My wife is about a million times smarter than I am. (No … 100 billion.) For my money, that’s the recipe for a successful marriage. I’m a lawyer; she’s a legal assistant. We don’t work together, though — because that would be the recipe for a failing marriage. Not only do I have a deep personal respect for my wife, but I also have a similar professional respect for what she does at the office. She knows more than I ever did about substantive law, even if you count the corpus of what I did know when I was still an active practitioner, many moons past.
Certainly, I’m biased, but I don’t believe this level of professional respect is of the same sort regularly accorded to support staff in law firms. In fact, I know it’s not. In too many cases lawyers view their support staff as expendable commodities, replaceable and performing functions on a lower level than they do. (For the record, my wife’s firm treats her with a tremendous amount of professional and personal respect.)
Staff Inflection: What Support Staff Really Means to You
For every attorney-paralegal relationship that is built on a foundation of mutual respect and admiration, there are several razed under constant consternation, engendered by a sense of entitlement on the lawyer’s part. For every long-standing relationship between a lawyer and his office manager, there are several that won’t even last a year, as part of a larger cycle of constant ingress and egress. This equation could be reversed, however, if more lawyers recognized the true value of support staff, by treating them as colleagues within the context of a team environment, and abandoning the de facto caste system, the upper echelon of which is populated by those with a law degree, and the remainder of which is peopled by … well … everybody else.
So, during this holiday season, let’s all be grateful for law firm support staff. Because, you know, they’re real instrumental in just about everything you do professionally.
1. They build the foundation, you build the frame. The basic function of support staff in law firms is the creation and maintenance of foundations. Think about it: Paralegals and legal assistants perform initial research and make first passes at drafts. Receptionists are often the primary, or secondary at least, contacts for new and potential clients. Bookkeepers create pre-bills, establish accounting functions and deliver reconciliations for review. Office managers keep the hive buzzing. I mean, some practice areas can be set up so that support staff and outside contractors — but especially paralegals — do the vast majority of the work, while what’s left for the attorney to do is to hold a pen. (Real estate closings can be a prime example of this approach; but there are others.)
2. They know the technology, you don’t. How’s this for a caveat? As an attorney, you should know the technology you use pretty well. (Even the American Bar Association has sorta, kinda said you really should.) How’s this for a reality check? You know you don’t. The practical version of the story is that, in most traditional firms, support staff are the ones who use the technology the most — and know best how it works. In addition to being another intrinsic reason to value your staff, this also means that they can likely teach you something about how your software runs. Having an embedded, pseudo tech-support team for your law practice is a cost and efficiency savings that is difficult to neglect.
3. They understand business finance, you imagine numbers. Many lawyers attended law school because they weren’t particularly suited for a STEM career path. I know I went to law school because I was told there would be no math. So many lawyers avoid and ignore trust accounting requirements, in part because they don’t want to wrap their heads around the mathematics involved. That’s why you hire a bookkeeper, or an accountant, or a CPA. They do their thing, you provide oversight over their thing, and harmony returns to the universe. Further to my last point, they can run your accounting software, and you probably can’t.
4. They understand customer service, you fancy yourself a rainmaker. Even as more law firms switch to receptionist services, like Ruby’s, there are a significant number that hew to the practice of having firm employees answer the phones and (more often) greet and seat clients. Your receptionist is going to be the first person to meet actual clients when they come in to see you. If your clients are upset with you, they’ll probably tell your secretary first. Won’t you want him to be the secretary of defense? If your support staff make your clients feel comfortable and welcome, return the favor. The basis of the traditional objection to evening the playing field between attorneys and staff is that attorneys are infinitely more important, since they bring in the business. That approach ignores the broader client-law firm relationship, which should be tended, from the first contact to the last, by every shepherd who touches the case.
5. They understand the law, so do you. You just focus on different aspects of the process. If a lawyer and paralegal or legal assistant, especially, can allow each other to concentrate on their specific duties within each client’s progress, then it’s highly likely that an efficient team structure will remain in place. It’s often as simple as getting out of each other’s way, so each team member’s specialty can move to the fore. And if you’re a new lawyer, despite what that new piece of paper hanging in an askew frame on your wall is telling you, your staff will, undoubtedly, know more than you about substantive law, and probably the practice of it, too. Don’t feel bad; think of it as a level of competence to strive for.
Much of how lawyers act professionally is driven by their perceptions of how they think a lawyer should act professionally. Eleven times out of 10, it is preferable to act like yourself, and conform the practice of law around how you want to live. In the end, you and your support staff are just people, trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents, until the lights go down.
Jared Correia is CEO of Red Cave Law Firm Consulting, which offers subscription-based law firm business management consulting and technology services for solo and small law firms. Red Cave also works with legal institutions and legal-facing corporations to develop programming and content. A former practicing attorney, Jared is a popular presenter and regular contributor to legal publications (including his “Managing” column for Attorney at Work). He is author of the ABA book “Twitter in One Hour for Lawyers,” hosts the Legal Toolkit podcast, and teaches for Concord Law School and Suffolk University Law School. He loves James Taylor, but respects Ron Swanson.