Hiring and Working with Support Staff: A Guide for Solo and Small Firm Lawyers

  • May 07, 2014
  • Janice Mucalov

Good, qualified support staff are critical to the success of every law practice. An efficient legal secretary can greatly improve your bottom line as well as helping to make your office a pleasant, stress-free place to work. Poor staff can cost you time and money, and negatively impact client relations and the work environment.

Large firms have their own human resources departments or can hire outside search agencies to assist them. But it’s different if you practice in a one-lawyer shop or small law firm. When should you hire a new assistant? Where do you find someone in today’s tight marketplace? Do you have to pay top dollar? How can you train your staff to be effective firm marketers and improve client service?

The Importance of Delegation

Sole practitioners, in particular, may feel that they can operate their practice without any support staff whatever. “Technology has conspired with traditional attitudes to make many sole practitioners believe they truly can go it alone,” says Edward Poll, the California-based president of LawBiz Management.

Most lawyers are passable typists, and word processing, billing software, voicemail and e-mail may make it easy to think you don’t need human assistance. Indeed, a sole practitioner without any staff could probably produce about 1,200 billable hours a year, working 50 hours a week and taking two weeks’ vacation, estimates Art Italo, a legal consultant with Italo Consulting in Georgia.

But it’s a mistake to try and do everything yourself. According to Poll, lawyers should do only two things – practice law and market to attract new legal work. Everything else should be delegated to somebody else, and in fact, can be done better by someone else.

Sure, there’s a cost to hiring a secretary or assistant. But if you leverage the skills of this person at $25 or $30 hour so you can bill out at $200 to $300 hour, your increase in profit will be substantial.

The successful sole practice truly requires a team, says Poll, even if that’s just you and an assistant to whom you can delegate work that doesn’t require your skill and personal attention.

When Should You Hire?

So how much business should you have before you hire a new staff person? “Hire when you’re at the point that you can produce enough billable work to justify hiring that person, or when they can take work off your desk so you can do more billable work,” says Poll. Can you churn out enough billable work to match the new staff person’s $30,000 or $40,000 salary? Your break-even point is when the additional revenue generated or reduced strain on you equals the increased cost of hiring someone. “Anything above that is gravy.”

Start looking as soon as you foresee a need. If you come across a qualified person before then, hire them, as the work will come.

If you don’t have enough work to justify hiring a full-time staff person, at least use a part-time employee, or sub-contract out the work as needed.

Small law firms may wonder when they should hire an office manager to handle the accounting, payroll, billing, purchasing of office supplies and personnel matters. Italo notes that “these are time consuming tasks that multiply with the number of partners and are often assigned to a managing partner (whose billable hours promptly go right in the toilet).” If the managing partner or other lawyers in your office are wasting valuable hours on non-billable administrative tasks, then it’s time to shift this burden onto a salaried employee.

Hire the Best Candidate

Hire the best candidate you can afford, recommends Lonny Balbi of Balbi & Company Legal Centre in Calgary, who has a special interest in law office management.

“There’s also a much better payback to getting someone experienced at the start, rather than trying to train a junior person,” he adds. A person with training and experience in a law firm environment should help your firm produce more revenue than taking the time to train a junior person (remember, large firms say it takes about three years for young lawyers to cover their costs).

If you practice in a high-production office, you can’t afford a person who makes mistakes, notes Poll. The higher the volume or greater complexity of the work, the more experienced a person you need.

It’s also important that the person you hire is congenial and will fit in with the culture of your firm.

How to Find and Hire Quality Support Staff

Where to Look

As any lawyer who’s searched for new staff knows, there’s a shortage of good qualified legal secretaries. How, then, do you find someone? Old-fashioned newspaper ads are probably your best search tool, says Balbi. Employee search firms are expensive (the fee is usually three months of the employee’s salary), and with so few good applicants around, they’re likely to refer all those that respond to their inquiries. Also seek referrals from colleagues and your local bar association. Balbi also suggests looking at the colleges and schools where paralegals and legal secretaries are trained.

Write a Proper Job Description

When writing the staff person’s job description, be specific in terms of what you want and clearly define the tasks and duties of the position. Ask yourself what’s important to you and to the job. For Balbi’s family law practice, for example, the ideal staff person is someone who is pleasant, pays close attention to detail, has competent phone skills, and is helpful with clients in a high-stress situation.

Avoid using general phrases like “Litigation law office seeks paralegal.” A better job ad is “Small, fast-paced law office seeks experienced paralegal to interview clients and witnesses, draft pleadings, and prepare trial books. Must work well under pressure.”

Prepare for the Interview

Educate yourself on basic interviewing skills and the key concerns of potential candidates (such as family leave time), advises Poll. In the interview, ask open-ended questions such as “What would you do if client x called in this situation?” so you elicit the person’s thinking process as well as information on their abilities. If you work with other lawyers in the office, have one of them interview the candidate too – the person may end up working for more than just you, or may transfer in future to one of the other lawyers. Also ask another secretary or assistant in the office to meet with the candidate so you can obtain feedback based on that perspective too.

Evaluate the Candidate’s Qualifications

Italo suggests the following when evaluating candidates’ qualifications:

  • Continuity of previous employment: How long did the candidate work for their previous employer? If the person has a checkered employment history, their skills may be poor or they may have a problem working with others. As a general rule, Italo suggests that you “should not hire a candidate whose history shows an average of less than three years per employer.”

  • Reputation of previous employers: An employee who has previously worked for many years with a reputable firm is likely to be a fine candidate.

  • Previous salary level: “If a candidate is currently getting paid well above market, there’s usually a reason for it,” says Italo. “You should seek support people whose salaries are currently 30% above market.”

Check References

Always check the candidate’s references. Reference letters tend to be glowing or neutral, so you need to dig further. Make sure to speak with the lawyer who worked with the person, not a co-worker. Some questions you might want to ask:

  • “Why did the person leave the firm?”
  • “What are the candidate’s best attributes?”
  • “What about the candidate concerned you?”
  • “Did the candidate get along well with others in the office?”
  • “Does the person handle work pressure well?”
  • “If given the opportunity, would you hire this person again?”

Administer a Skills Test

Always administer a skills and performance test to assess the candidate’s competencies. Before hiring support staff, Balbi, for example, tests for their proficiency in keyboarding, filing, and spelling, grammar and comprehension, using standardized employment tests purchased by his office.

Making a Decision

Understand that hiring the ideal staff person is a frustrating, time-consuming process. When Balbi’s firm advertised for a receptionist, they received 200 responses. But for a legal secretary – with the current shortage – you might be lucky to get two or three responses. Whatever the position you’re searching for, make sure you speak with a sufficient number of applicants to ultimately feel confident about the person you decide on.

Techniques for Working Effectively with Staff

It’s trite advice for bringing out the best in your staff – but worth repeating. Be respectful and polite, and treat staff in the same way as you would want to be treated. Beyond that, here are a few additional key pointers:

Make the Job Interesting

Employees want to be challenged, to learn new tasks, and to use a range of different skills. Give your staff more responsibility than simply cranking out documents. Ask if they would like to meet with the client and obtain additional information (this assumes the client has previously met you). Encourage them to help draft certain documents. Of course, as the lawyer, you still have to supervise their work.

Don't Micro-Manage

The aim is to allow your assistant to handle assignments with minimal instructions, notes Paul McLaughlin, former practice management advisor with The Law Society of Alberta, who now operates a wills and estates boutique law firm in Sherwood Park, Alberta. “Instead of dictating a letter to follow up on a court order sent to another lawyer for approval, create a standard letter and dictate, ‘Please follow up on the Smith order.’ Better still, have your assistant automatically follow up within a pre-set time.”

Communicate Instructions Clearly

Learn to communicate clear instructions. McLaughlin provides this example: When you say, “Please see if John Smith can come in for a meeting,” do you mean, “Find out when the client is available; I will decide on the time for the meeting”? Or do you mean, “Arrange the meeting, send a confirming letter and put the time and date in my calendar”?

Give Approval

Positive reinforcement goes a long way to bringing out the best in staff. “Many lawyers seem to believe that it’s a sign of weakness to compliment an assistant for a good performance,” says McLaughlin. But approval is a more powerful motivator than disapproval. If a client makes a compliment about a staff person, make sure you pass that external validation along to the staff member. Time off or a simple gift, such as box of chocolates, are always appreciated too.

Tips for Involving Support Staff in Client Service

Support staff have an enormous impact on client service. Client satisfaction assessments reveal that support staff in a law firm can make or break the client relationship.

Terry Gavulic, Director of Marketing for Hildebrandt International, a well-known professional services consulting firm, interviews many law firm clients. “They appreciate the secretary who recognizes their voice when they call, who has a ‘can do’ service mentality, and who, if the lawyer isn’t available, will give them an accurate idea when the lawyer will call back or will pass on the call to another lawyer.” Likewise, her assessments uncover clients’ dissatisfaction with “sloppy correspondence,” “employees who go by the book without considering the client’s special needs or circumstances,” and staff who don’t “go the extra mile.”

“Individually, any of these examples may not cause a client to change firms, but collectively, the overall impression of the service they receive could send them packing,” cautions Gavulic.

Train Staff in Client Service

Staff training is critical to providing quality client service. Poll suggests that you might want to consider hiring an outside consultant to conduct a seminar on client service for the lawyers and staff in your office. Support staff should also understand the rules of client confidentiality, and perhaps even take an ethics course. Local universities and colleges offer courses through their business programs on client service. These typically involve role-playing, and are not expensive.

Develop Client Service Standards

To help staff understand the quality of service the firm is striving to offer, develop written client service standards. “These standards could include things such as acceptable procedures for returning phone calls, protocols for replying to requests, frequency of communications with clients, billing procedures, etc.,” says Gavulic.

Establish Client Service Teams

“Many law firms are now adopting the model of ‘Client Service Teams’ to better work with clients,” says Gavulic. The lawyer, paralegal, secretary and anyone else who has contact with the client becomes a team.

Sit down with your staff on a regular basis and go through all your files with them, recommends Poll. As a team, determine the strategy for dealing with each file. For an estate file, for example, you might ask if your assistant could contact the client for detailed information on the family and assets. Then you may suggest that you’ll prepare the estate plan, your assistant will use the software to produce the documents and call the client to make an appointment, and at a subsequent meeting, you’ll both witness the signatures.

Make sure to ask staff for their input on client matters. They may offer valuable insight and suggestions.

Also invite your secretary or assistant to attend relevant client meetings (but make certain the client knows that they aren’t paying extra for this).

Employees have to view their job as having a real important role to play. Staff who feel that they’re part of a team will work harder, be more effective, and can deal appropriately with client files when you’re unavailable or out of the office. But they can only do this if you work in partnership with them and they know what’s happening on each file.

Empower Staff

“Empower employees to take responsibility for client service,” says Gavulic. “Don’t make someone ask permission first before going the extra mile.” She points to the Ritz Carlton hotel chain – known for its exceptional service – as a model in this area. When a guest brings a problem to a Ritz Carlton employee or needs something special, that employee “owns” the problem; the employee is advised to break away from their regular duties and address and resolve the issue. Your staff should be encouraged to act in a similiar manner.

Janice Mucalov is a freelance writer in Vancouver.