by Mark Powers and Shawn McNalis

Originally published in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly

Q: I am not doing a very good job of managing my staff. There’s a lot of confusion because I do not have a system for following up on delegated tasks. Do you have any ideas that can help?

A: Does this sound familiar? You arrive at your office early, intent on tackling the open files you worked on until 9:00 p.m. the night before. No sooner do you get down to business than the phone begins to ring. There’s no one but you to take the call. Although you’ve tried to discipline yourself not to field calls, you pick up the phone. It is a client calling to inquire about progress on his matter. Unfortunately, you handed this file off to one of your staff three weeks ago, and have no idea what progress has been made. You do your best to help the client, but ultimately you have to say that you will call him back with the information he seeks. You hang up feeling slightly embarrassed and berate yourself once again for not staying on top of your files.
It is not as if you don’t communicate with your staff — they no doubt barge into your office with questions, problems and complaints all day long. But you probably have no organized structure of accountability in your communication with them. There is no system in place that allows you to touch all of your files on a regular basis. And when there is no system in place, reporting tends to be spotty, typically focused only on the files that appear to be the most urgent.

There are solutions for this problem. Here are some ideas that may help you:

Schedule a Case Status Review meeting on a regular basis. Have this meeting near the beginning of each week. Generate a list (either manually or with your case management software) of all files. Divide the files into the following categories:

  1. Open and Active
  2. Open and Suspended
  3. Open, need Closed

At the meeting go through your list of files that are open and active. Have your staff give you a very brief update on the file. Discuss the next action to be taken on the file, assign the action to a staff member with a due date and note this information for next week’s meeting. Proceed quickly through the rest of your listed files, working your way through each category and spending time only on the problematic or complex ones. If you have a larger number of files than you can review in one sitting, divide them up so that only a portion are reviewed each week, but each one is touched at least once per month. This type of meeting has the added benefit of allowing attorneys to see how much work they have in the pipeline at any given time. This knowledge is especially important when meeting with clients and agreeing to new deadlines.

Another type of meeting that helps attorneys stay in touch with the staff’s work activities is the Daily Staff meeting. Institute a regular staff meeting for a few minutes at the beginning of each workday. Prior to the meeting, staff members must have reviewed their work for the day, and prepared all questions that they need answered to complete their work. If need be, train your staff to group their questions for other designated periods of the day, such as right before or after lunch, mid-afternoon, or the end of the day. They will appreciate the structure because they will no longer have to plan ambushes to get what they need.

While we are on the subject, start to train your staff to think more critically and not be totally dependent on you as the “Answer Man.” In many offices, all work comes to a halt when the attorney is unavailable for questions. From now on, when your staff seek you out with a question, ask them to bring you what they consider to be an appropriate solution or solutions. You will always supervise their actions, but you will train them to be more proactive and solutions-oriented in their thinking. This is a smart way to weave training into daily situations. Those staff members that embrace this concept will become more and more valuable to the firm.

Try one of these approaches and your staff will be less frantic, you will feel more in control of your files, and your clients will have more confidence in you.

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