Oversight as a Team Sport:
The Role of Law Firm Staff

Sometimes the word “oversight” carries a negative connotation, as if the managers of the firm are acting in a big brother-ish way stripping staff of any form of privacy or independence.  According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “oversight” is defined as a “a) watchful and responsible care, b) regulatory supervision.” Certainly, there may be abuses of “watchful and responsible care” or “regularly supervision”, but there can also be positive applications of oversight. That’s what I want to focus on.

In my last post, I discussed “firm oversight as a team sport.” In this post, we are going to take that concept even further by looking at how firm staff contribute to firm oversight and the benefit of doing so. 

We know that firm oversight is important to the health of the law firm and its sustainability. Without firm oversight, the firm may get caught in a precarious financial position, suffer from a rogue employee, or get sued for malpractice. None of those things are good for the firm or its employees. 

1) How can firm oversight benefit staff in particular? 

Firm oversight helps make staff jobs easier and helps staff do their jobs better – more efficiently and effectively. For example, oversight of work distribution and assignments, as well as time spent on matters and administrative tasks, can turn into better delegation from management of tasks to office staff and staff attorneys so that no one member is overloaded with work. By reviewing, aggregating, and analyzing data provided by individual firm staff, management can better understand the distribution of work as well as gain helpful information for compensation purposes. In yet another example, proper oversight of the client experience, including conversion of prospective clients and feedback from client engagements, can help office staff prioritize their duties such as spending extra time chatting with a potential client on the phone, getting back to prospective email inquires, or checking in with current clients. If the best and more profitable clients are those that stem from specific types of matters and come directly from the Internet, staff should prioritize communicating with the clients that fit that profile. 

By ensuring that staff contribute to firm oversight, staff are empowered to help make important decisions and impact the health of the firm. Empowering staff can help increase overall employee well-being and job satisfaction. 

2) How can firm staff contribute to and enhance firm oversight?

Office staff and staff attorneys often have a good understanding of the office workflows. This is because they typically have front line duties and administrative obligations such as answering phones, sending out engagement letters, conducting conflict checks, tracking deadlines, managing documents, following up on accounts receivable, and more. It is also typically staff responsibility to document all their work in a case management system. The combination of regular, verbal, or written reports to management about their work and reports from a case management system give managers key insights about the firm. 

Staff can collect and report on loads of information to management, such as referral information from prospective clients (Where and how did you hear about us?), feedback on the client experience during and after representation (Is/was the client satisfied? Were their goals met?), billable hours by staff member, deadlines missed or extended, case status reports, past-due accounts, and more. 

3) Oversight as a Way to Maximize Efficiency

Oversight not only enables managers to catch mistakes, effectively delegate work, and keep clients happy, but it also allows for an examination of processes and procedures to ensure the most streamlined workflows are in place thus ensuring maximum efficiency. Often, staff are in the best position to assess wasted utilization of resources in an organization. For example, staff may be asked for case status updates, sometimes in an abrupt “just in time” manner (i.e. as soon as a partner needs to know). Rather than create a fire drill each time the request is made (and, what if the assigned staff member is on vacation or out for an emergency), staff can help recommend and develop a system for regular case updates whether verbal or through effective use of a case management system that provides managers, at a glance as soon as they need it, with certain information about a matter. If staff collect 

So, no, oversight isn’t just about keeping a watchful eye and making sure people are doing what they are supposed to be doing, but a mechanism to manage all the many different pieces that must work together and constantly evolve in order to sustain and advance a well-oiled machine. Staff play an integral role in firm oversight and without it, managers wouldn’t have the data they need to make good decisions and ensure that their firm is on track. 

Look out for my next post that tackles the job of firm managers when it comes to oversight and what happens when it isn’t done properly. 

Heidi S. Alexander, Esq. is the Deputy Director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, where she helps manage organization operations and leads the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP). LOMAP provides free and confidential practice management assistance, guidance in implementing new law office technologies, and methods to attain healthy and sustainable practices. She is the author of Evernote as a Law Practice Tool, serves on the ABA’s TECHSHOW Planning Board, and founded the ABA’s Women of Legal Technology initiative. In 2017, Heidi was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Advisory Committee on Professionalism. She is a native Minnesotan, former collegiate ice hockey goaltender for the Amherst College Women’s Ice Hockey Team, and mother of three young children. She can be reached via email at heidi@masslomap.org, Twitter @heidialexander, or LinkedIn.

 





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