Sally C. Stratman is the executive director of Rubin and Rudman LLP in Boston and a member of the MBA's Law Practice Management Section Council.
Q: I'm a one-person office and hired my first secretary three months ago. She's not very good, but is it too soon to fire her? Have I given her enough of a chance?
A: What's not to like? Bad typing and poor filing? Or does she answer the phone while chewing gum? Does she dress inappropriately?
If what you find missing are basic skills of good grammar, orderliness and attention to detail, fire her now. You don't have to give a reason, simply tell the person it's not working out and thank her for her efforts. Have this conversation at the end of the workday. Then, give her two weeks' severance, ask her to give you the office keys, clear her work area of personal belongings, see her politely to the door and call in a temp. A solo office can't afford to train in basic skills, and you're not a bad person for wanting to get what you are paying for.
On the other hand, if what bothers you is that she has all the raw materials but just doesn't do the job as professionally as you want, maybe you haven't made your expectations clear. Make a list of your concerns and expectations, note what you would consider improvement, and have a sit down. Start out with, "I have a problem and I need your help. I know I didn't make clear some of my expectations, and I'd like to go over some things with you that I'd like to see changed, okay?"
A respectful approach paired with your expressed expectation that you can work out a solution together usually produces a win-win result. Staff almost always sense displeasure on your part, but are frequently wary about asking about its cause... and they don't read minds. Tell them what you are thinking. And then ask what you can do to help make her job more productive and rewarding. You can't read her mind either!
Q: I'm afraid the problem is basic skills. She can't properly use a comma, confuses "your" and "you're" and her filing is woeful. But she interviewed really well! How do I prevent making this mistake again?
A: That's easy! Before you waste a moment interviewing, have candidates fill out an application that asks them to: put a list of dates in chronological order; put a list of names in alphabetical order; correct a dozen misspelled words; use words like "your," "you're," "its" and "it's" in sentences; add a list of numbers; draft a short paragraph for some purpose; and share with you their three strengths, three weaknesses and their most challenging life experience. You might add questions pertinent to your practice area, if you are looking for experience in particular areas as well as basic skills.
If any responses give you pause, you might probe that area in your interview. If more than two responses are unsatisfactory, thank the candidate for his or her time and advise the person that his/her skill set doesn't exactly fit your search. Note handwriting, too. It needn't be Palmer Method perfect, but if it's sloppy and illegible, that's what your phone slips will look like. Can you live with it?
By the way, if your shop has more than one employee, have one or two meet with a finalist candidate without you. They will be looking for colleagues compatible with the office atmosphere. Listen to their opinions.
Staff is one of your largest business investments, costing significantly more than rent and insurance. But to think of staff as just another expense is to engage in accounting exercises. In actuality, they can add immeasurably to your success and the quality of your daily life. Hire people who exhibit the acumen (not necessarily formal credentials) for the job you want filled, pay a reasonable wage, offer reasonable benefits, treat them with respect and collegial regard, give them a forum in which to offer suggestions for improving processes in the office, and never break a promise made to them.
Also, remember that a nonlawyer assistant may not be aware of the strict rules regarding the attorney-client privilege and protecting confidential information. In fact, let them know in no uncertain terms that any mention of client names and case details to anyone outside the office is strictly forbidden, even if this information has been included in a pleading that has become a matter of public record. Your license and the fate of a client may depend on it.
• "The Lawyer's Guide to Records Management and Retention" by Cunningham and Montana, available from the American Bar Association at www.ababooks.org.
• "Business Development for Lawyers: Strategies for Getting and Keeping Clients" by Schmidt