You're Not Just a Lawyer, You're an Employer
by LaVonne Lawson
(County Bar Update, April 2005, Vol. 25, No. 4)


You're Not Just a Lawyer, You're an Employer


By LaVonne Lawson, member, Law Practice Management Section Executive Committee. Lawson specializes in handling tax and related business matters. She can be reached at The opinions expressed are her own.


Practicing law is only a part of a successful law office. Sole and small firm practitioners must be skilled in the management and administrative sides of the business -- yes, business -- as well. When we think about the management side, oftentimes we focus on practice development. Yet, there is much more to law practice management: proper systems, appropriate technology, and good people, for instance. An office's most important resources are its people. You need them because no one can do everything all of the time, which leads to these questions:


-- How do you find good legal assistance (lawyers or staff)?


-- What kind of assistance do you need (part-time, full-time)?


-- How do you keep the good and weed out the bad?


Employees are expensive. Insurance and administrative costs alone can be overwhelming. Further, taking on the wrong person can be an enduring mistake. Yet, when it works, it works; the right person can be an invaluable help.


Contracting Can be a Solution


You may not need someone all of the time. If that is the case, you have options. Employment has changed radically over the past years, and this change has not bypassed the legal profession. If you need assistance some of the time rather than all of the time, finding contractors can be an answer. And the administrative hassles? Maybe you can outsource some of these, but using contractors does not obviate the need to exercise the proper diligence.


Be aware of conflicts. A conflicts check should be done before an engagement.


Disclosure. With the appropriate disclosure, your clients should not have any problem with your use of contractors, nor should your insurance carrier.


Employment law. Even with persons paid by the hour, be aware of wage and hour law requirements.


Fit. In addition to skill sets and experience, be aware of other factors that impact the productivity and the working relationship. In other words, is this person a fit?


Employees Need Feedback


Getting the best out of anybody requires at least a little bit of effort. Providing early and consistent feedback and evaluation may seem a burdensome use of time initially, but the pay-off can be tremendous. Lack of productivity and turnover are very expensive and often unnecessary.


Consider feedback and evaluation as investments in your practice. An early word or two can save later expense, and consistent communication is one of the best ways to leverage law office performance. This does not necessarily require a great deal of time. Rather, make room for opportunities to "check in" and to answer questions. In this way, you may stave off bad habits and bad feelings later on.


Focus on more than the past. True, an evaluation is an opportunity to note what has worked in the past and what has not worked. But it is also very much an opportunity to impact the present and shape the future. Thus, feedback should focus on what can be done both individually and collectively to improve performance, and to raise or maintain satisfaction.


Avoiding Pitfalls


What can you do to maintain an environment that will ward off complaints or even liability? Any employer should keep abreast of the current state of employment law. Remain sensitive to the office environment and to warning signs that staff is unhappy for the wrong reasons.


As William Shakespeare wrote in "As You Like It," "I do desire we may be better strangers." Let's face it: When it's over, it's over. Keep tabs on the relationship in case it has ceased to be beneficial. There is no reason to waste everyone's time if you determine that someone is not a fit. Yet, there are opportune and not so opportune ways to move everyone forward.


Ultimately, finding and keeping good assistance is not so hard. It takes some due diligence, some investment, and some awareness. Sometimes it requires an advisor. But the payoff can make it all worthwhile.

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