published January 28, 2013

By Harrison Barnes, CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left

Assessing the Impact of Your Human Resources in Developing Your Legal Practice

Too often, attorneys think that because they are committed to building a practice, their partners, associates, and staff will share their commitment, they eventually discover that this type of enthusiasm does not exist simply for its own sake. They learn that a marketing program, in order for others to embrace it fully, must have its purpose clearly communicated, its strategy logically outlined, and its expectations fully understood. Just as a new practice area can change the way a firm operates, a decision to become proactive with regard to marketing impacts everyone in the firm, from the senior partner to the receptionist. Marketing success depends, therefore, to a great extent on the synergetic force created by a united office effort.

Assessing the Impact of Your Human Resources in Developing Your Legal Practice

Jayne was a proficient and well-known attorney in her state. She had 3 well-respected partners in addition to 6 associates and 12 staff members. Her reputation as a litigator was unassailable. Despite her expertise as a lawyer, Jayne did not feel her office atmosphere was always pleasant for herself, clients, or staff. She noticed animosity between staff members despite her efforts to assign staff according to their obvious abilities. She felt that the salaries her firm offered were very competitive with other firms’ scales and that other amenities such as benefits and vacation time were generous.

In an effort to take control of the situation, Jayne persuaded her partners to hire a human resources consultant. The consultant spent two weeks in Jayne's office. He interviewed each staff person individually and in groups of two and three. He analyzed work requirements, employee hours, and productivity. His final analysis was delivered to Jayne and her partners in presentation form as well as a written report.

Jayne found herself taken aback by many of his conclusions. As far as Jayne was concerned, the consultant more or less accused her and the other partners of not really knowing or understanding their employees. He said that most of the staff believed they were receiving good salaries but that they were bored with their jobs. Furthermore, the consultant said staff did not believe they played an important role in the operation of the firm since they were not attorneys.

Jayne felt betrayed. She felt their importance was an unspoken absolute and they understood this as well as she. Her partners mentioned the salaries and benefits as evidence of employee importance. The consultant said these did not replace an employee's confidence in a sense of genuine caring from an employer. Jayne and her partners discussed other issues with the consultant and agreed they had a larger problem than they initially recognized. She asked the consultant to help them begin immediate remedial steps to correct the now apparent problems.

One of the first things Jayne did was call an office meeting of partners, associates, and staff. With her partners' permission and encouragement, Jayne asked everyone to submit a list of their professional goals. She told associates and staff that the firm partners wanted to know the employees' capabilities and aspirations. Jayne told employees that in the future they would be assigned work with more attention to their interest as well as ability.

Jayne also asked all associates, staff, and even her partners to write down suggestions for making the office more efficient and a more pleasant place to work. She said all suggestions submitted could be anonymous. She promised to circulate a compilation of all the submissions. After everyone had a chance to read the suggestions, Jayne told the staff that they would have a chance to discuss and even vote on possible changes.

Jayne noticed her staff's watchful acknowledgment of her effort to be a more effective supervisor. She also noticed an impact on the staff's own efforts to be effective on other employees. Based on this, she made a personal commitment to place more emphasis on her own human resource management skills.


Firms with non-attorney administrators seem to understand and develop programs for human resource needs more effectively than firms headed by attorneys. The most likely cause is that attorneys are trained to be production oriented. Further, there is little taught in law school or available in today's CLE system that would help an attorney develop human resource management skills. Those attorneys which are good people managers are either self-taught or are intuitively equipped to be good managers.

For the attorneys who are not necessarily "naturals" at the art of human resource management, the time and expense taken to learn such skills can lead to two end results:

  • more satisfaction on the part of the attorney and staff
  • more time and cost-efficient practice operation
An attorney's human resources are a larger direct expense than any other resource. Yet, ironically, this area often receives less attention than libraries, office decor, and computer systems, both in terms of initial acquisition and maintenance.

As a result of human resource mismanagement, attorneys often experience high staff turnover. This results not only in the costs of lost productivity during replacement and training, but also disrupts the relationship between staff and client. A client who speaks with a different receptionist, secretary, or paralegal each time he or she telephones or visits the office will undoubtedly note the lack of consistency in personnel and wonder as to the reason.


What can the lawyer do who is not directly involved in management? For that matter, what can the solo practitioner do? The primary concern should be to establish regular two-way communication with others in the office. This sounds relatively simple and easy, but what does it really mean? Using a marketing approach, it means that the attorney must first discover staff needs. This is the antithesis of the typical adversarial or caste relationship that exists between many lawyers and staff, both administrative and, most especially, support staff.

Attorneys need to know as much about their staff and they want to know about their clients. What are their personal and career objectives? What are their avocational interests? Why do they want to work for the attorney and what do they expect to receive in return, in addition to a salary? Attorneys are often surprised to learn that money is rarely a sole motivating factor for employees. A competitive salary in a position which is not satisfying will eventually lead to that person's poor performance or transition into a more satisfying position, often at another firm. Staff employment must include a recognition of employees' nonmonetary needs such as recognition for good work, opportunities for learning and advancement, and a satisfying work atmosphere.

Attorneys must demonstrate real interest and concern in their employees. This means finding out what can be done to help staff members in their personal pursuits and a conscious effort to stay informed with regard to staff activities. In practical terms, this could mean tasks as simple as bringing a newspaper or magazine article clipping of interest to them or making sure events they care about (and not just vacations) are placed on the office calendar.

The most difficult resource for a person to manage in all likelihood is "self." That is, an objective self-evaluation of the attorney is the first step to the successful development of any practical plan. But attorneys who want to effect a more efficient and motivated staff begin with a very thorough and
objective self-analysis.

An attorney, assigned responsibility of personnel management in a 25-attorney firm, saw the motivation of his office staff as a problem. The attorney identified his personal strengths and weaknesses, both in personality traits and skills. He listed major areas of expertise and wrote positive and negative comments he felt were reasonable. He asked a colleague whom he trusted to evaluate his list objectively and note any additional comments.

With his completed self-analysis, the attorney was able to decide what sorts of human resources management skills he might most effectively learn and use. Initially he had planned to hold a twice-monthly informal breakfast with staff to discuss current office events and clear up possible misconceptions. His self-analysis demonstrated that he was uncomfortable in casual conversations with staff so he tended to be domineering and impatient with chitchat. The attorney crossed the staff breakfast plans off his list and decided, instead, upon a regular, formal, and anonymous staff feedback system. Employees were urged to submit questions and concerns which were answered personally by the attorney He also made a concerted effort to track staff birthdays, anniversaries, and special events (with help from his personal secretary) and sent cards to employee homes congratulating them on such events.

The staff recognized the attorney's effort at making them happy and responded accordingly. They felt, for perhaps the first time, that this particular attorney, and by extension the whole firm, really cared. The consequences of breakfast meetings would not have been as positive. The staff would not have felt equally satisfied with the results as they knew the attorney did not enjoy his visits with them.

As with clients, in order to understand staff, the attorney must not rely on assumptions but rather on staff opinions. This means staff must be asked how they feel in regard to issues and procedures.

One firm opted to assess staff performance and personality traits and marked the file "confidential." The list, despite efforts to keep it secret, fell into the wrong hands. The damage was irreparable. Very personal comments were made known to peers, supervisors, and subordinates. Some staff members left the firm as a result while others became defensive and consequently less productive. Employees felt an unnecessary sense of competition based on their own inability to control very private information about themselves. A staff analysis must be confined to the enumeration of skills and experience.

From this, the staff person being evaluated can develop plans to either improve strengths or overcome deficiencies. All staff, from receptionist to paralegal, should be assessed in this manner to understand their needs. It is as important to keep this analysis process current as it is to initiate it. Imagine the employee receiving an anniversary congratulations card in the mail after a recent divorce! Or acknowledgment of an employee's promotion several months after it occurred. Staff needs and personal information will change frequently, and so analysis should be con ducted regularly.

Related Articles