you. Oftentimes, we lawyers are not as good at that as we should be.”
Reprinted with permission from Lawyers Weekly USA. For more information go to: www.lawyersweeklyusa.com.