Templates? Yes Please!

Categories: Law Firm Management - Tags: ,

By Sibila D. Hujic

If you are in the habit of creating documents and letters from scratch. STOP. A friend of mine told me that he tries to use letter and document templates as little as possible. After I got over my initial shock, I inquired further. He felt that if all letters weren’t completely tailored to the individual client that the client would feel unimportant. He was trying to avoid a mill like firm. I could not disagree more. While you will have clients who may feel that way at one point or another, most of your clients will not think anything of it. Clients are people with jobs, families, responsibilities and problems , it’s save to say that the last thing on their mind is whether the letter you sent them was a template and that you didn’t put enough work into it. If it gets the desired point across, it did its job.

Document and letter templates are wonderful. Lets look at some of the many ways they help. The biggest benefit is the amount of time you will save. How much time does it take you or your paralegal to create a welcome letter for a new client? Its unnecessary. Start creating templates and save time!

The quality of work will improve, you will know regardless of who is sending out the letter or document that there are no misspellings, typos or inconsistencies. Once a document is created there is no need to keep reinventing the wheel.

Personalize letters and documents as much as you would like but create templates as much as possible so that in the future when you encounter a similar situation you will have something ready. Give it a try!

Management Strategy

Categories: Law Firm Management - Tags: , , ,

By Sibila D. Hujic

While I do not believe in a one size fits all approach when it comes to office management, I do believe there are components that all law firms should think about adding to their current office management system.

1. We live a world that is constantly changing, everything from new and improved products to advances in technology and everything in between. Change is a good thing, don’t be afraid of it. By changing as the world around you changes you will remain a head of the game. Encourage your partners and employees to be open to reinventing themselves and everything they do. There is room for improvement in everything and you should keep an eye out and an open mind to possible improvements at all times.

2. All law firms should have a strong leader that does not micro-manage. While micro-management may make you feel as if you control every detail and aspect of your practice in order to make sure that everything is done to perfection, you may lose sight of the bigger picture. Most owners, partners and managing attorneys should limit their duties to all-important tasks that only they are able to complete and perform. Your firm should have as many systems and procedures as possible that limit the need for constant questions and interruptions from your staff. Focusing on your leadership role will ensure that you are constantly moving forward instead of being inundated with the day-to-day office operations.

3. When hiring or promoting an individual to a management position make sure that they are the kind of person that can energize, excite and control staff effectively. Having an office manager that shares your vision and can successfully share that vision with staff is a valuable addition to your office. Someone that will motivate staff on a consistent basis to ensure that they are improving within their roles as each they passes. These skills can be learned and most importantly the development of such skills should be encouraged on you. It is a good idea to have your office managers develop ‘games’ for employees. Games that will have your staff working harder, faster and more efficiently while enjoying their jobs.

4. It is not uncommon for owners, partners and managers to ignore the facts of their office and environment. You may have an employee that while you may be fond of is not doing a very good job, or an associate who has made major mistakes in the past few months that have cost you time and money. Cost them loose. If you have a support service that you use that is not meeting your expectations, look to replace them. I often hear, “I’ve been using this company for more than ten or fifteen years.” That is not an acceptable reason to keep using services that are not meeting your standards. This goes for employees as well, the amount of years an employee has been with you should be taken into account, absolutely, but the latest quality of their work and behavior should be what you base your decision on.

5. Make goals for your firm, push forward and stay focused. Focus, consistency and follow-up will ensure the success of your business. Be open to change when necessary and change as the world around you changes. Open yourself to new ideas, even the ideas that you thought impossible in the past. Focus on making sure your customer service is as good as it can be, obtain feedback from your clients and use it to your advantage. Keep your systems and procedures simple and effective.

Four Ways To “Do”.

Categories: Law Firm Management - Tags: , ,

By Sibila D. Hujic

There are limited number of ways that a task can be “done”. When you really think about it, you can either complete a task, delete a task, delegate a task or defer a task. This may seem obvious but most people do not give it much thought, often resulting in inefficient time use.

The majority of attorneys that I work with very rarely think about tasks from a strategic point of view. This is totally expected. When there is a task that can be completed quickly or painlessly most people will just opt to complete the task themselves. While that is fine in certain situation one situation that it is not acceptable is law firms. The owner or partners, being high up on the chain of command should limit their task to the tasks that are important and only they can complete successfully. For maximum efficiency and smooth operations, this is vital. Even though many will argue that they feel they are helping their team by completing a quick task here and there, the best way to help your law firm is to focus on the tasks that no one can complete other than you. If you run out of tasks (highly unlikely in a law firm of any size) focus on rainmaking. Anything that someone else is able to do, don’t think twice, delegate it. If you are a solo attorney, consider outsourcing.

“First things first, second things never.” Maybe not never but law firms should focus and encourage their staff to complete the most important tasks first. If you examine your to do list, I am sure that you will find a few items that you can eliminate, even if it is for the time being. Do not be scared to delete tasks, if it is something that must be done it will appear back on your list one way or another.

I can not stress delegation enough, if you have support staff in your office, make sure that you are delegating as much work and tasks possible. Your staff does not need to be able to do it exactly as you would or as well, but if you can trust them to be able to complete a task 80% as well as you could, the task should be delegated without question. This also applies to associate attorneys, in my experience associate attorneys tend to take on paralegal and secretarial tasks, wasting valuable billing time. To some people the ability to delegate does not come naturally, it can be taught as well as learned. Delegation of tasks will allow you to focus on the bigger picture and before starting a task or project ask yourself, “Is there anyone else that can complete this task instead of me or am I the only one that is qualified?” Once you have your answer, proceed accordingly.

Last but not least, you can always defer certain tasks. If it is not a priority there is no need to be overwhelmed by tasks that can be completed at a later time with no consequence. I usually suggest that attorneys as well as support staff start a list of tasks that are not a priority but do need to be completed at some point. It can be a general list or you can set time categories. Review this list weekly and aim to complete at least 1-2 tasks a week until your list is completed.

Give it a shot, you will not be disappointed, if it does not work for your office you can always go back to your old procedures.

Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

Categories: Law Firm Management, Law Firm Organization - Tags: , , ,

By Sibila D. Hujic

“If you want something done right, do it yourself.” If you also feel that way sometimes, you are not alone. While it is a completely normal reaction at times, if you make this frame of mind a rule rather than an exception, it can hurt you in the end. Every attorney needs to determine what he or she should be doing as a lawyer. All the work that can be moved down to the lowest level should be done with no exceptions. Pitching in and picking up the slack yourself may seem to be helping your staff get ahead but you will see, it is actually holding you back. Having systems and procedures in place that your staff can follow, is one of the most important things in any sized firm, especially as if you plan on having your firm consistently grow.

When your support staff knows what, how, and when they should be performing tasks, the routine of their work will become imbedded in their brain. No guessing as far as who does what. Keep it consistent at all times. When you delegate, keep a line of open communication when it comes to questions and answers, follow-ups, evaluations and feedback. A client calls you for the fax number, you think that by transferring to your secretary you will be wasting time. On the contrary, by transferring the call you are teaching your clients that they are other people in your office that they should be calling for help. Something all clients should know and embrace. I have seen attorneys making copies and taking care of the document assembly processes that paralegals should be doing. I’ve asked a few associate attorneys why they don’t delegate more to their paralegals. A few said that they felt bad because the paralegal has a lot of other work to do. Others explained that they were not sure what they should be delegating. Take time and go over the delegating process with your staff and explain its importance. Establish duties amongst your staff and enforce the no exception rule. While I understand that some attorneys would like to be nice and take some work off their paralegal’s list, that is not their job. It is a waste of the attorney’s time and a waste of your firm’s money. Eliminating this behavior will save you both time and money.

While anyone can make copies, only an attorney can give legal advise. Making sure that your staff is working to maximum capacity is only part of the equation. The other part is making sure that they are working on the appropriate tasks and projects. After all what good is an attorney who spends all of his time on administrative tasks or a paralegal who spends their time filing endlessly instead of providing legal support to an attorney? The answer is to create consistent systems, procedures and protocols. It will be well worth it!

Appropriate Functions of Lawyers and Staff

Partner

  • Marketing
  • Management
  • Supervising files and cases
  • Giving legal advice and strategizing
  • Serving as lead counsel on trials

Associate

  • Writing briefs
  • Conducting interviews
  • Attending examinations for discovery
  • Appearing at hearings

Paralegal

  • Document assembly
  • Marketing
  • Research
  • Drafting pleadings
  • Conflicts checks
  • Acquiring records

Legal Secretary

  • Organizing
  • Scheduling
  • Word processing

Clerk

  • Filing
  • Copying
  • Answering phones
  • Errands

* list was adapted from Division of Functions Worksheet, by Dustin Cole, Attorneys Master Class

Must Read Books for Attorneys

Categories: Reading List - Tags: , ,

By Sibila D. Hujic

1. Legal Writing in Plain English, by Bryan A. Garner

2. Game Theory for Business, by Paul Papayoanou

3. Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates, by Ross Guberman

4. Incognito, by David M. Eagleman

5. A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls

6. My Personal MBA, by Josh Kaufman

7. The Winning Brief, by Bryan A. Garner

8. Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

9. Typography for Lawyers, by Bryan A. Garner

10. The Power of HABIT, by Charles Duhigg

11. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… and It’s All Small Stuff, by Dr. Richard Carlson

12. McElhaney’s Trial Notebook, by James W. McElhaney

13. The Age of Unreason, by Charles Handy

14. How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie

16. Good to Great, by Jim Collins

17. Influence: Science and Practice, by Dane Cialdini

18. The Big Moo, by Seth Godin & The Group of 33

19. On Becoming a Leader, by Warren Bennis

20. Don’t Follow Me: I’m the Leader, by Dave Dungan

21. The Practice of Management, by Peter F. Drucker

22. Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman

23. Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson

24. Competing for the Future, by Gary Hamel & C.K. Prahalad

25. First, Break All the Rule, by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman

Be accessible. Be responsive. Show you care.

Categories: Law Firm Management - Tags: ,

By Sibila D. Hujic

When you or your staff pick up the phone to speak to a client remember that little things make a big difference. Next time you pick up the phone, follow these basic techniques to establish yourself and the firm as client-friendly firm. This will encourage your clients to feel more comfortable with their decision of you choosing you, as well as think of you as the best firm to refer their friends and family members when the need arises.

You can make people feel important by practicing some pretty basic techniques. Pay attention when they talk. Seek to understand their issues and concerns. Be accessible and responsive to their needs. Follow through and do as you say you will. Show that you care. It’s like the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. First recall a positive experience that you have had when meeting with a doctor? Did the doctor listen and try to understand what you were saying? Now recall a negative experience with a doctor. Did the doctor rush you out of the examining room? How did it make you feel? Think of how your clients feel, even though you might feel frustrated at times, good client services goes a long way.

Nothing says “you are important to me” more than actively listening to and empathizing with the person with whom you are interacting. When a client calls, you must give him or her your full and undivided attention. Put yourself in your client’s shoes and try to see things from his or her perspective. Keep distractions and background noise to a minimum. During longer conversations, it’s a good idea to take notes and pause at key points in the conversation to summarize what you’ve just heard. People have a way of knowing when you’re not really paying attention, even over the phone.

Another benefit of truly listening to your clients is the lines of communication that you will strengthen. This will be very handy for your support staff. When your employees get to know the clients and vice versa the exchange of information between your office and the clients will become effortless. Ideally, clients will be calling your staff to follow up on their case or ask questions instead of personally having to speak to you, the owner, every time. Make sure that your staff is aware of the importance of good quality customer service.

Managing Employees

Categories: Law Firm Management - Tags: , , ,

By Sibila D. Hujic

Is it better to be loved or feared? When it comes to your employees, you can either encourage them to do what you suggest or you can command them. Chances are that the end result will be the same regardless of which approach you decide to go with. The question is which approach is the better one.

Influence is by far the better approach. People do not like being forced to do anything that they do not want to do. By constantly ordering your employees to do what you want, you will make them dislike you. Once they dislike you every chance that they get they will be trying to go against the grain and they will leave the moment they are able. By creating a sense of loyalty and trust between your employee and yourself, you both will benefit. What is the difference between an employee who left without giving two weeks notice, didn’t even give it a second thought and an employee who felt terrible that they had to leave and gave three weeks notice, offered to help at night and on the weekends after they left? LOYALTY.

Key is, making sure that the employee understands that when the law firm succeeds so do they. By creating the connection between the law firm and the employee, the employee will begin to view the law firm as their own. Some attorney will argue that approach by stating that the lines between boss and employee will blur and that the sense of entitlement will increase. While that might be true in certain situations with certain employees, that is not the case in most. There are many management theories out there. I was asked by a client to write a blog briefly touching upon each one. If management styles and theories interest you, keep an eye out for it, its coming soon.

Lets take a look at a small law practice with two to ten people. The advantage of  a small law firm is that you can change and reinvent as much as you like with minimal effort. Now imagine a law firm with one hundred employees, change might not come as easily there. When it comes to managing your employees and you are a small practice, the best approach is to manage each employee based on the individual. Have you ever heard of an employee say, “I could of left for more money, but I am loyal”? Focus on loyalty that goes both ways and you can’t go wrong. Take time to get to know your staff, everything you need to know is in front of you. Given the opportunity your employee will tell you exactly what you need to know to create the most productive, efficient and satisfied employee possible. Just listen.

Incoming Mail Procedures

Categories: Law Firm Organization - Tags: ,

By Sibila D. Hujic

  • Mail should be tackled as soon as it comes in. Having mail pile up is bad for business and will cause unnecessary clutter. Make sure to make mail a priority.
  • Designate a specific place to receive incoming mail. Be consistent.
  • Mail should be received so that client confidences will be protected. It should not be opened and laid out at the receptionist’s station where clients coming in for appointments can see it. (The clients coming in will immediately wonder if that will happen with mail related to their case.)
  • Give a specific person responsibility for opening incoming mail and train a backup. Be consistent and stress to your designated person how important it is to go through the mail as soon as it comes through the door.
  • All incoming mail should be date stamped. You may want some original documents to be date stamped on a “yellow sticky” for later removal or on the back of the document. (I would staple the yellow sticky to make sure it is not lost.) If you want this done, be sure the mail opener knows how, and for what documents.
  • It is usually not necessary to save envelopes. It will make your files more bulky and take up space. If you want the envelopes attached to certain correspondence, specify to the mail opener.
  • Mail should be sorted for each attorney or support staff member. The attorney’s secretary should further sort mail into correspondence from attorneys, clients, courts, periodicals and ”junk” mail.
  •  A designated person should enter any court dates into the docketing system as orders are received. If an attorney will be out of the office for more than a day, support staff should make a daily ”Mail Log”. As much as possible, mail should be filed as received, unless it requires further attention. When the attorney returns, Mail Logs should be reviewed, after which time they may be disposed of.
  • Another attorney in the office should look at the priority mail on the Mail Log and take care of any situations requiring immediate attention. Sole practitioners should have support staff look at mail and, if the attorney will not be communicating with the office daily, designate another available attorney to whom emergency matters can be referred.
  • “Green cards” or other receipt of mail forms should be recorded and attached to the appropriate document in the file immediately. Once it goes into filing, the chances of the card being lost or misfiled increases.
  •  Any returned mail or change of address should be noted and entered into the system.
  • Checks should be recorded as received, and immediately given to bookkeeping to process appropriately. Deposits to trust accounts should be made daily.

Something That Is Half Done Is Not Done

Categories: Law Firm Organization - Tags: , , ,

By Sibila D. Hujic

Law firms are busy places to work, there is always something going on, a new intakes calling and coming in, appointments, court calendar, faxes, clients on the phone, e-mails, appointment confirmations and questions on top of questions. Your staff is trying to accomplish as much as they can in the time that they have. It seems to be a part of human nature to jump from one project to the next. It is definitely possible to work an entire day without actually accomplishing one task. People try to make the argument by explaining since they got to work on a dozen things they are one step closer to accomplishing those task. No. This is not true. There are new tasks constantly coming in. Task should be completed one at a time. This way nothing is forgotten or missed. Focus and complete one task at a time, regardless of how many interruptions you may have, unless your supervisor directs you differently. This way each task is completed and the paperwork or documents you were working with can be put away. Now imagine working on twelve assignments and leaving the paperwork on your desk so you can continue the next day. The sheer volume of paperwork and clutter is enough to create a risk for dropping the ball on tasks.

If you have not done so, have an office meeting and implement the rule of  completing one task before moving on to the other. This applies to everyone from managing partner to the file clerk. A sure way toward an organized office is the completion of projects one at a time. You might have to repeat this a few times, many offices have been working a certain way for a long time and this might be difficult for them. I’ve found that some staff has difficulty with this method because they do not have the attention capacity to complete a large task completely. They will get use to it, as will you. Practice and make sure to let staff know it is okay to take a break but that break should not include working on a separate task.

Organization should be expected and demanded from all staff. Desks should be clear at the end of the day. Staff should know everything that they have on their desks at all times, the moment they are not sure is the moment important assignments begin to fall in between the cracks. Strong leadership will ensure the appropriate changes through out your firm. Don’t give up, your staff will get use to it!

Law Firm Administration

Categories: Law Firm Management, Law Firm Organization - Tags: , , , ,

By Sibila D. Hujic

For many lawyers finding the time to do handle the day-to-day operational tasks is a challenge. I often see attorneys struggling to find a balance between legal work and management. What could you do if you could take the time spent of administrative duties and applied it to generating revenue, networking and the practice of law?

When I suggest hiring an individual to run the business side of  law firm, I am often met with a lot of resistance, but please hear me out. It’s critical and vital for you, as the owner to focus on the needs of your clients and the practice side of your firm. Your primary role and the role of each attorney in your firm should be to practice law. If you decide to hire a legal administrator they would be responsible for the firm’s overall day-to-day operations and will work within the boundaries of the vision and policies set by you. You will not be relinquishing power, the administrator will be an extension of you.

Even though it is natural for attorneys to take on the management role, it is not a necessity for a successful law firm, as a matter of fact, you should try to avoid micromanaging your firm and allow a non-lawyer to handle the business aspect. What the owner or managing partners should do is set a direction for the firm and create systems that once are created, will allow another person to run the day-to-day operations. Act as the leader, decide what business the firm will pursue, how many attorneys you will employ, location, how everything will be financed and similar types of questions. The day-to-day tasks should be delegated.

If you took the time to calculate the true amount of hours spent on administrative tasks by you and your staff  you will realize that an office administrator will give you more focus, more time and more effciency. Did you know that billable time by partners in large firms is higher than smaller firms? Your staff and you will focus on your duties as attorneys, paralegals and secretaries. By eliminating the administrative tasks that everybody tends to pinch into, everyone will become more proficient and productive.

Now that you have decided that your firm could benefit with an administrator, who do you hire? Many firms usually promote a current paralegal or secretary into the management position. When this does not work, I usually get a phone call from the attorney, telling me that the rest of the staff is having a problem with the role of the new manager. Many may disagree with me, but from my experience, moving a paralegal to an administrative position is almost never a good idea. I know what you’re thinking, they know the firm, they know the people, why would that be a bad idea? It’s usually a bad idea because most likely personal issues or allegiances with others in the firm will rise to the surface, making it difficult for the administrator to be firm and fair. Bringing someone with no prior relationship to anyone in the firm is usually the right way to go. They will be able to approach the inner workings of your firm from a neutral position. I’ve heard of spouses taking on this role, again, it is going to be very hard for your staff or even your partners to be completely honest with your spouse, it will affect the firms atmosphere.

Your new administrator will make sure that your firm runs smoothly. When there are problems, the administrator will tackle them without your involvement depending on the severity. You will be briefed and updated as often or as little as your like. An administrator will take care of the management of human resources, making sure the right forms and filings are made, look after vacations, sick day administration, leave policies, hours of work, payroll and the like. They will keep track of birthdays, births, and condolences. Positive work culture and work environment is the result of your staff feeling valued and appreciated. Say good-by to unnecessary staff turnover. Your staff will have someone with an open door policy to go to with questions, problems and feedback, all which will help your firm run at maximum efficiency.

Trusting your new administrator is going to be difficult initially but that’s okay. In the beginning monitor as much you like, once you are satisfied you can add more tasks and responsibilities. Encourage open communication and honesty with the administrator, be clear on your end goal and make sure you are on the same page. Be prepared for a learning and adjustment phase. I do not believe that all firms need a full-time administrator or manager, some will see great improvement with a part-time administrator, one that comes in when needed or a few times a week. It is a good idea to start slow and if you see a need for permanent help you will be able to move toward that.

Make sure to write down exactly what you expect from management. Initially, be sure to write down tasks and duties that your administrator will perform. Be clear as far as what you would like the administrative to deal with using their discretion and what you would like brought to your attention. Decide whether you would like a written bi-weekly or monthly report from your administrator, or would you prefer oral reports . In the beginning make sure to help your administrator get an understanding of the firms culture, let them know the good and the bad. Communicate as clearly as your can about your wants and needs.

You can create the duties of your administrator as your see fit. The administrator’s role usually covers Human Resource Management, Finances, Facilities Management, Training and Education, Marketing and Technology, as well as a variety of other functions. Delegation is good! I promise. Once you set the wheels in motion you will see the benefits of having a great administrator working for you!

© Copyright 2014 - Sibila & Co.