John Meredith article on "Joining the Team: Three Steps to Successfully Adding New Legal Staff"
Reprinted with permission from the March 16, 2022, edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2022 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joining the Team: Three Steps to Successfully Adding Legal Staff
When a law firm hires legal staff, the team culture changes and a different work environment develops as the existing staff incorporates someone new to the team. There are three vital elements for legal staff to successfully join a law firm – onboarding, training, and learning and connecting with the firm’s culture. If these steps are optimized, new employees will develop trust that this is a top workplace for them and can more quickly become contributing members of the team.
Onboarding – The Process Begins
The first element involves the onboarding process being consistent and systematic. Onboarding starts from the time the offer is made and continues through the first few months on the job. Regular evaluation of the onboarding process is valuable to identify possible improvements.
Once the new staff member is hired, staff managers should follow a checklist for the required paperwork and onboarding activities. At our firm, the first two days of the staff member’s employment are designated to these activities. New legal staff are trained away from their desk or work area, so that legal work is not given to them during the initial onboarding process.
After providing the same onboarding presentation multiple times in person, we learned that videotaping the presentations can be just as effective and not only saves time for the presenters, but also ensures consistent delivery. Another benefit of videotaping these presentations allows new employees the chance to rewatch the training videos later on as a refresher. After each video is completed, the presenter meets with the employee in person to answer any questions. Meeting in person, even for a short time, makes it easier for the employees to ask any follow-up questions in the first few months on the job when they are implementing the information.
Another important part of the onboarding process is “Expectation Meetings” between the attorneys and the legal administrative assistants who work together. The meetings focus on areas that may be otherwise unspoken, such as how work will be provided to them and optimal work schedules. Addressing these possible issues before they become problems can make a difference in retaining employees.
Training/Professional Development for Long-Term Retention
The next element is training or professional development. The onboarding process has an overlap with training, but the training discussed here focuses on ongoing professional development. An initial challenge in hiring legal staff is to accurately capture an assessment of their abilities. There are software programs that assess legal staff members’ skills working with Microsoft Office products, but other skills are not as clearly quantifiable so relying on previous employers’ recommendations and assessments can be helpful.
As part of the training/professional development process, our firm has access to professional development videos for legal staff and attorneys. Additionally, we are able to upload our own training presentations to the video library. Throughout the year, some of the training videos are required to be watched each quarter and others are optional depending on the subjects. These videos are in addition to in-person and virtual mentoring and training.
Learning and Connecting with the Culture
Assisting employees in learning and connecting with the firm’s culture is the final element of the onboarding and training processes. Maintaining the firm’s culture has become even more challenging during the pandemic. Helping new employees understand and trust the culture can have the added benefit of reengaging current employees who are returning to the office.
Management guru Peter Drucker says that “[c]ulture eats strategy for lunch.” While effective systems are important, the sooner new employees embrace the firm’s culture the better chance employees will stay long-term. Anyone involved with law firm management knows the importance of retaining employees – especially in our current highly-competitive legal hiring market.
A management tenet that plays an important part in developing a strong team culture is having back-up employees and mentors for each staff position. The employees learn to work together and trust each other as a team, which develops friendships and connections that become part of the firm’s culture. If an employee does not willingly share information or is not open to someone backing them up, then the culture of the firm suffers and is weaker in that area. If an employee leaves or is on PTO, the firm would not have someone ready to step into that role. Having backups and mentors for each role fosters a culture of excellence and collaboration for new and existing employees.
Because of the value of learning the culture, I meet with all new staff (and attorneys) about our firm’s culture as part of the onboarding process. Having “top workplace” culture meetings helps develop a team-first focus and encourages a collaborative connection with existing employees.
Creating a Winning Team
Developing a winning team is a sports manager’s goal and that same philosophy applies to law firms. As Coach Mike Krzyzewski says, “[i]n any organization, trust must be developed among every member of the team if success is going to be achieved.” When the onboarding and training processes are effective and employees quickly trust the firm’s culture, law firms can add new employees on a trajectory to becoming valuable team members.
John Meredith is the Chief Operating Officer of Chamberlain Hrdlicka with offices in Atlanta, Houston, Philadelphia and San Antonio. He is the Chair of the Houston Bar Association Law Practice Management Section and the Vice-Chair of the State Bar of Texas Law Practice Management Committee. Meredith may be reached at (713) 356-1681