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Rethinking the roles of your law firm’s support staff

The old school model for staffing in a small law firm was often one secretary or legal assistant per lawyer, and that’s still true for many firms.

While some small law firms also had a full or part-time receptionist, in many cases the other staff took turns answering the phone. And some firms had a part-time or full-time billing staffer, filing clerk or runner.

Under this model, the core delivery of legal services by the firm was done by two-person lawyer and secretary teams. A job description for those positions might be: “Personal assistant for Fred Lawyer – Does all of his typing, filing and scheduling, along with anything else he doesn’t like doing. A typical day will include being summoned to the lawyer’s office several times a day to be verbally given assignments with unreasonably short deadlines.”

However, the old model of the legal secretary as personal assistant is becoming increasingly incompatible with business reality.

With some exceptions, today’s technology tools often make it more efficient for a lawyer to do something him or herself instead of relying on staff. Email is used for most routine correspondence, and many lawyers are using some combination of speech recognition tools and dictation transcription services.

Many of the things that a personal assistant would have done in the 1950s are now more easily done by the lawyer directly on the computer, such as scheduling an appointment with a client while talking to him or her on the phone. After the call, the lawyer can also record the billing entry for the phone call electronically. (Even a two-fingered typist can enter a single, simple billing entry.)

That does not mean that the lawyer should always enter all of his or her own calendar entries. Setting up a series of depositions or scheduling a meeting for several lawyers can be time consuming and is often better handled by a staff person.

It has traditionally fallen to the legal secretary to juggle tasks like scheduling depositions along with all of the other work for his or her assigned lawyer. But what if one secretary at the firm hates talking on the phone, and is better at formatting briefs, such as the one that is due tomorrow?

Take for example a small firm of three lawyers with three full-time secretaries and maybe one part-time administrative employee.

Typically, each secretary might spend about 15-20 percent of work time dealing with scheduling for his or her lawyer.

Instead, a better business model would be to have one assistant handle all scheduling-related tasks requiring staff support for all of the lawyers. Everyone would still have access to electronic calendars and could enter appointments, but one person would be the scheduler-in-chief.

For that person, managing the office calendar and scheduling meetings and depositions would be a primary job function. He or she would keep a “work in progress” list of pending scheduling projects that would make it easier for someone to fill in during an absence. He or she would invest in learning about online scheduling tools and determine when using those tools made sense.

The firm scheduler might ask to be given time at office staff meetings for discussions or new announcements about improved scheduling procedures for everyone. He or she would view talking with people about their calendars as a primary reason for his or her employment rather than an annoying detail keeping him or her from doing essential work. He or she would also keep an eye on the big picture of the firm’s time commitments.

Over time the firm would likely see a remarkable improvement in scheduling processes, with fewer problems and mistakes. Perhaps fewer total staff hours would be taken up with scheduling.


Staff members as experts

The idea of giving one person the opportunity to become good at something and handling that task for the entire firm is a lesson with broad application beyond scheduling.

Training staff to become experts with more focused assignments better reflects the needs of the contemporary workplace. To be more efficient and effective, modern, small law firms operating on the traditional personal assistant-legal secretary model should reevaluate their strategy with that in mind.

That means reviewing outdated and often-forgotten job descriptions to reflect employees’ contributions to the firm and then revisiting and updating them on a regular basis.

One key component of having one person handle all of a certain type of task is to require each staffer to document what he or she does in writing and cross train at least one other person to do it.

With this new model, job descriptions might have more entries like these:


Legal Assistant 1 (currently Sandy)

• Reviews all newly opened files in the areas of bankruptcy (BK) and civil litigation (CIV) to determine that all required information is included and the new file opening checklist is completed.

• Works with debtor clients to prepare for filing.

• Creates drafts of pleadings and responses in contested BK and CIV for attorneys to review.

• Makes certain that tasks are timely completed in accordance with scheduling orders in CIV cases.

• Responsible for maintaining status lists on pending BK and CIV cases and running the bi-weekly Litigation Status & Support meeting(s) with all involved attorneys.

• Backup (morning only) reception duties when receptionist is absent.

• Cross trained on Scheduling Assistant duties.


Secretary 2: Billing/Business Coordinator (currently Bob)

• Reviews, corrects and manages billing entries and check requests from lawyers

• Prepares and distributes the Monday Morning Report to partners with revenues and expenses from the prior week and all billing entries received from lawyers for the previous week, year to date and month to date.

• Pays bills and orders supplies in consultation with the Managing Partner.

• Performs light typing and document preparation when others are backed up or absent.

• Backup (afternoon only) reception duties when receptionist is absent.

• Cross trained on Scheduling Assistant duties.


Reviewing these job descriptions or separate task assignment lists would likely become a regular part of management of the firm. This may be frustrating to the partner who “just wants to practice law.” Lawyers must recognize that a law firm itself is still a business. The regular review of assignments and work flow is a business-like approach to monitoring and improving your legal business.

Aligning the law firm staff according to this type of model also reinforces the message that staff work for the entire law firm, not just an individual lawyer. Many lawyers have dealt with the frustration of trying to work with a personal assistant who views his or her job security as keeping old Tom happy while others can fend for themselves.

Understanding the overall work that keeps the whole staff busy every day puts lawyers in a better position to understand when outsourcing typing or reception services might make sense and what kind of employees you are seeking when you next have an opening to fill.

For many firms, economic realities mean that lower staffing levels are a part of the future. Staff members who provide service to clients and generate revenue to the firm along with handling their back office duties show how valuable they are to the firm, all because their tired, old job descriptions weren’t left to gather dust in a filing cabinet.


Jim Calloway is the Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. He publishes the weblog Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips. He is a frequent speaker on law office management and technology issues.