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2.5 Managing Lawyers

Lawyers are independent by nature and training. They thrive on the freedom of private practice. But managing them can be a challenge. Lawyers in firm leadership positions have an ethical duty to supervise their associates. If misconduct occurs, they can face bar discipline. If a mistake is made, the entire firm – not just the errant lawyer – may be on the hook for malpractice. The solution: implement systems to ensure top-quality client representation – then follow the procedures rigorously.

Take a Team Approach

Running a law office is not like running any other business. For one thing, lawyers tend to be mavericks. They relish their independence.

For another, great lawyers are not always great managers. Different skillsets are required. As a result, firms that are successful in some respects may be poorly managed. Their systems are lacking. Their chain of command is fuzzy. Accountability lags. The firm is doing okay but could do much better. More importantly, its internal weaknesses open the door to malpractice and misconduct.

At other firms, the top partners practice on their own private islands. They consider themselves untouchable and unquestionable. They have little interest in overseeing day-to-day operations.

And even at firms with solid management policies, the rules are not always consistently or uniformly followed.

Alta Pro Practice Pointers

  1. Have an Office Policy Manual. This should be in writing and given to every new hire when they come on board. Tailor it to the specific needs and circumstances of your practice. The manual can cover everything from sick leave to shredding documents.
  2. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. No need to start from scratch. There are plenty of go-bys, guidelines and resources already out there. A good start is the American Bar Association’s Law Practice Division, which offers CLEs, webinars and publications on how to run a top-flight firm.
  3. Make sure all legal professionals follow the procedures. Everybody is on board – from the most senior partner to the greenest associate. Your malpractice risk increases when: (1) some partners are held to different (usually looser) standards, or (2) nobody is providing oversight.
  4. Create a culture of excellence. This starts at the top. Whether your firm’s leadership structure is horizontal or vertical, it is important for experienced lawyers to set the tone. Be good role models. Remember: actions speak louder than words.
  5. Assign, delegate, outsource. Do you love practicing law but dislike being a manager? You’re not alone. Management duties aren’t billable and are often under-compensated. Find other solutions. Designate someone in-house to handle personnel matters. Use case management software to simplify and streamline workflow. Outsource accounting and bookkeeping chores. Do what you do best, and let go of the rest.
  6. Develop training and mentoring programs. Associates and young partners have to be integrated into the team. They need mentoring on how to treat clients and avoid trouble. Do this in-house or bring in an outside specialist. Track performance and provide help when needed.
  7. Embrace IT. You might chuckle at stories of partners who still use a flip-phone, churn out faxes and print their emails. But it’s no laughing matter when outdated or bungled IT causes a malpractice claim. Everyone in the office – not just supervisors – need a minimum level of IT competence. Besides, the ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1 requires a baseline competency as to the “benefits and risks of relevant technology.”
  8. Use standard forms for client intake and file closing. Don’t be haphazard when taking in new business. Use initial interview forms to capture information necessary to evaluate the case and check for conflicts of interest. Reduce misunderstandings through clear and detailed engagement letters. Include appropriate disclosures and disclaimers. Explain your fees and billing process. Set clear expectations up front. On the back end, have an established procedure for closing files. Let clients know where their files are kept. Develop a file storage, retention and destruction policy that complies with your state or local ethics rules.
  9. Keep tabs on all open cases. When files grow stale, critical dates slip by and important tasks fall through the cracks. Avoid this by scheduling weekly progress meetings. Have a tickler system for tracking files. Put someone in charge of monitoring it.
  10. Audit files to ensure compliance with best practices. The only way to know if your policies are being followed is by (a) making sure everyone understands what to do, and (b) reviewing open and closed cases to see if they’re doing it.

The Bottom Line: Managing the lawyers in your firm doesn’t have to be like herding cats. But it requires set policies, consistent oversight and proper delegation.

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