Training Associate Attorneys & Staff

By Philip J. Kavesh, J.D., LL.M. (Taxation), CFP®, ChFC, California State Bar Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law | Volume 2, Issue 4 (April 2014)

Over the past couple of months, we covered the importance of properly hiring and incentivizing your associate attorneys and support staff in order to build and maintain a successful estate planning practice.  Now, we will address training.

As I’ve stressed in all other aspects of your practice, you must have processes, procedures, forms and systems for everything that happens in your law firm on a daily basis.  This includes your marketing, client meetings, work production and work review, as well as your associate and staff training.

Who Should Do the Training?
The first issue that must be properly addressed and planned is who will be in charge of training a new associate attorney or staff member.  You may be surprised to learn that it should not be you, the business owner.  The only exception is if this person being hired is your very first employee.  The person who trains the new associate or staff should be the same person who was in charge of the hiring process (also not you), as indicated in one of my previous articles.

There are a number of important reasons to have the same person in charge of both hiring and training.  First, the person that did the hiring will already be invested in making sure that the new hire is properly trained and works out properly.  Second, that person doing the hiring is likely to be, on a daily basis, more knowledgeable about the exact details of the tasks for which the person is being hired and, therefore, will be a better trainer.  Third, by having the same person who was responsible for the hiring decision also doing the training, you will establish an important chain of command that the new person will turn to for supervision and answering questions, keeping you out of the loop as much as possible and allowing you to build an organization that runs on its own with the least time and effort on your part.

As an incentive to take on the extra work, I highly recommend that you establish a financial bonus for the person doing the hiring and training.  This bonus can be a discretionary amount, payable once the training has been completed and the new hire is successfully performing the duties for which they were hired, provided this is accomplished within some preset time frame established for their training and ramp-up.

Preparation for the New Hire
Prior to even being hired, the person in charge of the hiring and training process should have established a Duties List.  This Duties List should outline all of the tasks for the position for which the person has been hired.  The paralegal who helped hire the first associate attorney, or associate attorney who helped you hire the next associate attorney, or staff person that helped you hire the next staff member, will not only use that Duties List for the hiring process, but also the training process.  Furthermore, the person in charge must set specific goals in terms of training agenda, expected results and timeline.  The timeline should probably correspond with periodic reviews, as well as the overall probationary period established when the new person is hired.  For example, we inform any new staff members at their initial interview, and at the point of hire, and again at the HR meeting when they come in for their first day of employment, that during the first 90 days, the firm may let them go at will for any reason.  An associate attorney may be given a longer probationary period of anywhere between 6 to 9 months.  The initial meeting with the new hire on the first day of work will go over the duties list, this expected timeline for performance and the expected results which, if possible, should be measurable such as a certain number of tasks completed with a certain level of proficiency.

The other thing that must be prepared in advance of the person coming in for their first day of work, and communicated immediately during the orientation on that first day, is a definite training plan and schedule.  When we have a new hire join our firm, they are typically given a written agenda of what training and tasks they will be doing for each day of the first two to three weeks.  This agenda is typically very detailed, by not just the day, but by the hour. We have found that the first two weeks that an employee is with you will almost invariably set the tone for the work attitude and results of that person forevermore.  When a new hire comes in and they see you already have a structured definite agenda for their training, they will not only feel acknowledged, but they will have a path to run on that will give them a comfort level and a way for them to assess for themselves their own achievements and improvements.  Too often a new hire comes in to a law firm and the training process is completely haphazard.  This results in a lack of focus for the new employee and a lower sense of self-esteem and acknowledgement, which in turn adversely affects his or her work.

The initial training of a new hire should include not only the technical aspects of their job tasks, but also the operating protocol of your firm.  This could include an organizational chart that will show the chain of command and indicate who to go to for what, who to seek for supervision and ask questions of, etc.  To download and review an example of the initial three days of our associate attorney training, click here.

When proceeding with a training agenda, it is important to have a logical chronology for learning certain tasks before other tasks are taught.  Often times the mistake is made of training a new hire to take on all of his or her tasks, from A to Z, in the actual chronological order these tasks or events occur.  Although grasping a good overview of the entire duties of a person’s job is a constructive introduction, it is much better to then focus on training the new hire on the tasks that are the quickest and easiest to learn first.  This will not only give the new hire a sense of achievement as they are moving forward, but will also give you, the employer, a better understanding of this person’s attitude, capabilities and skills early on, with the least amount of collateral damage occurring (if you find this out much later in the training process).

For example, with a new associate attorney, we typically start him or her out by teaching how to handle a document signing meeting.  This gives the attorney the big picture of understanding the components of the plan and how to explain the individual documents to the client in plain English.  It is best if the new associate also sits in on and merely observes the initial meeting with the particular client, as well as is involved with the review of the documents as they proceed through the word processing system that you have (maybe a second review after the training attorney has marked them with changes).

Have the associate attorney sit in and shadow the training attorney in various types of client meetings.  The associate can learn how to handle the simplest of meetings first on his or her own, such as reviewing an existing client’s estate plan.  Then, normally in about 4 months from the date of hire, the associate can move up to handling new client initial meetings, where the new client does not already have an estate plan.  And then, after about 7 months from hire, the associate can begin handling new client meetings where they come in with an existing plan that requires a review.  Of course, one of the things that they will be taught while they are shadowing the training attorney’s meetings, is how to triage special cases that may be beyond their competency level, such as advanced estate tax planning, asset protection, special needs planning and Medicaid planning and make sure that these cases are handed off to the appropriate party in the firm (or an outside specialist in this area you want brought in to assist).

With respect to a new staff hire, we usually will start by training on the most core, repetitive tasks that can be easily assimilated and completed, then building to more complex tasks that may require decision-making and judgment.  Again, new staff will be trained to a great degree by shadowing the activities of existing staff.

Sounds Great in Theory, But…
This brings me to a big objection or misconception that the business owner attorney often has when bringing on new associate attorneys or staff, “It will make the person doing the training less efficient and take up too much of their time.”  That doesn’t have to be the case.  Having that new hire shadow or sit in on meetings or as other activities are being done can make the training process much easier.  But there are two key other things that you can start establishing as systems within your firm that will make the training process with new hires extremely efficient.

The first thing is that you record your training meetings.  It could be video or audio recording, but in either case, be sure to keep it along with any handout materials.  Once you have this recording, it can be utilized as one of the primary training tools for the next person that is hired.  Secondly, a formal Procedures Manual should be established for every position in your firm, including attorneys.  This Manual may include not only the list of duties, but checklists and step-by-step descriptions of how those duties are carried out in as much detail that may be possible, without creating thousands and thousands of Manual pages.  The first person who is hired will draft this Manual for review and the person in charge of his or her training, will review it.  This Manual will then, in turn, be handed down each time a new person is hired, with the newly hired person being given the responsibility of bringing the Manual up-to-date and/or filling in any details that may have been missed previously.  This way, the Procedures Manual can continually be updated and the same should be done periodically with the training recordings.

Important Overlooked Step: Periodic Feedback
Another important aspect to training that must be planned, programmed and calendared is periodic feedback.  It is important that this feedback be constructive and positive to the extent possible.  Always giving people negative feedback, without turning that into a constructive pathway for improvement, can quickly discourage employees and forever tarnish their attitude.  Depending on the particular position of a new hire, we typically set up daily, weekly and monthly periodic meetings with their supervisors and with the owner of the firm.

For example, there may be a preset time each day or twice a day, during the first few weeks, where the new hire will meet with his or her direct supervisor.  This could happen at 9am and 4pm.  There will also be more lengthy and detailed meetings held once a week that may be with the individual or with a group of staff that work closely together in the same department.  There will also be a weekly meeting between the business owner attorney and the associate attorneys.  We also hold monthly firm meetings, with the owner and everyone in the firm in attendance.  It is important to have very clear times where the proper person—either the supervisor or the head of the firm—will be meeting with people and communicating feedback.

Besides these daily, weekly, and monthly meetings, there are also semi-annual review meetings that need to be conducted in a particular manner in order to keep people on their proper path and maintain their motivation and good working attitude.  See my January newsletter article for more information on these performance review meetings.

One Last Tip (and an Important Career and Life Lesson for YOU!)
It’s very important to understand the difference between excellence and perfection when training, supervising and evaluating new personnel.  As attorneys and business owners, we often have a big ego – – almost a requirement to get as far as we do in our education, bar exams and careers.

Unfortunately, perfectionism is a disease that will kill all of the others around you if you do not contain it.  You need to understand when “good enough is enough” and that getting 85-90% of the job done as well as you could is acceptable.  This is not to say that you shouldn’t expect the highest of yourself or others, but rather you must understand and accept the difference between excellence and perfection. Embracing this mindset is the only way that you can continue to have happy and successful hires—and, thereby, a happy and successful firm.


WANT MORE HELP?
Lawyers went to law school to learn how to practice law, but so many estate planning lawyers are sole practitioners and are now responsible for running their own business.  This includes managing the budget and finances, hiring and management of staff and associate attorneys, setting up various business systems and procedures, and also driving in new business with a clear marketing plan.  All of the things necessary to successfully run a business and, ironically, all of the things that are not taught to lawyers in law school (and aren’t offered through many continuing education programs).

Our May Ultimate Level in Los Angeles is already sold out, but if you’d like to find out more about our September and October programs in Dallas and Orlando, please contact us at [email protected].

Also, if you specifically want additional information about hiring, training and managing associate attorneys, you may also be interested in our On Demand program entitled, “How to Successfully Hire, Train, Manage, and Keep Associate Attorneys“.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Philip J. Kavesh is the principal of one of the largest estate planning firms in California – – Kavesh, Minor and Otis – – now in its 33rd year of business.  He is also the President of The Ultimate Estate Planner, Inc., which provides a variety of technical training, marketing and practice-building products and services for estate planning professionals.  If you would like more information or have a question for him, he can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 1-866-754-6477.

 

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