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Most small-firm lawyers wear too many hats at once. They not only practice their trade, but also market, recruit and run their offices all by themselves. But spreading oneself too thin will not save money and can harm a business in the long run, attorney Mark Dreier warns. Dreier, who started his New York firm, Dreier & Baritz in 1996, admits that he unfortunately learned this lesson the hard way. Until eight months ago, he thought he could be a good advocate for his clients and also recruit and hire attorneys, oversee all office personnel, market his practice, and even pick out office furniture and develop brochures in his not-so-spare time. As his law firm grew from two to 13 attorneys, he realized he could better serve his clients — and actually find more of them — if he hired someone else to run the day-to-day business of his firm. “Resist the temptation of doing things yourself to save money or because you think it’s a small job,” he said. But Dreier got lucky. His office administrator was already in his midst. Susan E. Lustbader, an attorney at Dreier & Baritz, was unhappy with the practice of law. But she liked the spirit of the new firm and wanted to run Dreier’s business. Although at first he was upset with her resignation, he gave her a try as an administrator; eight months later he has not regretted the move. “Spend more money on one capable individual rather than saving money by hiring a clerical person,” said Dreier. For example, Lustbader oversees the secretarial and billing personnel, markets the practice, assists with recruiting, and deals with the vendors and the landlord, he said. According to Dreier ,the administrator must possess some business know-how, understand lawyers, and perform the many different tasks a small practice requires. Jon Dorf, who has his own five-lawyer firm in Mamaroneck, N.Y., agrees. He also hired a lawyer to handle his firm’s marketing and client relations. Although hiring an attorney in an administrative capacity is not crucial to a law practice, said Dorf, it can be beneficial. For instance, he explained, “A lawyer understands the psyche of a law practice.” But no matter whom an attorney hires, the process must be careful and deliberate, he said. A lawyer needs to consider the firm’s needs and decide in advance what and who he is looking for, he added. Although not every practice needs an office manager, most need a receptionist — a very important member of the team, according to several lawyers. In small firms even more than big ones, it is often the receptionist who puts the face on the firm by being the first person a client sees or talks to. “You need someone who can embrace people as they come in the door and at the same time look and act professional,” said Dreier. If the receptionist has bad phone skills or an unprofessional manner, clients will feel that the firm is second-rate, he said. Because most small firms can not afford one secretary per lawyer, and thus often pool their secretaries, lawyers interviewed agreed that a cheerful individual who can pitch in is a must in a secretary. “You can’t afford attitudes in a small firm,” said Dreier. “A bad secretary can bring a place down even more than a bad lawyer, based on atmosphere,” he said. Understanding whom the secretary is going to work with is key to matching personalities, said Dorf. But so are computer skills, typing and an ability to deal with people. ATTRACTING TALENT In order to attract experienced professionals to a small law firm, Dreier sells his business as a pleasant place to work, where everyone contributes to the success of an enterprise. If this atmosphere does not suit a secretary or even a lawyer, and they want sky-high salaries, they will choose a large law firm instead, he said. When hiring staff, Laurie Berke-Weiss of Berke-Weiss & Pechman, a labor and employment firm in New York, also tries to differentiate her small, two-partner firm from a large practice. She points out to potential employees that at Berke-Weiss & Pechman they will work with and be supervised by the partners, and most importantly, “will see the real guts of how law is practiced.” To find a capable employees, Berke-Weiss relies on word of mouth and networking. She found her current paralegal two years ago by placing a notice with the career office of her undergraduate alma mater. “You want to hire someone who looks at the process as a learning experience and is flexible,” said Berke-Weiss. Getting your hands dirty is crucial at a small firm with very few employees, she said. For example, she pointed out that her paralegal does everything from filing to digesting deposition transcripts to interviewing clients. Berke-Weiss said hiring a paralegal without any legal knowledge did not hurt her practice. “Our opinion is that if you have an intelligent, hard working person, who pays attention to detail and is interested in the practice of law, we can train them.”

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