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Managing Non-Lawyers



Leadership starts at the top.

Executive Summary

It takes teamwork to run a law office. This starts with your support staff. They’re the ground troops who deal with clients daily and do the little things that keep the firm going. They’re also your last line of defense against malpractice. Develop a stellar staff through: (a) good training, (b) good support, and (c) good management.

A Team You Can Count On

You can sense a great law firm the minute you walk in the door. The receptionist greets you warmly. The legal assistant escorts you to the conference room. Everyone acts professionally. They’re smiling.

An office like this doesn’t happen accidentally. It is planned and nurtured. Its leaders understand the value of cooperation. They let their employees know they are important and valued – and they expect good performance in return.

All of this adds up to a law firm that’s safe, healthy and profitable.

It’s also easy to spot a dysfunctional firm. There’s high turnover. Employees look grim and dissatisfied. The attorneys in management positions are difficult to work with – perhaps even abusive.

All of this adds up to a malpractice minefield, where problems are just waiting to happen.

Alta Pro Practice Pointers

  1. Put it in writing. Have an Office Policy Manual. Let your employees know what is expected of them. The manual should contain policies and checklists for best practices.
  2. Offer praise and rewards. Your employees don’t have the same incentives as lawyers. They will never make partner. You can always reward them financially for quality work. But studies show that simply letting employees know they are valued and appreciated is more effective than a modest pay hike. Do this with a hand-written thank-you note, a kind word, or a shout-out at a staff meeting. Acknowledge employees when they go the extra mile for a client or put in long hours on a big case. Morale will soar – and you will reap the benefits of a loyal and committed staff.
  3. Hold employees accountable. Provide consistent oversight. Offer constructive feedback. Conduct file audits and performance reviews. Everyone should be on the same page, working toward a common goal.
  4. Create a client-centered culture. The focus is on putting clients first, not maximizing revenue. This starts with the first phone call and continues until the file is closed. Make sure your employees understand that your clients are the people who pay their salaries.
  5. Leverage staff for business development. Your paralegals, secretaries and office employees are a ready-made marketing team. Keep them happy. They won’t refer family and friends if they’re not treated with courtesy and respect.
  6. Pick the right lawyers for management roles. Lawyers who are controlling, abusive and poor communicators will not bring out the best in their employees. This increases the risk of shoddy work, mistakes and malpractice.
  7. Create a process for dealing with employee complaints. This is critical in the Me Too era. Your office must have a mechanism for receiving and investigating complaints of abuse, harassment and unfair treatment. Everyone should know who to go to and how to do it – with no fear of punishment or reprisal for coming forward. Aim for transparency, open communication and clear boundaries.
  8. Have back-up supervision. In many firms, individual employees report to a single lawyer for whom they work full time. But what if this lawyer is on vacation or absent for some other reason? Who provides supervision then? A designated back-up can ensure things go smoothly. A management committee or office manager can handle personnel concerns.
  9. Shore up your defenses. Your secretary or paralegal might be your last defense against missing a deadline or overlooking a new requirement for court filings. Keep them in the loop on changes in the law. See that they have a basic understanding of local rules and policies.

The Bottom Line: Hire good people for your staff, train them well, and acknowledge them as vital members of the team.

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