Effectively Utilizing Legal Secretaries in 2016

GREAT article from Law Technology Today by Michelle Spencer! Legal secretarial work is changing as fast as technology can be utilized; they are still an essential asset, just in new ways! Great food for thoughts for our clients and our stellar legal secretarial candidates!

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Because of the time commitment and practice needed to move beyond quick fixes to a deeper level of knowledge, many lawyers and their staff never utilize the more complex features of their software. Therefore, they miss out on the benefits of improved workflows afforded by technology. However, as time crunches increase and technology changes happen more rapidly, it has become critical to understand and utilize all of the tools at your disposal to service clients, alleviate your frustrations, and gain a competitive edge. While you may not be able to devote time to those complex software features, your legal secretary should. Below are the competency categories that legal secretaries equipped for the 21st Century should be able to handle in order to take the load off of the attorneys they support. If you do not have a legal secretary, then to be most effective, you will want to become conversant with these functions and how to properly perform the tasks associated with each competency.

1. Management of Complex Documents

Virtually every legal practice area has some form of complex document with iterative review and editing cycles requiring multiple workflows to produce the final product. There is nothing thrilling or “sexy” about this use of technology, but it is one of the most critical areas for any lawyer. Documents are your widgets with the end product being produced for the client or governing entity. There is a huge opportunity in leveraging both technology and your legal secretary here. Not only is there an opportunity, but there is also risk. The potential for and cost of mistakes are generally highest where complex documents are involved. Never underestimate the benefit of an extra pair of hands and eyes reviewing your work product, especially when you are exhausted from hours spent drafting the substantive portions.

The types of documents that fall under the heading of “complex document” include: pleadings, briefs, transactional documents, inventories, and deal binders that may contain tables of authority and content, cross references, indices, hyperlinked items, and/or financial tables. Documents at this level involve significantly more than a quick CTRL+B to bold something. Unless you have invested substantial time and effort learning how to use the features that automate their creation, editing, and updating, there is nothing quick or easy, and you may end up more frustrated and confused than if you just formatted everything manually. However, you would miss substantial opportunities to streamline the entire drafting phase and future use of your documents.

Another common issue is leaving little to no time for creating tables of authority, automating numbering, or updating cross references, tables of content, and indices. If these items are set up correctly at the outset and regularly updated throughout the review cycle, doing final updates takes substantially less time. Also, many of these tasks like compiling materials and hyperlinking are not billable, so pushing complex document management to a less costly staff member means sound economic management of your clients’ matters and your practice. Get the basic knowledge you need to work on these documents, and leave it at that. Let your staff hone their deeper knowledge of Word and Adobe over years with numerous hours of practice, so you can focus on higher value tasks like constructing arguments and negotiating the terms contained in your documents.

Management of complex documents includes:
(software features to learn and use are italicized)

  1. Creating forms and templates
  2. Using QuickParts for boilerplate text, signature blocks, case styles, etc.
  3. Setting up styles and automatic numbering
  4. Managing sections and page layouts for cover pages, exhibits, etc.
  5. Creating and updating the table of contents
  6. Using heading styles to make updating automatic
  7. Inserting and updating automatic cross references
  8. Creating placeholder pages for the table of authorities or indices
  9. Running comparisons, keeping track of versions and incorporating changes (Even withTrack Changes, this can sometimes be tricky with multiple parties doing edits.)
  10. Incorporating financial tables and electronic signatures
  11. Adding hyperlinks and bookmarks
  12. Producing and managing PDF versions of documents for filing or distribution

The term management is used in this context, because complex documents generally have a review cycle involving multiple people, be it other attorneys (internal and external), the client, or other associated parties like accountants or experts. I have assisted many secretaries scrambling to “clean up” 50-200 page documents at the last minute prior to a filing deadline or closing, because they had not seen the document since the initial draft they created weeks prior. Removing the assistant from the review cycle means additional time needed to become familiar with the document and figure out its current state before the “clean up” can even begin. This puts unnecessary stress on everyone involved and risks missing a deadline. If attorneys allow their assistants to manage the process of incorporating the changes throughout the process, then there should be much less scrambling at the last hour. This also allows the attorney to focus on the content versus the formatting of these critical documents.

Years ago, anyone could print a document and rush to the courthouse to file it, but that time has passed. Here in Texas, civil courts began converting to mandatory e-filing in 2014 with all 254 counties to be completed by the end of this year and criminal courts soon to follow. If it can be accomplished here with so many disparate systems, it is only a matter of time before it comes to your jurisdiction. Both the process of preparing documents for e-filing and the e-filing follow-up workflows are additional areas where a substantial amount of time is spent and thus may be optimized to your advantage.

2. Managing Email, Calendar, and Contacts

As I mentioned in my last post, I was surprised when my attorney brother said that it had never occurred to him to utilize his secretary to manage his email and calendar. The statistics I cited previously indicate most people check email approximately 50 times per day and that task interruptions require from 3% to 27% more time to complete tasks. Imagine the focus you could have and productive time you could gain without the constant dinging. Some interruptions may be unavoidable, but with your assistant watching for urgent items and handling quick questions or requests, you are free to spend a lot more time focusing more deeply on your matters and billable tasks.

Of course, this requires much trust and a bit of communication to lay the groundwork and set expectations at the outset, but it’s not rocket science, especially the filing of emails and attachments into client folders or a document management system. Ideally, your assistant will have full rights to your mailbox to be your eyes and ears even when you are in meetings or out of the office. If you are not comfortable with this approach at the outset, you can forward items until such time that you are comfortable fully sharing your mailbox. This setup dovetails nicely into the complex document management discussed previously. Relinquish control of these mundane tasks and you will reap massive benefits in your ability to get more meaningful work done.

3. Forms Creation and Management

Leverage your secretary’s knowledge of technology and the features in your software to build a bullet-proof forms system. Imagine the time saved and satisfaction in knowing that you are set up for success every single time you generate a document. I have worked with quite a few practice groups to do this and they are always surprised at how much smoother things flow afterwards. Those glitches that seem to crop up at the last minute are completely eliminated.

To accomplish this, the group should start by gathering their current forms. Those forms should then be updated to new, clean document containers and have all of the bells and whistles incorporated to automate them. This is most easily accomplished by utilizing someone with advanced knowledge of the features in order to set your foundation. Next, ensure all of the secretaries and paralegals in the group are utilizing the features correctly. Finally, the attorneys learn only those important features necessary to maintain the formatting, leverage the automation included, and save re-work time. The need for assistance on weekends and evenings disappears or is significantly reduced, because the attorneys are confident in how the documents will behave and in their skills with things like styles and numbering. Getting everyone on the same page and off to a clean start makes a world of difference!

4. Client Relations

Think about how many phone calls and emails you receive that are simple requests or queries. Now picture your assistant handling those for you. If your staff are included in the process of servicing your clients, then they have the ability to answer many questions or draft responses for you to send. The benefits of this are two-fold. Clients get that personal touch and high level of customer service desired, instead of your voicemail, and you are freed up to spend more focused time on higher value tasks versus retrieving and responding to voicemails and emails. An added bonus is that your secretary has more meaningful work and will likely feel more engaged as a result. Don’t be afraid to let staff work with clients. Simply set the right example and guidelines.
At a time when gaining and keeping clients is very costly, servicing their needs well and quickly is crucial. If you are unsure about letting your assistant handle client communications for you, then have responses drafted and saved for you to finalize and send later. Even just the time you spend setting up and saving documents or emails adds up over the course of a month, especially when you are the client waiting for a response.

5. Client Matter Management

Attorneys have always hated dealing with the administrative minutiae involved in conflicts checking and establishing a new matter or client. Yet efficient client onboarding can greatly impact the time involved in getting started working on a matter, not to mention the impression made on the client about how important their matter is to you.

Establish a process and use forms so that your assistant can take your notes and information received from the client to tackle the initial matter setup for you. Better yet, have your assistant participate in the intake interview to take notes, so you can focus on capturing the substantive details of the client’s legal issue and asking follow-up questions to minimize the need to have the client provide the information again at a later date.

Delegate the online researching of basic client information to your secretary. If it’s a simple Google search, anyone can handle that. Create a workflow for the administrative setup in your contacts and billing system, drafting the engagement letter, and flagging any additional items needed from the client. Following the suggestions made previously, your secretary can then draft an email or letter to the client requesting additional information that you can send. All of the documents and emails should be fill-in-the-blank templates that make the process flow smoothly and quickly.

Use these suggestions to stop wasting time on low value tasks, put tools in place to improve your common workflows, and establish routines with your secretary that maximize his or her value to you and your practice. This will allow you to spend time maximizing your profits and minimizing your frustration, as well as make your secretary a more engaged employee. What are you waiting for? Pick one of the five areas to delegate to your assistant right now and determine where you can start leveraging your secretary and technology to gain back time.

Documenting your networking efforts!

By Stephen Seckler, from the CounseltoCounsel Blog – great tips to help you maximize your networking efforts – in building your practice or finding a new position!

“I was speaking to one of my clients the other day and he described for me what he does any time he makes a court appearance.  At the end of the day, he goes back to his office and takes a few minutes to document what happened.  He has a longstanding practice of doing this and he always tries to do it the same days so that his memory is fresh. In effect, he has created a habit which ensures that he does not have to rely on his memory to keep track of his cases.

Many lawyers do this as a matter of course.  In fact  it is good practice whether you are a litigator or a transactional lawyer to generate file memos that are written after you have met with a client or interviewed someone on behalf of a client.  As lawyers, we are very good at documenting in our case work.

But when it comes to networking meetings, we forget to use the skills we use all the time in practicing law.  We do not prepare in the same way, and we do not take the time to document our activities (and calendar next steps).

This litigation client of mine has begun incorporating his regular business practices into his marketing activities.  After each networking meeting, he makes sure to write down notes about the conversation (including both personal and professional things he learned from the individual).   I am also encouraging him to “docket” a next step with that individual (if he deems the individual to be a potential referral source or client).

No one likes to take time to do this.  Tracking time, documenting what you have done and making a point of deciding on next steps before the day ends is all cumbersome.  But when it comes to relationship building, documenting is an invaluable activity that can help you greatly as you cultivate relationships over time.”

Getting past the fear factor

When you get right down to it, fear is probably the biggest obstacle to marketing success for most professionals. No one likes rejection and if you plan to ask anyone for business or referrals, the odds are very high you will experience a significant amount of rejection. In sales, for example, it may take 15 phone calls to reach five prospects which may result in two meetings. In other words, you may have to experience 13 rejections just to get two meetings.

And even if you get two meetings with potential clients or referral sources, it still may take 20 meetings to generate a significant piece of work. So if you do the math, you may need to make 150 phone calls or send 150 e-mail messages in order to set up those meetings.

That may seem like a daunting number. While that number will vary a lot based on the type of practice you have and the quality of the relationships you call upon, the bottom line is that in order to build a practice, you have to prepare yourself for a lot of rejection.

So what are some of the strategies you can use to soften the blow of the unanswered e-mails and phone calls? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Set a finite goal for the number of calls you will make in a day. Lower your expectations about how many responses you will get on a given day.
  2. Use your LinkedIn network to find second degree contacts who can make introductions on your behalf. Making cold calls is a tough way to build relationships. By leveraging your second degree contacts, you can overcome the trust issue much more quickly and find other professionals who are more inclined to speak with you.
  3. Measure your activity rather than your successes. You can’t control the outcome of your efforts to connect. But you can measure the number of calls you make. Focus on that number and reward yourself for your efforts, not for your actual successes.
  4. Start early in the day and make connecting a regular habit. If you think of relationship building as something that should be part of most work days, you will achieve the volume of contacts you need in order to find the opportunities you are trying to uncover.
  5. Try not to take the “rejection” personally. In many instances, it may take a few efforts to reach your prospect because he/she is already dealing with a high volume of e-mail and voicemail messages. In other words, remind yourself that it is not you. Your pleasant persistence will help cut through the noise and get you on his/her dance card. And he/she will appreciate your repeated efforts to connect.

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This excellent bit of advice from our Director of Attorney Recruitment & Career Advancement Stephen E. Seckler, Esq. to solos and small firms on marketing their practice applies just as easily to your job search! Create a strategy and stay consistent. Building relationships within the thriving, highly-interconnected Boston legal community is a key component in not just finding a position, but in building long term opportunities for a successful career!

A Career Audit Tool to Help You Self Assess

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I write a lot about relationship building, reputation building and the tools you need to market your law practice. For those of you who practice in a law firm setting (either as an associate or as a partner), there are some bigger issues you should also address in your career.

  • Does the law firm where you practice provide you with the right platform to be successful?
  • Does the firm where you practice provide you with the right level of professional satisfaction?

There will always be tradeoffs when deciding where to build your career. But, what are some other questions you should ask yourself in order to assess whether your platform is the “right” platform?

To assist you in this, I created a career audit tool.  It is a similar format to the other tool I created to help assess your overall marketing effectiveness.  Click on these links, complete the audits and receive a free 15 minute consultation.

It’s Never Too Late to Establish New Year’s Resolutions

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Goals 2014If you are like most of your colleagues, the New Year has come and gone and so have your New Year’s Resolutions.  Change is hard and in the high pressured field of law, resolving to spend more time on non-billable work may be easier said than done.  While there continues to be slow and steady movement towards project based billing in private practice, the reality is that most lawyers still bill by the hour; and most law firms still pay close attention to billable hours in determining how much of a contribution you are making to your firm.

In the short run, a lot of the incentive is to maximize the hours you bill.  But for most attorneys, building your own practice is what will give you more career satisfaction and more control over your destiny.

So you resolved to spend more time on marketing in 2014.  But as we approach Groundhog Day, that resolution may seem like a distant memory.  The good news is that its never too late to start making change.  So here are some tips for how you can be more successful with your Groundhog Day Resolutions: (more…)

Overcoming Fear of Marketing

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denialWhen you get right down to it, fear is probably the biggest obstacle to marketing success for most professionals. No one likes rejection and if you plan to ask anyone for business or referrals, the odds are very high you will experience a significant amount of rejection. In sales, for example, it may take 15 phone calls to reach five prospects which may result in two meetings. In other words, you may have to experience 13 rejections just to get two meetings.

And even if you get two meetings with potential clients or referral sources, it still may take 20 meetings to generate a significant piece of work. So if you do the math, you may need to make 150 phone calls or send 150 e-mail messages in order to set up those meetings.

That may seem like a daunting number. While that number will vary a lot based on the type of practice you have and the quality of the relationships you call upon, the bottom line is that in order to build a practice, you have to prepare yourself for a lot of rejection. (more…)

Look for the Bright Spots in Building Your Referral Relationships

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Colorful bokeh lightThe foundation of a strong law practice is a strong referral network. Even your best clients probably don’t need you all the time. This is particularly true for litigators. But what is a strong referral network and how do you build it?

Fundamentally, a good referral network starts with a focused marketing message. It is difficult to generate referrals if you do not have a clear idea of who you want to serve and what services you want to provide. (Who are you, who do you do, who do you serve, what have you done and how do you differentiate yourself from other lawyers?)

Having a well defined niche is important because it helps you communicate what you do in a way that is memorable (so that it is easy for happy clients and other professionals to pass your name along at the right moment). Having a niche also helps you think more strategically about who you might want to cultivate (e.g. other service providers who serve the same clients). (more…)

How To Begin Building Business Relationships

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Working Together - Hand Shake with great spiritBuilding relationships with potential referral sources is an important part of building your law practice. But given the huge range of possibilities about who you can spend your time with, where do you begin?

The starting point of course is deciding who you identify as your ideal client. Once you have established this, your next step is to identify who are the referral sources who work with these same clients. These can be other professionals who provide different services to the same clientele; they can also be other lawyers who are billing at a different rate and need a lower-cost alternative to refer work to when prospective clients cannot afford their fee.

Beyond this, how do you spend your time efficiently and focus on good “potential referral sources”. The following is a four step process for making that determination: (more…)

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