We are often asked about skill requirements for office managers/bookkeepers in small law firms. (Six attorney and under firms) Many law firms in the six attorney and under size have shared with us their frustration in staffing the billing and accounting function. Often their investment in computerized billing and accounting systems fails to yield desired results due to poor accounting and management skills. Many small law firms assume that legal secretaries also have requisite accounting and management skills. Our experience has been that often this is not the case. Training, skills, and work behaviors are often different. Bookkeepers/accountants and secretaries are different animals. Many small firms are better off creating a accounting/bookkeeping position and staffing the position with a qualified bookkeeper/accountant. For many firms under six attorneys that have fully automated the billing and accounting function and have distributed time entry, this is not a full time position. In such instances many firms have either recruited a part-time bookkeeper/accountant solely for the accounting function or have created a combined position of office manager/bookkeeper. This justified a full-time position. Look for the following skills when evaluating candidates. Professional training in bookkeeping and accounting fundamentals as well as management principles.
We just returned from participating at a Solo Small Firm Conference which was held for solo and small firm practitioners in the mid-west. I spoke at two session and we had a booth there as well. A few statistics:
Personal networking and relationship building is still one of the best ways to cultivate clients. Not having a presence on the internet is like not being in the phone book.
Solo and small firm attorneys need to use all of the tools available to project their image. It does no good to spend money on developing marketing tools and then not use them.
Question: I am the managing partner in a three attorney firm and am having problems with office staff members getting along. Office conflict is rampant. Any suggestions?
Response: You must begin by identifying some of the causes. Poor communications often can be the root cause of such problems. Interview each of your staff members individually and probe. What do they think? Is communications a problem? Are roles, duties, and responsibilities clarified? Lack of clarity can in these areas can lead to turf wars. You may want to design job descriptions for each employee and clarify roles, duties, and responsibilities for each employee. Conduct short weekly staff meetings to enhance communications. Use agendas. Take minutes of the meetings. Advise everyone of your expectations including all members working together as team members. Let them know that working together as a team is a performance factor that will be considered in performance evaluations and reviews. Conduct periodic performance reviews. Counsel and take action against problem employees. John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Question: If a law firm could select only one area for future investment, where would you recommend that such investment be made?
Response: In their people – their intellectual capital. I am amazed at the minimal investment that law firms make in their staff. Law firms are in the knowledge business and their product is their intellectual knowledge. While law firms do invest in their attorneys, such is not the case with the staff. Although staff members are often on the front lines in dealing with clients, very few law firms are providing them with skill training in areas such as communication, marketing, client service, conflict management, effective writing and speaking, time management, computer applications, client complaint management, etc. By the way, attorneys need training in these areas as well. Why do law firms hire the cheapest talent they can find to fill the receptionist position when it is the receptionist who often has the initial contact with a new client. I find it amazing that firms spend huge amounts of money on advertising and marketing and they fail to invest in the other tools needed for effective new client intake. Small firms should consider assigning their receptionist the role of marketing coordinator with responsibility for assisting in the management of client relationships and the firm’s marketing program.
Question: I am a new administrator with my firm. I am also the first administrator that the firm has had. Do you have any suggestions as to where I should start? What are my priorities?
Response: As a first administrator you will face a dual challenge. You will have to justify the new position as well as yourself and your performance. You will be second guessed and partners will from time to time question whether a legal administrator was necessary or wise. There will be problems with role clarification. Suggest that you insist on a job description for yourself and a governance plan that outlines the authority and responsibility of the administrator, the managing partner, the executive committee, and the partnership. This will set the boundaries. On your first day at work suggest that you start by meeting with all of the personnel. Meet individually with the partners and associates and get to know them, their desires and hidden agendas. Initially conduct a get acquainted meeting with the staff and then meet with each staff member individually. Discuss their jobs and their duties. Ask for suggestions. Work with the bookkeeper and get up on the accounting operations as quick as you can. Learn the office computer system. Initially your two biggest priorities will usually be personnel and accounting. Read the minutes of firm meetings and office administrative files. If you are weak in accounting and computers obtain whatever additional training that is required. Join the Association of Legal Administrators and attend their meetings and conferences. Our firm provides skill transfer coaching and provides materials for new legal administrators as well.
TIP #1: Develop a business mindset. Become an entrepreneur and learn how to think like a businessman. Look at the world from your client’s perspective. Consider you client your business partner.
TIP #2: Select your clients carefully. Establish client acceptance criteria. Learn how to say no. Dump undesirable clients.
TIP #3: Brand yourself. Look for was ways to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Become the only attorney that can do what you do. Make a decision – what do you want to be known and remembered for? Unique services, unique client groups, different service delivery strategy, personal style. Create a five-year plan for goal accomplishment.
TIP #4: Learn how to become “solutions orientated” and become a consultant to your clients as opposed to simply their attorney. Solutions may involve activities and services other than legal services. Think out-of-the-box and outside of typical frameworks in which you are comfortable.
TIP #5: Conduct a firm-wide management and leadership assessment and identify strengths and weaknesses. Enhance management and leadership skills through skill development training and personnel acquisitions.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Recently the following question was submitted to our office:
When should a firm consider coaching for attorneys?
The day-to-day stress of practicing law and serving clients leaves little time for focusing and investing in the future of the firm. When attorneys exhibit the following it may be time for a coach:
§ Stuck and unable to move forward on new initiatives
§ Indecision paralysis.
§ Lack of commitment, inertia, self-accountability or follow-up
§ Poor implementation skills
§ Lack of management, leadership, interpersonal, or other needed skills.
Training and skill development is not easy. Studies reveal that 90 percent of the people who attend seminars and training sessions see no improvement because they don't take the time to implement what they learn. Practices create habits and habits determine your future. Up to 90 percent of our normal behavior is based on habits. The key to skill learning is to get the new skill to become a habit. Once the new habit is well developed it becomes your new normal behavior. This requires practice. Unfortunately, attorneys do not have time to practice and experiment.
The coach's role is that of steward, facilitative leader and teacher. Law firms retain coaches to work with attorneys and staff, mostly on a personal level, to address problems involving lack of commitment, inertia, implementation, self-accountability and follow-up. Firms are using coaching in the following areas:
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
The following questions was recently submitted for comment:
Question: I often hear the term firm culture used. What does this term mean and what impact does it have upon management of a law firm?
Firm culture is the part of the firm’s internal environment that incorporates a set of assumptions, beliefs, and values that organizational members share and use to guide their functioning. Is a pattern of shared values and beliefs giving members of a firm meaning and providing them with rules for behavior. These values are inherent in the ways organizations and their members view themselves, define opportunities, and plan strategies.
Much as personality shapes an individual, organizational culture shapes its members responses and defines what an organization can or is willing to do. Click here for link to full article
As we approach the Christmas holiday season we need to begin thinking about next year. Here are some suggestions:
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Our firm recently completed client satisfaction interviews for several of our insurance defense law firm clients. Here are a few quotes and a summary of what these insurance company law firm clients told us:
Much can be learned by talking to your clients. Structured telephone interviews conducted by a neutral third party can provide many surprises as well as answers. Client satisfaction interviews can be the best marketing investment that you can make.