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Rethinking the roles of your support staff

The old school model for staffing in a small law firm was often one secretary or legal assistant per lawyer, perhaps with some additional help from a receptionist or billing clerk.

Under this model, the firm’s core delivery of legal services was done by two-person lawyer and secretary teams. A job description for those positions might be: “Personal assistant for Fred Lawyer – Does all of his typing, filing and scheduling, along with anything else he doesn’t like doing. A typical day will include being summoned to the lawyer’s office several times a day to be verbally given assignments with unreasonably short deadlines.”

However, the old model of the legal secretary as personal assistant is increasingly incompatible with business reality. That approach should be giving way to a functional analysis that allows for a degree of specialization, even among a small staff.

With some exceptions, today’s technology tools often make it more efficient for a lawyer to personally perform some tasks instead of relying on staff. Email is used for most routine correspondence, and many lawyers are using some combination of speech recognition tools and dictation transcription services.

Many of the things that a personal assistant formerly might have done are now more easily done by the lawyer directly on the computer, such as scheduling an appointment with a client while talking to him or her on the phone. After the call, the lawyer can also record the billing entry for the phone call electronically
That does not mean that the lawyer should always enter all of his or her own calendar entries. Setting up a series of depositions or scheduling a meeting for several lawyers can be time consuming and is often better handled by a staff person.

Take for example a small firm of three lawyers with three full-time secretaries and maybe one part-time administrative employee.

Typically, each secretary might spend about 15-20 percent of work time dealing with scheduling for his or her lawyer.

Instead, a better business model would be to have one assistant handle all scheduling-related tasks requiring staff support for all of the lawyers. Everyone would still have access to electronic calendars and could enter appointments, but one person would be the scheduler-in-chief.

For that person, managing the office calendar and scheduling meetings and depositions would be a primary job function. The staffer would keep a “work in progress” list of pending scheduling projects that would make it easier for someone to fill in during an absence. The assigned person would invest in learning about online scheduling tools and determine when using those tools made sense.

The firm scheduler might ask to be given time at office staff meetings for discussions or new announcements about improved scheduling procedures for everyone. The scheduler would view talking with people about their calendars as a primary job function rather than an annoying detail that distracted from more essential work. The scheduler could also keep an eye on the big picture of the firm’s time commitments.

Over time the firm would likely see a remarkable improvement in scheduling processes, with fewer problems and mistakes. Perhaps fewer total staff hours would be taken up with scheduling.

Staff members as experts

Training staff to become experts with more focused assignments better reflects the needs of the contemporary workplace.

To be more efficient and effective, modern, small law firms should review outdated and often-forgotten job descriptions to reflect employees’ contributions to the firm and then update them on a regular basis.

One key component of having one person handle all of a certain type of task is to require each staffer to document job tasks in writing and cross-train at least one other person to do it.

With this new model, job descriptions might have more entries like these:

Legal Assistant 1 (currently Sandy)

* Reviews all newly opened files in the areas of bankruptcy (BK) and civil litigation (CIV) to determine that all required information is included and the new file opening checklist is completed.
* Works with debtor clients to prepare for filing.
* Creates drafts of pleadings and responses in contested BK and CIV for attorneys to review.
* Makes certain that tasks are timely completed in accordance with scheduling orders in CIV cases.
* Responsible for maintaining status lists on pending BK and CIV cases and running the bi-weekly Litigation Status & Support meeting(s) with all involved attorneys.
* Backup (morning only) reception duties when receptionist is absent.
* Cross-trained on Scheduling Assistant duties.

Secretary 2: Billing/Business Coordinator (currently Bob)

* Reviews, corrects and manages billing entries and check requests from lawyers
* Prepares and distributes the Monday Morning Report to partners with revenues and expenses from the prior week and all billing entries received from lawyers for the previous week, year to date and month to date.
* Pays bills and orders supplies in consultation with the Managing Partner.
* Performs light typing and document preparation when others are backed up or absent.
* Backup (afternoon only) reception duties when receptionist is absent.
* Cross trained on Scheduling Assistant duties.

Reviewing these job descriptions or separate task assignment lists would likely become a regular part of management of the firm. This may be frustrating to the partner who “just wants to practice law.” Lawyers must recognize that a law firm itself is still a business. The regular review of assignments and work flow is a business-like approach to monitoring and improving your legal business.

Aligning the law firm staff according to this type of model also reinforces the message that staff work for the entire law firm, not just an individual lawyer. Many lawyers have dealt with the frustration of trying to work with a personal assistant who views personal job security as keeping a senior partner happy while others can fend for themselves.

Understanding the overall work that keeps the whole staff busy every day puts lawyers in a better position to understand when outsourcing typing or reception services might make sense and what kind of employees the firm is seeking when it next has an opening to fill.

For many firms, economic realities mean that lower staffing levels are a part of the future. Staff members who provide service to clients and generate revenue to the firm along with handling their back office duties show how valuable they are to the firm, all because their tired, old job descriptions weren’t left to gather dust in a filing cabinet.

– By Jim Calloway, Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. He publishes the weblog Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips.

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