Keeping staff in a small law firm

  • Subtitle: David Paul's Field Notes
Written by  Posted Date: June 18, 2012
One of the many challenges facing the small firm is attracting and keeping quality staff. For a small firm the challenge can be significant and costly. Replacing staff is time-consuming — significant time typically goes into training new assistants. Replacing staff can also be expensive as it means less billable time being spent on your files. The purpose of this article is to share some tips I have employed or know other small firms have used to achieve this goal and protect their investment.

Salary/compensation

If you want competent staff it’s going to cost you. Assistants know the going rate and it’s important you know this as well. It’s also important for you to try to stay on top of the salary issue at all times as an employee may be nervous or reluctant to approach the subject and instead deal with the matter of compensation by simply looking elsewhere.

Therefore, consider speaking to your colleagues in the community regularly to find out what they are paying their staff. If there is a legal assistant school in your community, consider contacting the program co-ordinator to find out the expected salaries for its new graduates. In conducting your survey, keep in mind that some firms will pay a premium for superior and/or highly experienced staff so it’s important that you find out the various levels of pay for staff.

If paying the going rate is going to be an issue, consider offering an alternative to the typical five-day week or eight-hour day work schedule. Perhaps tailor a work schedule that meets your requirements as well as your staff’s availability. Four days a week from 9 a.m. to noon may be sufficient. For many employees, the option of flex time or job sharing may be exactly what they are looking for.

Be approachable

I think it is very important to the success of a firm that the managing lawyer be approachable by the staff. Office personnel should not be afraid of approaching their employer with a request to leave early or for an extra day off, whether it’s for a medical appointment or just that extra day off. If employees are uncomfortable approaching that subject, they will likely be even more uncomfortable approaching their employer about a salary review. In some cases, they may not bother and instead go through the want ads in search of a better-paying position.

Create a sense of ownership

Giving staff conduct over the administrative responsibilities of a file can be very important to the employee who takes pride in their work. For many it can be a perk of the job.

I usually tell my staff at the beginning of their employment that they are being employed as much more than just a typist but as a member of the firm team. I tell them also that as team member part of their responsibility will include engaging directly with clients from time to time. Not surprisingly, knowing that their job will entail far more than simply transcribing letters and pleadings will go a long way to enhancing the staff’s sense of pride, sense of responsibility, and commitment to their work.

Benefits

Benefit packages can be another significant challenge facing the smaller firm. Although offering benefits may not have been an option for your firm in the past, I encourage you to do some research. There are many companies out there offering excellent benefit packages at a reasonable cost for small offices.

Consider contacting your local chamber of commerce as it often offers benefit packages to its members. Also consider contacting your CBIA rep as the CBIA also offers packages at competitive rates to Canadian Bar Association members. With a little effort, you will likely find something that works for you and your staff.

For many, the option of a benefit package can be a huge perk not only for themselves but their entire family. If paying for the entire package is beyond your means, consider paying a portion of the cost. If motivating your staff to stay on is important, also consider offering to pay for the entire cost of benefit plan once the employee has been with your firm for a certain period.

Create a comfortable work environment

One of the things that makes the job is the work environment itself. In fact, for many the right work environment is just as important as the salary. Consequently, care needs to be taken in creating the right workspace. When creating the space, ask yourself, ‘would I be comfortable working there?’ The basics of setting up the right work area are obvious. They include a comfortable chair, an open workspace with sufficient storage to assist them to stay organized, appropriate lighting, and hopefully a window or two with a view to the outside.

Acknowledge important dates

It goes without saying that you should make it a point to remember staff’s work anniversary dates, birthdays, and other events. With computers, smartphones, and other similar devices, these dates are easy to keep track of. On these days, recognize these occasions with cards, flowers, a lunch at their favourite restaurant, and small gifts — whether it be a Starbucks card, a certificate for a pedicure, or a voucher for the employee and their spouse or partner to enjoy a local restaurant.

Out-of-the-blue acknowledgements

Recognizing staff at times outside of their special dates can also go a long way to keeping them happy and building up staff morale. In the past, I have given my staff gifts “just because.” These have included pedicures, Starbucks cards, and in one case a gift that my employee describes as “a gift that keeps on giving” — a very well-deserved puppy. From the staff’s point of view, these out-of-the-blue acknowledgements are clear recognition of their value to the firm and are usually very highly appreciated, particularly after a difficult or important case or project.

Staff events

Hosting get-togethers or dinners can also go a long way to boosting firm morale and building up the sense of teamwork. Annually, my firm and another firm that I share space with host an annual barbecue for our staff and their families. We call it the “Holy Crap Summer is Almost Over Barbecue.” We also host annual Christmas parties.

Hosting these events allows staff members to enhance their relationships with other employees outside of the office and, at the same time, help to foster supportive relationships among the staff and lawyers that in turn makes the firm team stronger. Outside of these events, we will also close the office down early at the end of the week and host our staff to a wine and cheese.

Remember your ‘thank yous’

A staff member who is committed, conscientious, and hardworking is worth their weight in gold. Often, these employees will have a strong sense of ownership in their work. In my mind that is important — I want my staff feeling and working like they are part of the team. If your employees are showing these qualities, praising their services with a simple “thank you” here and there can go a long way to letting your staff know you appreciate their valuable efforts.

Conclusion

Despite your best efforts, you need to recognize that there is no way of guaranteeing that staff will stay and not be attracted by the lure of “big firm,” the legal department of a large company, or a Crown office — even if the compensation and benefits package being offered at your firm is similar. My hope for you, however, is that by incorporating some or all of these tips into your practice you will at least reduce your staff turnover rate thereby allowing you to focus more of your time and energy on the practice of law.

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David A. Paul

David A. Paul, is a senior lawyer and mediator who practises at the boutique law firm Paul & Co. in downtown Kamloops, B.C. His firm’s web site is www.kamloopslaw.com and he can be reached at (250)828-9998.

Column: David Paul's Field Notes

Website: www.kamloopslaw.com

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