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MANAGING STAFF

How to improve orientation for your new associates

Bringing in a new associate right out of school requires far more than new business cards and letterhead.

Starting the practice of law “is an overwhelming thing for young attorneys,” says law firm management consultant Allison C. Hill of Nashville, TN.

To perform well, they need extensive help with the nonlegal aspects of the job.

She outlines some of the orientation points that often get omitted.

Technology on day #1

Start with the technology training.

That needs to take place right at the start, Hill says. The new attorney needs to learn how to use the case management and record management systems as well as the basics such as Word and PowerPoint.

Don’t delay that part of the orientation. “If it doesn’t get done right away, it won’t get done.” Once a new hire gets involved in the legal work, the training invariably falls by the wayside.

The most effective approach is to have hands-on training plus a technical handbook the new attorney can follow.

Some firms go further and provide on-line training.

The technical education is admittedly tedious, she says, and the attorneys “will hate it.” But it’s essential for the new attorney to get the work done efficiently.

A pairing with a legal assistant

As for the orientation in the administrative aspects of the firm, Hill recommends pairing the attorney with an experienced legal assistant.

“New attorneys know nothing about anything,” she says. “They don’t know how to file a pleading, use the copier, or even set up margins on a page.” And the best instructors for those things are the people who do them every day – the legal assistants.

Give the job to the assistants who have the most experience with the firm, and preferably those working for the senior partners.

And to ensure that they provide thorough and ongoing training as well as to emphasize the importance of the job, pay a bonus. Go even further and change their job titles to indicate the trainer status.

The training starts with the basics – the e-mail policies, telephone procedures, how to operate office equipment, and so on. But from there on, the assistant and associate work together day to day until all the most advanced elements get covered.

Any long-term senior staffer will have developed many ways to do things efficiently, and the pairing allows the associate to benefit from them.

What’s more, an experienced legal assistant will have the confidence to take the initiative and say, for example, “I notice you have a lot of calls that you haven’t been able to return. Would you like for me to block out a call time so you can return them?”

The training needs to last for at least months. Or it can be ongoing.

Oversight on the work hours

Another important element of the orientation is education in billable hours.

The managing partner or the partner overseeing the work needs to go over the time entries to see where the new associate is spending too much time and needs assistance, Hill says.

Equally important, the partner needs to emphasize that all the time has to be entered.

New associates are often embarrassed that their work takes a long time and so don’t enter all their hours. It’s up to the partner to point out that the firm has to see the total time so it can identify where training and assistance are needed to help the associate succeed.

Like the administrative training, the time entries need to be evaluated daily for at least six months.

Marketing assistance

Marketing is another orientation factor to cover.

There the first job is to get the associate’s professional photo made and the resume information written up and to post them on the website as quickly as possible. Along with that, send out an announcement to clients and legal publications – again in short order.

Many firms don’t get around to that for several months.

As for the actual marketing process, that’s a job the partners have to accept, because no attorney right out of school can set up a marketing plan.

During that first year, the partners have to give the new attorney as much exposure as possible to the clients.

Again, many firms fail in that regard, she says. They leave their new attorneys “chained to the computer” without ever introducing them to clients.

Help with the emotional health

And just as important as the work aspects are the social aspects of the new job.

It seems obvious that the firm should introduce the new person to the attorneys and encourage them to schedule lunches and to introduce the associate to business and social contacts.

“That’s emotional health,” Hill says. Nobody can spend the greatest part of every day in an office without connecting with the other people there.

Yet in some firms, “people never speak to each other.” They never socialize with newcomers or take them to lunch or establish any social contact at all.

Here too, a mentor is a good idea—this one a social mentor. The job is to take the associate out and make introductions to people in the community and generally help the new hire get acquainted with the people inside and outside the firm.


Editor’s picks:

Orientation program sends new hires in the right direction


Developing productive associates: Why the traditional annual review gets a FAIL!


Onboarding: How to make your new hire’s first day a success


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