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Solving Law Firm Staffing Problems Through Innovation Law360, New York (September 15, 2015, 4:52 PM ET) -As much as legal culture values traditional practices, not even the most stalwart lawyer can ignore the sweeping changes in hiring and business strategies. Those who do ignore them will do so to their own detriment, and will prevent their firms from competing with those ready to embrace new technologies, strategies and mindsets. Felicity Nelson’s recent article outlines the concept of freelance lawyers: contracting associates who are paid on a per-case basis, rather than staffed permanently. While the industry isn’t ready to make the transition to an entirely freelance workforce — and may never be — borrowing from the freelance concept and adapting it to the existing firm structure gives firms the opportunity to save money while providing better services to clients. Anthony Johnson Some thought leaders in law have attacked this proposed model by calling it “shallow innovation” and arguing that the changes it promotes will not affect the long-standing firm model in any meaningful way. Those people are dangerously wrong. The ethos that lawyers and firms have created supports a narrative wherein legal professionals and businesses practice some form of wizardry. This façade is completely incomprehensible to outsiders, who can’t help but assume they shouldn’t dare try to change it. Lawyers may scoff at innovative models that make them feel inadequate, or they may feel their expertise isn’t all it’s been built up to be — but that kind of thinking misses the point. Attorneys who feel less valuable because they’re falling short in areas outside of law (not because they aren’t solid lawyers) only proves they’re wasting time in the wrong places. Lawyers are legal experts — not receptionists, businessmen or project managers. Concentrating on being better lawyers and leaving other tasks to qualified people who can handle them allows attorneys to attend to matters that actually require legal expertise. Delegate to Innovate Lawyers who fail to delegate dilute their work product, harm efficiency, and provide poor service to their clients. Further, simply allocating 10 percent of your work to someone else to compensate for overstretching doesn’t improve the situation. In doing so, you fail to put your own skills — and those of the people around you — to optimal use. Delegation should be determined less by volume and more by
work type — this means the difference between shallow change and true innovation. Lawyers must be deliberate and diligent about using and organizing every available tool — virtual assistants, floating paralegals, contract counsel, etc. — to maximize the value of different skill sets. For example, you wouldn’t ask a contract counsel to draft a full pleading or go to a key deposition. However, you might want him or her to research a particular area of law in which he or she has expertise and draft just that section of the pleading. Taking it a step further, if your contract counsel’s area of expertise is critical to your case, then he or she could serve as second chair — or maybe even conduct the examination or cross-examination of witnesses related to his or her field. Relationships between lawyers have been cutthroat since the inception of the legal field. While that won’t change overnight, adjusting the focus of that competition is good for all involved. Lawyers don’t have to share clients indiscriminately, but finding attorneys who supplement your skills (as well as working alongside of them) can benefit both businesses as more esteemed clients appreciate the wealth of expertise they can access by working with your firm. Collect Data to Improve Outcomes To create the best possible relationships with other lawyers after every case you work on with another attorney, answer these questions: How much did you make? How much did he or she make? Who brought the client in? Once you answer these questions, devise a system for digesting and interpreting this data to help inform your decisions about who to work with (and also to improve future outcomes). Be proactive in applying the results of this data. For instance, say you work with someone whose knowledge you respect, but, in the end, you’ve brought that person $400,000 in fees and you haven’t profited — it’s time to find a different partner. Business partnerships should be reciprocal. Lawyers today have the tools and the industry knowledge they need to hold each other accountable. When building a relationship with co-counsel, tracking data and running reports to clarify those numbers and facts will benefit both sides. A symbiotic relationship with another business or colleague offers numerous advantages, so don’t be afraid to demand excellence from the people you work with. Finally, remember that the advent of cloud solutions and online collaboration tools has made it easier than ever to work with firms all over the world. If the best potential business partners are halfway across the globe, keep in mind that working with them is often no more challenging, logistically speaking, than partnering with a lawyer down the street. Take advantage of today’s abundance of convenient communication tools and resources to diversify your offerings and create the best situation for your firm and its clients. Build a Better Staff The concept of specialized outsourcing applies not only to other lawyers, but also to staff. Because the value of lawyers lies in their ability to advocate and counsel, other staff members should be responsible for tasks unrelated to those activities as often as possible. As technology advances, so do lawyers’ responsibilities to use their time wisely. Soon, it will be considered borderline unethical to waste clients’ money by charging them for time spent on outdated practices that could be expedited simply by adopting more modern business practices. Until that day, lawyers should use virtual assistants to do anything that doesn’t require skills directly related to legal
advocacy or counseling. Outsourced staff can coordinate with clients while producing documents or other discoveries. An executive assistant (virtual or otherwise) can screen calls and emails and keep mundane things organized so lawyers can keep their most critical responsibilities in the forefront of their minds. Lawyers’ workflows tend to bottleneck, partly through their own arrogance and partly because of the systemic burden they carry per the occupation and their clients. Proper delegation is not an admission of incompetence; on the contrary, lawyers who learn to let go and develop processes built on trust will find more success than their micromanaging counterparts who insist on overseeing every tiny detail. When it comes to paralegals, the standard has always been to match a paralegal to an attorney and have that person tackle a certain volume of work. This is the same mistake discussed previously: reducing work by 10 percent without any consideration of what that work entails. Rather than pairing up, try letting one paralegal do only what he or she does best for multiple attorneys or attorney groups. If one paralegal excels at drafting, and another is adept at client relations, why make both perform both tasks for different lawyers? Forward-thinking professionals need to move away from the constraints of tradition. Encouraging your staff to perform tasks in areas where they shine helps to diminish the chance that their performances will reflect poorly on the firm. It also helps staff members appear more professional to outsiders, thereby increasing their confidence. Setting protocols tailored around the strengths and weaknesses of outsourced labor takes time at the outset, but things will run far more smoothly than they would with an overstressed lawyer at the helm trying to do absolutely everything. Document every process in enough detail so that someone who’s never done it before could step in and do a perfect job. To improve quality by using outside help, you must first invest in an infrastructure to train and hold staff accountable to the same standards to which lawyers hold themselves. Create a Useful Structure It takes more than lawyers to run a law firm, and you must demand the best when it comes to business and technology professionals. Don’t shy away from affording them the power they need to do their jobs. As Nelson’s article mentions, the legal field has a huge problem with the corporate structure of its law firms. Yes, I said “corporate structure” and “law firms” in the same sentence. Although law firms are corporations, few operate as such. A law firm should have a CEO, COO, CTO and a board of directors, and those executives should have power to influence the lawyers. This may sound like blasphemy, but it’s the best way to ensure a firm’s success. Imagine Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple running a law firm. Do you think they would sit back and allow archaic software or project-management platforms anywhere near the firm? Would their documentation be lost in crammed file cabinets or easily accessible via the cloud? Would they even own a fax machine? Lawyers don’t possess the same acumen as business professionals, but if you want your firm to succeed, you must cede power to those who understand how to implement the needed technology, run a
corporation, and market your product. If a firm could combine the expertise of lawyers with the infrastructure of a software company and the executive leadership of a major corporation, imagine the advantages it would have over firms where every idea originates from lawyers. Avoid the Traps of Outsourcing The biggest mistake lawyers make when looking for outside help is seeking services that cater specifically to lawyers. Most are drastically overpriced, and they don’t make up for the higher cost with a baseline quality of service. Go to a large trial lawyer convention and ask one of the firms there about the cost of their website development. Then, take a look at what they got in return for that money. After that, go to a university and ask a few web designers to throw something together for you. The former might charge $100,000 and, six months later, direct you to a junk website that you couldn’t distinguish from thousands of others. The latter will likely provide something up to the standards of user-friendly modern websites, have it finished before lunch, and charge you a few hundred bucks. The entire legal industry, either through paranoia or a follow-the-herd mentality, is afraid to venture outside of industry-specific service providers for help, which is why these vendors can get away with overcharging for inferior quality. Need to draft some consumer-facing content? Talk to a marketing or journalism graduate, not someone who writes legal blogs for 50 different firms’ websites. If you need a PowerPoint presentation, outsource that work immediately to someone who won’t embarrass your firm in the way you might. Lawyers who try to make their own presentations invariably end up fumbling through ugly, disorganized slides with either loads of unnecessary graphics, or worse — no visual interest whatsoever. Others can do it better, so let them. Rather than hiding inside of a legal-industry vacuum, see what other successful businesses use. To wit: You can teach a top-notch receptionist the basic legal jargon required to serve a law firm, but you can’t teach someone who knows legal terms how to be a fantastic receptionist. Lawyers often face the problem of being talented and competent at everything they do within their own little universes. But if other people can do some of those things as well — or even better — by following thoughtfully developed processes, why not outsource? Wasting energy on the periphery aspects of legal work only reduces overall quality and misuses time. Instead, construct the framework, track the data and document all of it to help you find the right people. Reviewing results over time and continuing to make investments allow you to build a network of professional help that best suits your needs. And remember, whatever you do, don’t let a lawyer make a PowerPoint. —By Anthony Johnson, American Injury Attorney Group Anthony Johnson is the founder and CEO of American Injury Attorney Group and previously worked in SEO and web development, Internet startups and finance.
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