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Accountability and your legal staff: The effects on your law practice

By Elizabeth M. Miller, MBA  bio

I am a great proponent of accountability for everyone in a law firm including myself and the attorneys. It is the method by which a law firm can measure that clients are receiving the best possible service from your firm.

An accountable law firm starts with leaders who first hold themselves accountable. After all, we do have to lead by example.

In two positions I have held, I had sit-down meetings once a week with the executive committee or a senior partner to review projects that we were working on, discuss staff issues, finances and other administrative areas of importance. I always encourage these types of meetings because it always gives the managing attorneys a good sense of what was going on with their business—not to mention it justified my getting paid.

When legal staff is unwilling to be held accountable, that always sends up a red flag for me. Some employees have developed avoiding accountability into an art form of sorts. They can deflect and even blame others for why something did or did not happen. To a sharp administrator or managing attorney this will only work for so long. Eventually it does become obvious that the reason an employee is not being accountable is because they are not doing their job.

The problem is at what point is this discovery made? Do you let a lack of accountability go until it becomes critical for the firm or the client? What is the fall out of a staff member who is not accountable? Did the firm miss a statute of limitations, a court hearing, a deposition? I have lost count of the number of times that an employee has left a position and it takes six months to clean up the mess that is left behind. You would be amazed at the things you find.

The administration of a law firm works touches on all areas of the practice including staff accountability. Staff members are trusted to do their jobs, calendar hearings, depositions, especially statutes of limitations, etc. As an administrator or the managing attorney of a law firm it is your job to incorporate ways to measure progress on cases and measure whether or not your staff is doing their job.

If you do not hold your staff accountable, there are ultimately two losers here—the first is the client. It is difficult to maintain credibility with a client when they are told repeatedly something will get done and it isn’t, or if court hearings or depositions are missed. Avoiding a client makes them call more. If there is nothing to tell the client because nothing has happened or changed, tell them that. The legal market is very competitive and clients are looking for value and good representation.

The other loser is the attorney. Remember, the attorney is the one with the law license. When a client files a bar grievance or other complaint including a lawsuit, unlike the employee the lawyer will not be able to deflect or place the blame on anyone else on staff. The client hired the lawyer.

Develop a culture of accountability in your office. Make it a point to have regular staff meetings to discuss status and the progress of cases. Review your docket and your statutes of limitations and know what is on the horizon. Encourage the lawyers in your firm to initiate and participate in the culture of accountability with your staff. This will build confidence with your staff and let them know that you are working on being part of the solution with them. Don’t have a hands-off approach, because your staff will follow your lead.

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