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Training new hires in the professional and ethics standards of a law practice is increasingly important in Atlanta’s tight labor market. A scarce supply of support staff has forced firms to turn to employees with little or no experience in the legal field. Thus, the importance of training. Law firms “absolutely” should have training programs for new hires in today’s labor market, recommends Kimberly Lusink, president of Paramount Staffing, which places support staff in law firms. A growing demand for paralegals is reflected in national statistics. The paralegal profession is among the fastest growing occupations in the nation. By 2008, paralegal positions are projected to increase by 84,000 or 62 percent over 1998 tallies, says Mike Wald, a U.S. Department of Labor economist. Average growth of approximately 14 percent in the same 10-year period is projected for legal secretary jobs. In Atlanta, personnel experts say the demand for legal secretaries outstrips the supply of qualified candidates and forces firms to search for help in a limited pool. “There’s a price war going on” for experienced legal secretaries, says Cathy A. Hood, director of human resources for Smith, Gambrell & Russell. “It’s supply and demand. Because of the demand situation, the secretaries are almost naming their own price.” In such an environment, training is essential, but experience is preferred, Hood says. A survey of six Atlanta law firms and four placement services reveals that, indeed, more emphasis is being placed on training and orientation of new employees. And the No. 1 concern is confidentiality. “We have a confidentiality agreement that we ask nonlawyers to sign,” says Jonathan Golden, chairman of Arnall Golden & Gregory. “We do that more to impress them on the seriousness with which we take confidentiality.” At Smith, Gambrell & Russell, managing partner Stephen M. Forte says, all new employees are required to read and sign a confidentiality statement. “We stress to everyone who comes in the door the need to keep client information confidential,” he says. Such information, he explains, should not be disclosed to anyone other than persons within the firm who are representing the client or “who have a legitimate need to know.” At Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, managing partner Homer L. Deakins Jr. says, “We put probably the most emphasis on the fact that all they do in the law firm is highly confidential. And that is not only a matter of not telling people outside the firm what’s going on inside the firm.” At Smith, Gambrell, Forte says, “There are some very strict guidelines, rules and regulations promulgated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and having to do with the use of insider information. It’s our policy to ensure that our lawyers and employees comply with state and federal securities laws which would prohibit the trading in securities based upon what is called inside information.” The firm requires employees to undergo an orientation, which includes “a nuts and bolts mechanics of how to operate within our firm administratively” as well the confidentiality reminder, Forte says. Smith, Gambrell’s program is geared to all levels of employees, including attorneys, legal secretaries, information technology staff, file clerks and librarians. Beyond the usual vacation, sick leave, insurance and benefits information, new hires hear a history of the firm and learn about library policies, file management, the intranet and performance evaluation process. Even directions for overriding the timer and keeping the lights on past 7 p.m. are given, for those who work late. At Kilpatrick Stockton, a two-day orientation process seeks to get new hires off to a good start, according to Joanna Berentsen, the firm’s staff recruiter. The program is manned entirely by volunteers from within the firm. “For two days,” she says, “you’re meeting 10 to 20 people from the firm who just want to share information with you about how to succeed.” The education actually begins in the interview process when the need for honesty is stressed to the applicant, Berentsen says. There she looks for the applicant’s description of the “ideal fit” of a job. At Fisher & Phillips, Chairman Roger K. Quillen says the theme emphasized early on, even in a job candidate’s interview, is, “We want them to be client-focused.” Along with an orientation program, new employees are asked to read and sign three forms acknowledging receipt of the firm’s policies on confidentiality, trade and securities matters, as well as warnings against mixing personal business and investment activities with firm business. Brian Golden, human resources director at Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan, says a law firm is a “unique environment” for new employees. “You’re dealing with a nontraditional structure in that you have numerous bosses. You have a number of partners that are all owners to some extent giving you direction.” It’s tough to navigate through that and to be able to know how to operate, and not everybody can do it well. “There is a learning curve, and it does take a little bit of time,” Golden says. A mentor, he says, can be very helpful. Joan Krull, president and owner of LegalPros, a placement service for law firm support staff, says she tells both temporary and permanent employees how the culture of law firms differs from those of other businesses. Dress is conservative, she tells new hires. No flashy clothes, large jewelry, or tattoos, Krull advises. Ethics, she says, are of “utmost importance.” She notes that the work ethic can be different, too. Missed deadlines can have dire consequences. “That’s what litigation is all about,” she says. “A tickler system and diary are mandatory to keep track of the dates and the deadlines.” From dress to behavior, “professionalism is number one,” says Meral Llewellyn, director of marketing for CambridgeStaff, a placement firm for support staff and attorneys. With the shortage of candidates, law firms are increasingly looking to placement firms for help in filling positions, according to Catherine (Kay) E. Spencer, president of Paces Personnel Inc., which specializes in the placement of legal support staff. In an effort to provide trained people to fill the jobs, the company plans to offer a training program, developed by a Jackson, Miss., attorney. The program includes an introduction to legal practice, a code of ethics and professional conduct, instruction on the importance of lawyer/client confidentiality, essential legal terms and the importance of appearance and attitude, says Spencer. It also addresses legal filing, scheduling, correspondence, e-mail, legal document production, telephone procedures and billing. “The supply of legal personnel is drying up,” says Spencer. “You cannot just send a person into a law firm. The law firms don’t have time to train these people. They have to practice law.” Jane E. Sanders, the attorney and placement service owner who helped develop the program, says new hires have to understand how their jobs fit into the mission of the firm. For example, she says, students of the program learn that “if you miss a particular date on the calendar or a deadline, it could end up in a lawsuit against the firm or against the attorney. The attorney could be disbarred or disciplined for some failure on the part of the support staff.” Sanders says she worries that lawyers, who are already “overwhelmed” with the day-to-day practice of law, won’t give training of support staff a high enough priority. She predicts “troubled times ahead” if lawyers don’t pay more attention to training.

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