Feeling overwhelmed by your workload and never quite able to pull yourself out of the black hole of tasks? Many attorneys, especially those in solo and small firms, reach a crossroad when the thought of hiring staff begins to sound appealing. Whether it’s a receptionist, secretary, paralegal, firm administrator, bookkeeper, or a combination, adding staff can relieve some of the burdens attorneys are facing. Yet most attorneys have never been an employer, and the idea of all that goes into hiring an employee can feel overwhelming. Don’t allow this to deter you from at least considering the prospect of hiring staff. Below is a list of things to consider before and during the hiring process to help alleviate your concerns and allow you to make an informed decision:
Determine whether hiring staff will benefit your practice
Every firm is unique, so it’s difficult to generalize an ideal time for hiring staff. Yet a good starting point for considering hiring staff is when administrative tasks begin to take up more of your time than billable tasks. Hiring staff can allow for delegation of administrative and billable tasks and more time to focus on legal work for your clients.
Can I afford to hire staff?
The key to determining whether you can afford to hire staff is to step back and look at whether hiring staff can provide added value to your firm, rather than viewing the decision exclusively from the perspective of, “do I currently have the cash flow to pay a staff person?” The goal of hiring a staff person is to allow you to delegate certain tasks to someone else, freeing up your time to work more efficiently, bill more time, and increase profits.
What is a reasonable starting salary?
A local staffing company, NW Staffing Resources, developed a survey in 2016 of starting salaries for legal staff in the Portland metro area. Although this survey is now three years old, it is a place to start. Also consider posting on listserves and inquiring with colleagues in similar practices to find out what they pay their staff. Then examine the numbers. If it is a staff person whose work will be billed to the clients, start with the staff person’s hourly rate and determine your “break-even point”. This will be the number of hours you need to bill and collect in order to cover the cost of their compensation. A former Practice Management Advisor provides a helpful example of how to run the numbers. Also consider options for employee benefits, such as health care and retirement plans. The MBA provides various member benefits, including discounted prices on group health insurance.
Determine your specific needs
Before hiring staff, you need to know what types of tasks will be delegated. This will help in creating a clear job description. Consider keeping a log for at least a month specifying every office task and how long it takes, including things like sorting mail, opening and closing files, e-filing, scanning, answering phones, calendaring, conflict checking, billing, and other errands.
Consider utilizing a staffing agency
Create an accurate job description and advertisement
Even if using a staffing agency, an accurate job description is crucial. Before you can post an accurate advertisement for a staff position, you need to know exactly what tasks will be delegated and what types of skills and education are necessary to be sure you are attracting the right person for the job. Often in solo and small firms, the duties of different types of staff are combined, such as receptionist and paralegal. The description should clearly state the various duties. Then delve into other things you consider important in determining qualification, such as organizational skills, communication skills, experience with specific types of software programs, and possibly experience in particular practice areas. Also include a description of the firm, expected hours, salary and benefits, and any interesting or unique characteristics of the position. See sample job descriptions on Monster.com.
Options for posting jobs
There are many general job-posting sites available, including Zip Recruiter, Indeed, Monster, and Career Builder. There are also sites targeted for legal staff positions, including Legal Staff, the National Association for Law Placement, and Law Jobs. Also consider posting on listserves and the Oregon State Bar website.
Diligently screen and assess potential hires
Verify past employment and check references, and do a thorough background check. Many online services can perform extensive background checks, including GoodHire, CriminalWatchDog, AccurateNow, Intelius, US Search, and Instant Checkmate.
Beware of hackers
Be mindful of possible scams when reviewing emails in response to the job posting. Hackers may see the posting and use it as an opportunity to infect the attached “resume” with a virus. Be sure you have virus protection software and all of your software programs are updated before opening documents and avoid clicking on links received from unknown applicants.
Meet with an employment attorney
It is important to understand the basics regarding laws affecting the workplace, such as the definition of “protected categories,” harassment and retaliation, the differences between employees and independent contractors, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. See our practice aid discussing employees and independent contractors at www.osbplf.org > Services > CLEs & Resources > Forms > Staff.
Things to consider upon hiring
Once you’ve found someone who you think will be a good fit, put the offer in writing. Use it as an opportunity to include things like the start date, salary, benefits, office hours, and specific duties. Also include information regarding client confidentiality. See our sample confidentiality agreement at www.osbplf.org > Services > CLEs & Resources > Forms > Staff. Also consider creating an office policies and/or procedures manual to establish clear communication with staff. See our sample office policies and procedures manuals at www.osbplf.org > Services > CLEs & Resources > Forms > Office Manuals.
Understand your duties as a supervisor
Remember that you have certain ethical duties and potential liabilities when acting as a supervisor. See my blog post for more information. Also see my colleague Hong Dao’s article in the Oregon State Bar Bulletin.
Be cautious and stay involved
Be careful about providing access to bank accounts. Maintain control and monitor your practice closely to avoid embezzlement.