Empowering staff with service and education

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Edward Poll
Dolan Media Newswires

Staff members are a critical part of any law firm. They serve as important firm resources—but this is only true if lawyers empower them by allowing them to provide service and receive education.

Service

Clients should be able to connect directly with the folks of a law office who have an impact on their matters or who can provide the answers to their questions. The client who walks away with an answer, even if it’s not from the mouth of the lawyer, is generally far more satisfied or less agitated than he or she would have been with merely having to leave a message for a later return phone call. The happy client with an answer is a satisfied client, one who will more likely sing the firm’s praises and provide new business referrals. This in no way means that the staff person is practicing law. It does mean that a properly trained and supervised staff is integral to the firm’s service mission.

Unfortunately, such integration is too often difficult for lawyers who tend to be more skeptical, impatient, and intense and less interactive and able to take criticism than people in general. Such a lack of inclusiveness, if it is not proactively addressed, can create a dysfunctional firm.

Education

Education and personal growth are essential for everyone in a law office. In the larger picture, building a team is inseparable from giving everyone in the office—including staff—the opportunity to learn skills that provide better service and enhanced performance to clients. Everyone in the office should take a certain number of hours of client service education programs each year. Education and training are not, and should not, be just a function of continuing legal education courses for lawyers.

Training on business realities is available at a local community college or in a nearby city. The worth of the program always has to be assessed, but if staff and administrators are expected to truly contribute, the value of training becomes all the more important. Moreover, giving staff the right training and support will give the lawyers enhanced confidence in the law office team.

For staff people to properly apply such training to their jobs, though, they need to have a very clear understanding of what they are supposed to do and what they are responsible for. That’s why having a comprehensive job description for every staff position in the office is essential. The absence of such descriptions promotes inconsistency and threatens objectivity in job evaluations. Descriptions should include the specific, significant tasks of each position and the performance standards by which the accomplishment of those tasks is judged. When staff people understand what they should be doing and how they are evaluated, their performance is more likely to be positive and their accomplishments greater because all team members know and are committed to their roles.

Clear job descriptions can also prevent one of the most consistent lawyer failings when dealing with staff: wanting the “perfect” employee. What job descriptions support is the role of the “desired” employee—one who is competent, highly skilled, congenial, and committed. Just as lawyers represent specialties in their area of expertise, so, too, does the desired staff employee. Defining what the firm’s needs are for each staff position and making clear what it takes to meet them is essential to helping staff people achieve what is expected of them.

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Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, is a law practice management thought leader and contributor to this publication. His website is at www.lawbiz.com

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