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Just a Few Questions
Just a Few Questions
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Just a Few Questions

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  • 1. LAWOFFICE THE NEWSLETTER FOR LEGAL OFFICE MANAGERS ADMINISTRATOR TMVolume XXI/ Number 1 JANUARY 2012A list of benefits staff like and the firm can affordOR HOW TO STAY UP WHEN THE MONEYʼS DOWN A dilemma almost every administrator faces today gets a benefit as well, because it can end up with moreis how to provide worthwhile staff benefits in an staff coverage for the same salary costs.economy that doesn’t allow for extra expense. The approach that’s easiest to manage and most In response, LOA researched the benefits legal beneficial to the employer is to let some staff workoffices as well as other types of businesses are offer- regular hours, let some come in an hour earlier, anding. let some come in an hour later. Some are astounding. Google, for example, pro- That’s a good benefit for a staffer who has to dropvides free haircuts, financial assistance for adoption, children off at school early. It’s also attractive to afree gourmet lunches, and an on-site doctor. A commuter who wants to miss the heavy traffic hours.Japanese company gives one day of “heartache leave” And the firm gets a free staffed hour on both ends ofeach year to female employees who lose at love. the day. But on the practical side, these are the affordable Occasional telecommuting. On the financial side,perqs and benefits managers of all types say their a benefit of telecommuting is the gas savings, particu-employees value most. larly for staff who have a long commute. But mostly, the attraction is that the extra time at home creates aNEAR THE TOP OF THE LIST IS TIME better work/life balance. Not every job lends itself to telecommuting. And Flexibility in the paid time off. In one national (please turn to page 3)job satisfaction survey, employees rated paid time offas their most valued benefit after health care. IN THIS ISSUE They are generally satisfied with the number of hol-idays, sick days, and vacation days they get, but what On Better Communication: Trite and overusedthey really like is flexibility. words = a dim wit ...........................................2 The most appreciated time-off benefit is a block of Just a few questions on the client intakedays people can use as they want for sick, personal, or form will produce good marketing ..................4vacation time. Employees also like being able to carry a few days With EEOC complaints, it’s the investigatingover from one year to the next. There’s no guide on that limits the firm’s liability ..........................5how many. Some large corporations are quite gener-ous. But most smaller offices don’t allow more than An index to LOA’s 2011 articles ....................6-7one or two carryovers, because they can’t do without An anonymous staff survey will improvethe staffing. morale as well as performance .......................... Along with that, employees like being able to takehours or half days off instead of full days. That way, This Month’s Idea: Tucson manager getsthey can use a few hours for appointments without total file management with only alosing a full day. four-page outline...........................................10 Flexible work hours. This too is a treasured bene- How to deal with cell phone abusers, thefit, because it gives staff an opportunity to match their smokers, and the too-jolly staffer ..................11work hours to their living hours. And the employer www.ardmorepublishing.com
  • 2. On BetterSusan Crawford, PublisherBill Kimbro, EditorEditorial Advisory Board:Austin G. Anderson Communication Trite and overused = a dim witAustin Anderson Consulting, Ann Arbor, MIJonathan Bell, ShareholderGreenberg Traurig LLP, Boston, MAJane E. Berlin, Executive DirectorRogers & Hardin, Atlanta, GA A fast way to sound more knowledgeable and sharp immediatelyKaren Britton, Director of Admissions is to get rid of useless and overused words.University. of Tennessee College of Law That’s not always easy, because many of them have become so Knoxville, TN common we don’t always hear them. But anybody who doesn’t useSteve M. Cohen, Ed.D., CMC, President them somehow gets noticed as intelligent and educated.Labor Managment Advisory Group, Kansas City, MO Here are some of the most useless and worst-sounding of all.Steven Dubner, Partner Look. It’s a good word when it means Please look in that direc-Higgins & Dubner, Atlanta, GA tion. But it’s unnecessary and sometimes even arrogant when it’sRose T. Dunn, CPA, FACHE, Vice-President used as Look, the problem here is not going away.First Class Solutions Inc, St. Louis, MO Politicians use it at every turn to emphasize their points. AlmostMark E. Estes, Law Library Director every policial interview now has somebody saying “Look, theAlameda County Law Library, Oakland, CA Republicans don’t have a leg to stand on and you know it” or “Look,David C. Fortosis, Benefits Consultant nobody likes the new health care law.”Hewitt Associates, Chicago, IL Filler words. I mean, you know, and well. People use these toPatricia Lynn Groff, CLM, President give themselves an extra few seconds to think what to say. ThereAssociation of Legal Administrators, Lincolnshire, IL and Director of Administration, Butz, Dunn & are, you know, 15 senators who oppose it. What the speaker is think- DeSantis, San Diego, CA ing is There are (hmm. . . how many can I count?) 15 senatorsCatherine A. Hankins, Certified PP, PLS opposing it.President, NALS...The Association for Legal People also use these to fill in periods of silence. Governor Smith Professionals, Tulsa, OK, and Legal Secretary, Bricker & Eckler, Columbus, OH is the worst governer we’ve every had. (Nobody says anything.) I mean, well, you know, he even increased the sales tax.Peter R. Hermann, CAE, Executive DirectorARMA International, Prairie Village, KS Wasted words. Actually, basically, and totally. All have goodPatricia J. Lane, CLM, Administrator meanings, but they get used in places where the meaning doesn’tMcKenna, Long & Aldridge, San Diego, CA even apply. Basically gets used the most. What we do is basically weJames G. Leipold, Executive Director buy a sack of Big Macs. There’s nothing basic about buying ham-National Assn. for Law Placement, Washington, DC burgers. Or this is totally out of date or he’s totally rude. There’s nothingBetsi Roach, Executive DirectorLegal Marketing Association, Chicago, IL wrong with totally. It just isn’t needed there.Dianna Smiley, RP, President, National Legal-sounding talk. There’s good reason for lawyerspeak. ItFederation of Paralegal Assocs., Kansas City, MO ensures nothing is left out or misconstrued. But when there isn’t anKay M. Todd, Past President, American Assn. of issue at hand, there’s no reason for it and it sounds out of place.Law Libraries, and Senior Legal Researcher, A LOA subscriber once sent in a payment with a letter saying Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, Atlanta, GA “Pleased be advised that enclosed is a check in the amount of $X in Law Office Administrator (ISSN 1071-7242) is full and final payment of a one-year subscription for ABC firm.”published monthly by Ardmore Publishing Company,1800 Peachtree St., Suite 335, Atlanta, GA 30309. The invoice stub and the check would have said the same thing.Subscriptions: $257/year. Periodicals postage paid Worn out words. Finally, there are words and expressions thatat Atlanta, GA 30309. Postmaster: Send addresschanges to Law Office Administrator, P.O. Box have been used so many times they are just worn out. It’s almost11670, Atlanta, GA 30355. embarrassing to hear them. Some of the top ones are Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Awesome. It’s appropriate for a teenager but not for an adult.Law Office Administrator. Mention of products Having said that. Again, it’s politicians who seem to use this mostand services does not constitute endorsement.Advice given is general, and readers should consult often. Change it to however or on the other hand or even so.professional counsel for specific questions. A live human being. Change it to you will get a personal response Copyright 2012 by Ardmore Publishing or one of our staff will answer your call.Company. All rights reserved. Reproduction forbid-den without written permission. Law Office And along with those are the general office buzz words. Some ofAdministrator is a trademark of Ardmore the most overused are going forward, perfect storm, touch base, out-Publishing Company. side the box, and wrap my head around it. Page 2 Law Office Administrator / january 2012
  • 3. (continued from page 1) ing to make presentations at no charge as a way tofor a legal office there are a lot of issues to sort out, promote themselves.particularly client confidentiality. In addition, the Education from another office. Send one or moreadministrator has to put requirements on and also staffers to visit another office that is successful inoversee the quality and amount of work the staffer is some area of interest to the firm, perhaps record man-expected to produce from home. agement or operating a new computer program or But where it is a viable option, most employers say maintaining the website.telecommuting increases productivity. Part of the The staff at the other office explain what they arereason is that the employee doesn’t have to deal with doing and the benefits they are seeing from it, and thethe constant interruptions that occur in an office. But visitors come back and make a presentation to theequal to that is the fact that people don’t want to lose other staff on what they have learned. They can alsotheir telecommuting privilege and so make an extra draw up a plan for putting a similar program to workeffort to give their employers good work from home. in the office. Most employers allow no more than one day a week The education can be a one-time visit, or the firmof telecommuting. can set up an ongoing education exchange program Community service time. Some firms give one or with several offices.two paid days each year for participation in communi- Professional association memberships. Managersty or charity programs. And in most cases, they are in all types of professional offices promote staff mem-programs the firm promotes or sponsors. bership in and certification from professional associa- The community time can be an annual event or a tions.one-time event such as participating in a Humane It’s a good benefit because it allows staff toSociety fundraiser or helping repair homes after a dis- advance in their jobs and also build their resumes.aster. And the firm gets a better educated, better qualified, For the firm, the advantage is good marketing expo- and more professional staff.sure. It’s also possible to get marketing from the certifi- cations by mentioning them in the firm newsletter andEVERYBODY LIKES FOOD on the website. There is an enormous number of associations and Breakroom food. Some managers keep the break- certifications for all types of professional and admin-room supplied with free cold drinks as well as coffee istrative staff from librarians to paralegals to secre-and tea. Others adds free snacks to that. taries to record staff. Friday lunch food. Some managers order in lunchonce a week. Friday is usually the day staff most RECOGNITION IS MOSTLY FREEappreciate it. Again, there’s a benefit to the office.Having staff and also the attorneys sit down to lunch Peer recognition. Advice from a psychologist is totogether promotes camaraderie. let the staff vote every month or every quarter on the Once-in-a-while food. Management consultants person they believe has done the most outstanding jobsay people respond well to occasional and unexpected in some particular area. It can be client service, officebenefits, and in the food area, that can mean ordering service, or whatever the administrator wants to focusin dessert one afternoon or from time to time setting on.out morning coffee and bagels in the break room. The winner gets a prize, and the best prize is time, perhaps an extra vacation day. But it can also be aEDUCATION IS A WIN / WIN BENEFIT bonus or a gift, albeit with a value high enough to reflect what the staffer has done for the firm. Speakers. Invite speakers to staff meetings. Because it’s not a manager or an attorney but theTopics can be of direct benefit to the firm, such as other staff who choose the winner, the award is a sig-record management or privacy compliance. nificant one. There can also be legal topics. Some administrators Again, there’s a benefit to the office. The programroutinely have one of the attorneys or a paralegal promotes good performance because it puts every-explain some type of legal work the office deals with body’s attention on improvement in the area beingfrequently. evaluated. A speaker might also address things of personal Personal recognition. Almost all management con-interest to staff – a broker talking about how to invest sultants say that what most motivates employees isor a nutritionist addressing weight loss or a psycholo- recognition for outstanding work.gist talking about ways to relieve stress. Many profes- And the recognition does not have to be expensivesionals – especially those just starting out – are will- or elaborate or time-consuming. A handwritten cardLaw Office Administrator / january 2012 Page 3
  • 4. from the administrator or from one of the partners Just a few questions on the client intake formsaying no more than “thank you for doing such a goodjob on X” is significant to the point that most employ- produce good marketingees will save it. Give the same compliment again in a staff meeting,and the benefit is doubled, because now the staffer haspeer recognition as well. There’s good marketing to be had just from the Appreciation. Follow the lead of Google. Hang a client intake process.whiteboard on a wall for staff to write down ideas. “It’s a free and simple way to get to know theTell them that ideas of all types are welcome and to clients better,” says MARLA E. GOODMAN ofaddress client satisfaction, office operations, new pro- Perception Is Reality, a San Diego consumer andcedures – anything that will improve or make a differ- client satisfaction research company.ence to the practice. It can show where the advertising and marketing Google’s theory is that ideas pop into people’s are and aren’t working and where changes need to beheads at odd times and are usually forgotten if they’re made in the focus of the marketing.not written down when they crop up. It can point to new business opportunity areas. And Discuss the ideas at staff meetings and give credit it can identify the firm’s “unique value,” or what it isto the people who have come up with them. that attracts both new and former clients. It just takes a few questions to find all that out,THE LITTLE EXTRAS COUNT TOO Goodman says. They fall into four categories. Bulk purchase discounts. Some administrators WHAT BROUGHT YOU HERE?share their purchasing discounts with staff. If theoffice gets a good bulk price or something such as soft First is where new clients are coming from, and fordrinks or cleaning supplies, it lets staff go in on the those clients, the form needs to ask two things.order and take advantage of the savings. • How did you hear about us? Credit card points. Some offices pay with credit To get people thinking, list a few options such ascards wherever possible and use the rewards points the website, an advertisement, and a friend or rela-for staff benefits such as tickets or miles or cash tive’s recommendation.rewards. That one question gives a true view of where the Most bills can be paid with cards, and depending on marketing should be focused.how often the office uses cards, the reward amounts It may show clients are finding the firm online orcan be significant. Some offices get tremendous num- through an advertisement or from other clients.bers of points by paying for computers and large Similarly, it may show the firm needs to alter itsequipment with cards. focus. If people aren’t coming from the website, either Parking and transportation. Because of the the site needs improvement or the firm needs to spendexpense of gasoline and parking, any assistance here its marketing money elsewhere.is an appreciated benefit. • What was it about that source that made you con- Some administrators give out an occasional $25 gas tact us?card. Or give transit passes. Or, depending on the That pinpoints what’s working.office’s location, negotiate a block of convenient If several people say “I thought your website wasparking spots in the building. Or give a parking really informative,” expand the educational materialallowance. on the website. Trinkets. Even the smallest things count as bene- Or if several people cite referrals such as “formerfits. Client So-and-So spoke highly about your employ- One administrator keeps an eye out for small extras ment law section,” send those referrals a note ofthat he can give to staff. thanks and set up some way to stay in touch with When he goes to a conference, for example, he col- former clients.lects the gift handouts in the exhibit hall and then laysthem out on a table in the break room for staff to pick WHAT BROUGHT YOU BACK TO US?up. Or when he gets a gift card or a coupon for coffeeor whatever, he gives it to a staffer on a Friday after- The next questions are for returning clients.noon. • What made you come back to us? It’s not an earned reward, he says. He simply hands Whatever brought that client back is paying off.it to any staffer with a thank-you for the week’s For example, if the answer is that phone calls wereefforts. always returned or the bills were clear or staff werePage 4 Law Office Administrator/ january 2012
  • 5. friendly, put office-wide emphasis on those areas. reads like a legal document. While that’s appropriate Then ask more about the client’s earlier experience for corporate clients, for individual clients legal word-with the firm. ing is difficult to read and can even be intimidating. • How do you feel about the value you received She gives the example of the word matter. “A clientfrom us for the money? is never going to use that in a discussion about the • What went well the last time you used our firm? problem.” Instead of “what is the matter you wouldWhat didn’t go well? Is there anything you’d like to like for us to handle?” phrase it in the vernacular:see us improve? “why are you contacting us today?” or “how can we The answers to those are “golden nuggets,” help you today?”Goodman says, because anybody who liked the firm Tone counts too. Formal communication befits awell enough to come back a second time is going to large corporate practice; more casual communicationgive an honest answer. befits a family practice. Answers might come in such as “I liked the legal The tone should also reflect clients’ personal situa-work, but I wish you would return my calls sooner” or tions. For blue collar clients, don’t ask for an annual“my lawyer and assistant were great, but the recep- salary but “what is your hourly wage?”tionist was often rude when I called.” Making the tone fit the client shows the firm under- Similarly, anything negative that gets mentioned, no stands the client. matter how small, warrants fixing, because it was badenough to be remembered. “It’s something in the backof the client’s mind and it’s bugging that client.” With EEOC complaints The details make the difference, she says. It’s likeshopping online. No matter how much the customer itʼs the investigating thatlikes the product, if the checkout is clumsy, there’s notgoing to be a sale.WHERE CAN WE FIND YOU? limits the firmʼs liability While all firms ask the next question, few makemarketing use of it. When a staffer complains of any type of employ- • What’s the best way for us to contact you? ment law violation, “the cornerstone of the office’s Besides ensuring the client likes the method of con- defense” is going to be the investigation.tact, the answer shows where the firm needs to focus It’s the investigating that determines whether some-its direct marketing, Goodman says. body is guilty and if so, how that person is disci- If a majority want to be contacted by e-mail and the plined, says employment law attorney DIANE M.firm’s newsletter goes out by mail, it’s probably time PFADENHAUER. Do it wrong and the firm will haveto scrap the mailing and move to an e-mail newsletter. to answer some tough questions later, possibly in a lawsuit.DO YOU LIKE THIS FORM? Pfadenhauer is president of Employment Practices Advisors in Northport, NY, a human resources firm And then there’s a question that rarely gets asked. specializing in employment litigation consulting. • On a scale of 1 to 5, how do you rate this formyou are filling out? What can we do to improve it? GET AN ATTORNEY ON THE PHONE Take the criticism to heart. If people say it’s toolong, it probably is. If they say it’s hard to read or that The first word of advice is don’t do any investigat-the wording is confusing, it needs rewriting. ing without first calling an attorney. Unless the form is clear and easy to fill out, clients The danger is that the firm will lose the opportunitywon’t give complete answers, and the firm won’t get to create attorney/client privilege and end up havinguseful information. Or a client “could start the rela- to turn over information detrimental to its position.tionship a little annoyed.” Suppose the firm does its own investigating for a Look to see if a lot of questions are being skipped. sexual harassment complaint and finds nothing to sub-“That’s telling.” It means clients are frustrated with stantiate the allegation. The employee disagrees withthe form or that it doesn’t much apply to them. the decision and sues. Look too to see if the questions are still applicable. There’s no attorney/client privilege, so all the notesIt’s not uncommon for a question to be outdated to the are discoverable. And there may well be some iffypoint of absurdity – like asking if the client has a points that could support the staffer’s position.MySpace account. On the other hand, in most states, if an attorney Another point to watch for is whether the form (continues on page 8)Law Office Administrator / january 2012 Page 5
  • 6. Index to Law Office Administrator – 2011 These are the articles that appeared in LOA during 2011. They are listed chronologically by topic. This index is a good reference for tracking past information.MALPRACTICE RISKS MANAGING THE ATTORNEYSRenting out extra space? Set up protective walls. That renter Good orientation requires good mentoring – July can put the firm at risk – December Multi-city firm addresses a woman’s lifestyle to allow theA lateral hire can bring in tremendous malpractice issues; cover female attorneys to succeed in practice – July these points before making the offer – August Don’t lose a good lateral to poor orientation and forgottenRisk management now has to cover elements unknown 30 years office introductions – March ago – June Here’s how to ensure those very expensive new associates don’tMANAGING THE STAFF bolt – FebruaryHow a New Jersey administrator turned a time clock and layoffs PARTNER ISSUES into actual staff benefits– November Pick a law partner the same as a marriage partner – NovemberAsk a departing staffer ‘why are you leaving?’ and expect some surprisingly valuable answers – September Why partners start looking around for headhunters – NovemberThree nightmare staffers: the excuser, the downplayer, and the How to oust a partner and survive the split – October attention getter – September Partner compensation has to meet the firm’s goals – AprilChicago administrator sets up a number of inexpensive perqs Set up a yearly goal plan for the partners that covers revenues, that offset the tightening economy – September clients, staffing, finance, and succession planning – FebruaryLots of ways to make managment easier: interview and hiring tactics, understanding personalities, motivation methods, morale builders, performance improvers, perqs that go a HEALTH CARE REFORM long way, and how to garner staff’s respect – August Health care reform starts to come alive with Accountable CareHow to tell a staffer performance is bad or there won’t be a Organizations; they will affect the benefits program – April raise or that a layoff has come – JulyMore people issues: changing a staffer’s job responsibilities, THE INTERNET requiring a doctor’s excuse for an absence, stopping gossip about the firm, and denying a vacation request – June Any law firm can find itself a wide-open target for client IDMissouri office provides unusual benefits that put it at #5 of the hackers – October 20 best firms to work for in the U.S. – May A new malpractice risk to address: use of social media – MarchTo deal with a problem staffer, don’t confront the individual but Little known facts about online job applications and disabled don’t leave any room for argument either – May clients – JanuaryFind out how satisfied staff are with their jobs – MayA fast way to find out what staff think about the manager – May PERFORMANCE REVIEWSManaging the blamer, the cryer, and the poor listener – March Instead of goals, set a weakness and strength plan for eachWhy the office needs job descriptions and how to get them all staffer – November written – March The staff review process calls for just a few numbers plus a lotMANAGING THE CLIENTS of judgment – September What to say to the staffer whose performance is below par andHow to keep the client when a corporation gets a new general how to say it – February counsel – NovemberA 25-office firm ensures consistent quality service in much the HIRING AND FIRING same way as hotel chains do – August Which job candidate will be the best choice? Rely first onThe factors that ensure a firm keeps its corporate clients – June intuition – AugustThe top elements that build – or destroy – relationships with For a good firing, make sure nothing is misunderstood so corporate clients – March there’s no room for a lawsuit – AprilThe etiquette of dealing with a disabled client – January When firing a staffer (or an attorney), the big concern is safety,How to handle a call from an angry client – January both legal and physical – FebruaryPage 6 Law Office Administrator / january 2012
  • 7. EMPLOYMENT LAW Every attorney needs a personal marketing plan that covers four elements – JulyAt-will employment status can die unexpectedly and in the To get good press, give the media what they want – May sneakiest ways – November To win the business from new prospects, keep the interactionWhen the economy goes down, claims crop up: don’t give a positive – January reference for an agreement not to sue, don’t ask a staffer to resign, be wary of disciplining long-termers, and be wary of Get a competitive edge with client-friendly billing – January zero-tolerance policies – NovemberAge discrimination gets top billing as people live longer and MERGERS work longer – SeptemberThe FMLA applies more often than most firms realize – August A merger can generate a lot of revenue – maybe; be wary of these 10 danger spots – JuneWage and hour issues can slip in quietly and create absolute $$ THE ART OF BEING ADMINISTRATOR havoc – JulyInvestigating employee complaints is serious business; don’t overlook any of these items – June A self evalution test on management style – DecemberA new area of discrimination risk is family responsibility – May A good manager is assertive but not aggressive – DecemberYes, an oral complaint from a staffer can now support an FLSA retaliation claim – May Approach the bully attorney carefully lest somebody end up getting fired – NovemberBoth the government and employees are searching hard for employment law violations – March Here’s how to weather the political issues – October A good administrator is a good delegator, which means a goodIMPROVING THE REVENUES teacher – September The art of knowing how to detect a lie – JulyRaise the fees regularly and slowly and never apologize for In the professional world, looks count; they even win or lose it – December court cases – JulyChicago firm lets its clients adjust their bill amounts – October How to get authority when the partners want to maintain controlOffer clients payment plans only as a last resort, and limit the of everything – June payment time to six months – October Want to keep the job? Stay neutral. Never join forces with anyTo keep the money coming in, track the numbers lest the dollars partner – April slip away unnoticed – September How to impress the partners with a presentation – April19 easy ways to improve the collections – April To increase personal productivity, learn ‘wastebasketry’ and getFast bills plus a discount for immediate payment improves the rid of the paper – February revenues and cash flow for an Oregon firm – MarchManage and adjust the budget at every milestone or fail at GRAMMAR, WRITING, AND SPEAKING year’s end – MarchTexas firm holds monthly mandatory meetings where the A good 2012 resolution is to get the pronouns right – December attorneys have to explain every overdue account – February Getting eight abbreviations right: A.D., e.g., i.e., et al., etc.,Economics 101: the factors that absolutely determine the firm’s N.B., sic, and R.I.P. – November financial health – February 10 sentences with lots of errors to correct – OctoberMichigan administrator increases the revenues with e-mail The basic rules for using periods, commas, semicolons, and bills that go out every two weeks – January quotation marks – SeptemberMARKETING Majority is or are? like or such as? in or into? shall or will? than I or me? toward or towards? if or whether? – August The Oxford comma lives! – JulyThe time, the target, the price, and the tracking required for good marketing – December Affect/effect, continuous/continual, compliment/complement, persuade/convince, immigrate/emigrate, capital/capitol,10 short, practical, and easy marketing ideas – December imply/infer, founder/flounder, stationery/stationary,How to find new business clients and how to keep them once sensuous/sensual – June they’re found – October How to write dates and time – MayThe disaster plan needs to include taking advantage of the Items everybody misses: less v. fewer, who v. that, different marketing potential that comes with a crisis – September from v. than, hanged v. hung; the -self words – AprilFive ruinous elements a lawyer can encounter during a press Lie or lay? Here’s the ultimate test! – March interview and how to sidestep them – September When to use and when not to use a comma – FebruaryThe receptionist should be the front-line marketer and the image of the firm – August When in doubt, just use other words – January Law Office Administrator / january 2012 Page 7
  • 8. (continued from page 5) following policy to a T with staff who are female ordoes the investigating, the information is privileged older or whatever.and not available to the other side, so any iffy pointsthat turn up don’t get used against the employer. TAKE NOTES – GOOD ONESTAKE EVERY WORD SERIOUSLY Another safeguard is complete notes about the investigation. Pfadenhauer’s next item of advice is to take every The notes are a summary of what occurs “and theycomplaint seriously and investigate it. have to be clear,” Pfadenhauer says. They also have to It’s not uncommon for a manager to get a complaint be neat and professional. “The sloppier the notes, theor overhear talk about how Staffer A is being harassed sloppier the investigation looks.”and brush it off thinking it’s just talk. If some are scribbled on paper napkins and scraps Do that and the door to trouble opens wide, she of paper or if some of the conversations with witness-says. If the staffer comes back with a lawsuit, the firm es aren’t documented at all, who’s going to respect thenot only has to defend itself against the claim but has firm’s decision that the claim was not supported?to explain why it knew what was going on and did The notes are going to be challenged, and what thenothing to protect the victim. other side wants to show is that the firm fudged or Whenever there’s a complaint or evidence of missed things or deliberately covered something up.wrongdoing, an employer has to be able to show that And the administrator is going to end up facing theit responded with “prompt remedial action.” When question of “why did you write these notes on thethere’s knowledge of a situation that’s potentially back of your hand while those are on the computer?”harmful to an employee, “it has a legal obligation to Every note should carry a date and the time spentmake it go away.” with the individual. And along with what the person Fail to do that, and the office loses. And if the says, document any evidence of credibility or lack ofvictim can show there were other issues that never got it such as argumentativeness or failure to make eyereported “because everybody knew the office wasn’t contact.taking it seriously,” the trouble doubles. DONʼT SKIP ANY WITNESSOBJECTIVITY SAVES THE DAY Don’t let anybody other than the investigator decide Objectivity is another investigation essential. who gets interviewed. That’s the investigator’s call, And the objectivity has to be perceived as well as “and anybody who tries to influence it is a problem.”actual. For example, if the investigator reports to the People interfere there, she says. Sometimes there’saccused, no matter how detached and impartial that a political reason, but just as often it’s a matter ofinvestigator is, the logical perception is that the inves- wanting the investigation to get over or, if the investi-tigation is a sham. gator is an outsider, an effort to limit the cost. Thus, if the accused is a partner, the firm is going In her own investigations, she says, senior-levelto have a difficult time looking objective, because a people have told her “Partner A is never going to meetpartner is everybody’s boss. In that situation, the safe with you.” And that’s the very person she insists onapproach is to have an outsider do the investigating, interviewing.perhaps a consultant or management advisor. She adds that the investigating should continue That’s the only way to keep things 100% neutral until it’s obvious the allegations are or are not valid.and eliminate the risk of having a witness say “I That’s often a judgment call. If somebody allegesdidn’t tell the whole truth because I knew what I said that 15 people saw the harassment, it’s not necessarycould influence whether I got a raise.” to interview all 15, but it is necessary to talk with enough of them to verify that there were 15.STICK TO THE FIRMʼS POLICIES If there’s ever a question of “why didn’t you inter- view So-and-So?” the reason has to be far better than Then comes the issue of policy. It’s obvious an “because they told me not to.”employer is going to lose if it ignores its own policies,Pfadenhauer says, “but it happens all the time.” GET GRAPHIC A partner investigates complaints one way and theadministrator does it another. And then comes an Don’t accept any vague descriptions about whatassertion that the difference is evidence of discrimina- happened.tion. If the accuser says “he was really gross,” don’t stop “The newspapers are filled with stories” about there. Ask “what do you mean by gross?” Or if it’semployers being lenient with senior executives but that someone was drunk, ask how much that personPage 8 Law Office Administrator / january 2012
  • 9. had to drink. Of if somebody says a client was angry, says. They have to know their responses can’t beask what that client did to show anger. linked back to themselves. If a staffer says “he sends me abusive e-mails,” ask To ensure anonymity, have staff fill out the surveysfor an example. “It could be the e-mail was ‘you need online through a survey service. Or simply e-mail theto do a better job.’” questions in a Word document and have them return Or if someone claims to have been touched inap- their responses in printed form.propriately, ask where and when and what the circum-stances were. And if the person being accused asks OPEN-ENDED PLUS A FEW OPTIONS“what did I do?” be specific. Otherwise, how can thatperson know not to do it again? To get a good response, ask open-ended questions plus questions that offer options.WHAT IF THEREʼS NO EVIDENCE? Suppose the administrator wants to ask about morale. “Just because there were no witnesses doesn’t mean An open-ended question is “What can we do toit didn’t happen.” And many times there aren’t. make you feel more a part of the firm?” An option Absent any evidence, tell the accuser the firm can’t question is “Do you think it would be beneficial tocorroborate the allegations but that it nevertheless bring in speakers at lunchtime? make the schedulerespects the complaint and wants the staffer to feel more flexible? what else?” The options get peoplefree to bring any other concerns to the manager. thinking. Also make sure the staffer understands that theoffice’s policy requires people to report any infrac- WHAT TOPICS?tions. What if the staffer asks what has happened to the What the survey covers is up to the administrator.accused? Say only that the issue has been addressed Hissong’s advice is to focus on the things that couldand should not happen again “but if it does, report it be or need to be improved. She gives these examples.to us.” Whatever discipline is or isn’t taken with that Communication. A good topic, she says, becauseperson “is nobody else’s business,” she says. More- communication with management makes staff feelover, if the accusation wasn’t true to begin with, talk- part of the practice. Ask “How well does the firming about it could turn into slander. communicate with you?” and “What can we do to improve our communications?” or “What can we do to make you more informed?” Also cover the opportunity for communication withAn anonymous survey management with questions such as “Do you have good access to your supervisor (or the administrator,will improve morale depending on the office’s structure)?” And follow that with “If not, what can we do to make you feel moreas well as performance comfortable going to your manager?” Personal interest. Good performance depends to a great extent on whether staff look forward to coming to work and enjoy being there. And that in turn When people are engaged in their jobs, they’re hap- depends to a great extent on whether the firm takes apier and do better work. personal interest in them. How can the administrator get them engaged? Good questions here are “What’s the one thing we Survey them. Ask what’s good and bad about their can do to make your work life better?” and “What’sjobs and about the firm in general, says JUDY something you can do to improve your day-to-dayHISSONG, a principle of Nesso Strategies, practice routine?”management consultants in San Diego. Hissong is also Resources. Nobody can do a job well without thea former law firm administrator. resources to do it: Employees like being asked for their opinions, What would help you be more efficient in your job?because it shows they are a respected part of the orga- What is the most difficult part of your job? Why is itnization. difficult? What’s one thing we can do to make that part ofANONYMITY COUNTS your job less difficult? Do you have the training you need to do your job? For honest answers, do the surveying anonymously Hissong adds that technology is no longer theand in writing. number-one training need because people have “People don’t want to give themselves away,” she become used to it. What’s really needed is training inLaw Office Administrator / january 2012 Page 9
  • 10. interpersonal skills. People handle technology well; is what you said. We listened. And here is what we arethey don’t communicate well. doing in response.” Benefits. Satisfaction here is important because Keep up the fanfare even if the change was alreadyemployees value their benefits. Some good questions: in the works: “your responses gave us confidence in What’s your level of satisfaction with our benefit the direction we were going.”package? It’s the fanfare that engages staff in their work and What’s one thing about it you’d like to see done dif- makes them forthcoming with the next survey.ferently? What’s the one thing you don’t want to see changed? Besides showing what staff want and aren’t getting,the answers here could save a good bit of money. This MonthʼsThere may be a wellness program nobody is using andthat could be dropped. Or the firm may be giving a Ideaparking allowance for a parking area nobody likes.DONʼT ASK FOR DAYDREAMS Total file management Don’t ask questions about things the office can’tchange, she cautions. in just four short pages If the partners aren’t going to add dental coverageto the health plan, don’t ask staff if they would benefitfrom dental coverage. It may be appropriate to ask “What additional typesof coverage would benefit you?” But don’t mention While large firms have extensive procedures forthe dental coverage. clerical operations, most small firms don’t. And as a small firm grows, it starts to encounter theTHE UNFIXABLES inevitable – confusion. That’s just what happened with the file management What if staff request changes that the firm won’t at a four-attorney Arizona office. When it came to set-allow? ting up and maintaining and closing files, “staff were Don’t put the blame the partners. Don’t even say just winging it,” says PATRICIA KUCHARSKI,“I’m in disagreement with them.” That puts the CLM, business manager for the Tucson firm Bancroftadministrator in league with the staff and apart from John.leadership, and it shows the administrator carries no The firm handles property tax law exclusively, soclout. “The administrator should be in the leadership all the work was essentially the same, but all the filescamp, not the staff camp.” weren’t. Everybody did things differently and docu- If something can’t be fixed, simply say “we heard ments were getting both missed and duplicated.you, we appreciate your comments, and if this remains Along with that, the attorneys were spending timean important issue for you, we will revisit it.” looking for information that was hidden under a lot of Similarly, Hissong says, don’t let staff know of any loose papers or maybe hadn’t been put into the file atdisagreement with the partners. In one firm she man- all.aged, she worked for five years to get long-term dis- So Kucharski undertook the job of establishing aability added to the insurance coverage. And during file management procedure. And what she came upthose five years, she never mentioned it to staff with is an outline that’s only four pages long, doublebecause she didn’t want them to know she was fight- spaced, and with most of the entries having only oneing with the people she reported to. or two words. Staff want a leader, she says. They don’t want amanager who ranks no higher than their own level. EXACTLY WHAT EVERYBODY WANTEDMAKE CHANGES WITH FANFARE The approach was to ask the attorneys what was most important to them about filing, she says. And The job doesn’t end until action gets taken. their answer was that they wanted all the contact and Don’t take the trouble to draw up the survey and administrative information as well as certain docu-then sit on the answers, she says. That tells staff they ments set out in the file before they ever looked at it.don’t much matter and that their opinions weren’t Then she asked staff the same question, and theyworth consideration. said they needed clear instruction on how to put the Respond. And do so with fanfare. Present it as “this files together and what documents to put in them andPage 10 Law Office Administrator / january 2012
  • 11. what information to keep on computer and even when MANAGING THE PEOPLE Dealing with cell phoneto close a file. The outcome was an outline that covers content, abusers, smokers, andhandling, organization – and a rule that all the pageshave to be attached so there are no loose paper float- the too-jolly staffering about. Besides the convenience of it, “that pulls the attor-neys away from the clerical realm,” Kucharski says.There’s no billable time lost to hunting down papers.And perhaps more important, when they talk with Here are three people questions. They cover the cellclients they have complete information and can access phone and internet users, the smokers, and the staffereverything immediately. who wastes time entertaining everybody. They are answered by JONNA CONTACOS-AN OUTLINE WITH THREE SECTIONS SAWYER, CMC, CCP, SPHR, president and con- sulting principal of HR Consultants, a management The outline has only three sections – for opening, and human resources firm in Johnstown, PA.maintaining, and closing a file. For the opening section, the topics begin with the • How can the administrator limit personal use of cell phones, e-mail, and the internet?research. That includes the information the secretaryneeds to collect from the attorney at the start such as Set up a policy that covers all electronic communi-the contact and billing information and the type of the cation, Contacos-Sawyer says.matter. There’s also a checklist of the information the A policy is a necessity, not just to save the adminis-attorney has to get from the client before the work can trator the aggravation of having to be the cell phonebegin – things such as the parcel number, assessor police but to ensure the survival of the firm. Studiesrecords, and map. show that every year employers lose as much as 25% Next is a list of the files that need to be kept in the of productivity because of electronic communicationcomputer record such as the engagement letter, corre- abuse. “That’s something a small employer can’tspondence, billing information, and authorization afford.”forms. The policy should not forbid personal communica- Then comes the physical part of the file, or the doc- tion. Employees are adults, and they need access touments the attorney needs to have from the client such personal electronic communication. What the policyas the title and blueprints of the property. A checklist should do is limit it enough that it doesn’t affect pro-of those items is attached to the inside cover. ductivity. After that are the steps to take to open the file in the She recommends just a brief statement:office’s system. E-mail, instant messaging, internet use, and And then come directions on how to label the file. voice mail are provided for company business The second section is for maintaining the file, and it use. While occasional personal nonbusiness usestarts with two rules: everything has to be filed imme- of those services is accepted, employees mustdiately and kept in chronological order, and every- demonstrate a sense of responsibility and notthing has to be hole-punched and attached to the abuse the privilege. This includes the use of per-folder so there are no loose papers. sonal cell phones. It shows how to label large matters that have more Continuous abuse of electronic communicationthan one file. privileges will result in discipline up to and And it tells what documents have to be kept in the including discharge.file such as filing status updates, hearing notices, Because electronic communication is so prevalent,hearing results, appeal information, e-mail copies, and however, don’t expect to be able to send out a one-final billing information. time notice about the policy and have people follow it, The third section tells how to close a file. she says. It lists the reasons for closing a file – that the client Make a to-do about it. Meet with staff and explainwithdrew from the appeal or the case was settled and that they are paid a salary and benefits in exchange forso on. And it tells what closing information to enter their productivity. Tell them the firm is setting theinto the computer. policy because electronic communication can severely That covers every aspect of the life of a file and limit productivity. Or, if productivity has alreadyevery question anybody might ask about filing, nose-dived because of it, say so and, if possible, giveKucharski says. And in outline form, it’s easy to use examples of what’s happened.for staff training. A new staffer can pick it up and Hand out the policy and require that everybody signknow immediately what to do with every file. and date it. Also tell staff the signed document will beLaw Office Administrator / january 2012 Page 11
  • 12. kept in their individual personnel files. When all that’s break, and another 15-minute break after lunch.done, add the policy to the handbook. That way nobody can slip out every hour for a Keeping the signed policy in the personnel files is smoke break, “because that’s seven to 10 minutesproof enough that the firm takes the matter seriously each time.” That’s in violation of the policy and war-and expects everybody to use personal electronic rants discipline.communication appropriately. Many offices want to go beyond that and get rid of Then if abuse appears, the policy is there to support the hassle – and the odor – of tobacco altogether.disciplinary action. Don’t go so far as to forbid smoking, she says. Do She adds that the difficult part of the issue is that that and the firm may lose a lot of staff.it’s not possible to set specific limits on communica- Set up restrictions instead that “make it miserable”tion or to monitor the exact time people spend with it. for people to smoke. The easiest ways is to designate The only thing the administrator can do is keep a smoking area that’s inconvenient. She cites one hos-track of productivity. Those who abuse the policy will pital that prohibits smoking on the entire campus.be less productive than those who don’t. Approach it Employees have to walk a block away to smoke “andas a productivity issue. there’s nothing to protect them from the environ- ment.” • How can the office keep the smokers from Some employers ask job applicants if they smoketaking extra time for smoke breaks? and only hire nonsmokers. Again the answer is a policy. And some require smokers to pay higher health Spell out what break times people can take, perhaps insurance premiums and copayments.a 15-minute break before lunch, a one-hour lunch Smoking time is nonproductive time, she says, and to allow it “is unfair to the nonsmokers.” • How should the office discipline a staffer who spends time entertaining everybody? The rest of the TM subscription form Law Office Administrator office likes the individual and the humor does help morale, but constantly being on stage cuts into the Please send me the next 12 issues staffer’s productivity. plus a free forest green binder for $257. (Make checks payable to Law Office Administrator.) The real problem is that the loss of productivity isn’t limited to the entertainer, Contacos-Sawyer says. _____ Payment is enclosed _____ Please bill me Everybody may like the staffer and enjoy the enter-Name ________________________________________________ tainment, but people soon realize that person isn’t doing much work, and they start thinking “we canTitle__________________________________________________ slack off too.” It erodes everybody’s productivity.Firm name ____________________________________________ The short answer is that the administrator has toAddress ______________________________________________ deal with the entertainer as somebody who is notCity __________________ State _______ Zip code __________ doing the job. Make it clear the performance needsTelephone (area code)_______/ ___________________ improvement, and if it doesn’t happen, discipline. The long answer, however, is that entertainers don’t always realize their performance is unacceptable. or pay by credit card: They think the job is fun because the people around We give a $10 discount on credit card payments. them are laughing and happy. Card payment is $247. She recommends approaching the staffer with J VISA J MasterCard J Discover J AMEX recognition of the strengths: “you have strong inter-Name on card _________________________________________ personal skills.” Point out that because of those skills, the staffer can have a positive impact on everybodyCard #________________ ___________ exp. date _____________ else’s performance.Billing address ________________________________________ Then explain that productivity is suffering and thatCity __________________ State _______ Zip code __________ there has to be improvement. E-mail address (for your confirmation notice only): Ask for suggestions on how that person can change. Ask too “how can I help you?” ______________________________________ And point out that “I don’t want to curb your per- sonality. I want you to concentrate more on your Law Office Administrator work.” P.O. Box 11670 • Atlanta, GA 30355 But from there, proceed as usual. And if there’s no Telephone 404/367-1991 • Fax 404/367-1995 change, deal with it as a performance issue. Discipline and, if necessary, fire. www.ardmorepublishing.com

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