Risk management efforts sometimes ignore staff-related risks. Given that support staff interact with clients on a regular basis and also do a tremendous amount of work for their firm, perhaps a few staff-related risk tips are in order. After all, a staff error or omission can lead to a malpractice claim just as readily as an attorney's.
For a law office to function ethically, client confidences must stay within the confines of the law office. Law firm staff members' inadvertent discussions with their own families have led to ethical breaches and dire consequences for the attorneys who were their supervisors.
With this in mind, all firm employees must understand the need for absolute confidentiality in all aspects of their work. It is imperative that all take to heart the old adage “What is learned at the office, stays at the office” and remember that this applies to staff and attorneys alike. To reinforce this understanding, have all staff members sign a confidentiality statement during their annual performance review. Yes, this document will not insulate you from an employee indiscretion, but if you couple it with a new employee orientation program addressing confidentiality, it will provide concrete evidence of your firm's ongoing efforts to preserve client confidences and that can prove useful. Periodic reminders about the necessity of paying attention to who might be within earshot of conversations that occur within the firm as well as who might be able to overhear a cell phone conversation when out of the office might also be of benefit.
Don't overlook the importance of paying significant attention to proper staff training. New staff training should go beyond the “how-tos” of calendar entry, mail handling procedures, conflicts checking, file opening and closing, client communication, and billing procedures. Explain the reasons behind these various tasks. I have met with staff at various firms who reported that they had no idea why certain procedures were the way that they were and so they failed to understand what the potential fallout from a simple error might be. As a result, support staff was sometimes less diligent and less mindful of their responsibilities when handling a specific task such as following through with running a conflicts check, timely processing the mail, or following up with delinquent payers.
Remember that current staff needs periodic training as well. For example, far too often current staff receive new computers and/or software programs and are told, “go to it.” Unfortunately, even if you have great confidence in your support staff, you must provide thorough training when upgrading computer systems or programs in order to avoid potentially disastrous mistakes. Many firms provide minimal or no formal training time, apparently preferring to pay for trial and error learning. An up-front investment in training will reduce the time staff and attorneys spend coming up to speed, reduce the likelihood of errors during the transition, and allow the firm to reap the return on the investment as quickly as possible. Taking this training idea further, consider conducting an annual firm-wide discussion of confidentiality, conflicts checking procedures, and professionalism in communication and presentation as a way to not only remind everyone of the importance of these issues; but to serve as a way to encourage staff to renew their commitment to performing their duties with the highest level of professionalism throughout the year.
Now, don’t make the mistake of overlooking the importance of cross training. There is a serious downside to training individual employees on only one specific task or one area of responsibility. Positions with significant professional responsibilities such as conflicts checking, central calendar maintenance, or accounting and billing should have at least one other person capable of handling the task if the primary person is ill, on vacation, or ever decides to leave. Serious repercussions can occur when a significant amount of intellectual capital is about to walk out the door after providing a two week notice and understand that you will simply not have enough time to capture it all.
Finally, do not underestimate the importance of including the entire firm in periodic staff meetings. These meetings should review the firm's central calendar, emphasize procedures for covering absences, review the distribution of assignments among the firm's attorneys and staff, and discuss the impact upon staff of upcoming significant tasks like a trial or preparation of a major brief.
A secondary benefit of such meetings is support staff satisfaction. If you encourage staff to discuss problems, provide ideas to improve service, or provide solutions to office problems, staff members will feel valued due to an ability to contribute meaningfully to the firm's success. Begin the meeting with a pot of coffee served with bagels and cream cheese and staff satisfaction can become quite high. Keep in mind that satisfied staff members are more productive, stay longer, and have fewer sick days all of which can have a direct impact on the firm's profitability.
To further encourage you in this regard, don't overlook the potential impact that dissatisfied staff will have on your client base. Clients interact directly with staff in numerous ways. If your support staff members feel depressed, overworked, taken for granted, or just dissatisfied in general imagine what message the clients are receiving and we all know that client dissatisfaction increases your risk of a malpractice claim or disciplinary complaint, not to mention lost revenue due to lost client referrals and repeat business which are the bread and butter of many firms. Staff can be a valuable resource for your firm if you decide to treat them as such.
Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. is a Risk Manager with Attorney’s Liability Protection Society, Inc. (ALPS). In his tenure with the company, he has conducted over 1,000 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented numerous continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management and technology. Mark received his J.D. from Drake University Law School and his undergraduate degree from Gettysburg College. He blogs at www.alps411.com. Mark can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.