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The process of hiring, training and supervising staff for a solo, small firm or boutique firm involves unique issues. Days can be long, and the workload heavy, but it takes more than stamina to survive. Because there are so few people on staff, it is imperative that everyone on the payroll be competent and personally compatible with each other. In this sense, working at a small firm is less like corporate America and more like being part of a family. Because of the need to preserve the close family feel of a small or boutique firm, hiring new staff is an arduous process. Any new person coming in, from a receptionist to a lawyer, must be a good fit, personalitywise, with everyone else in the office. And because a small firm or boutique is less likely to have specialized staff for each type of task, prospective hires must understand that they may be required from time to time to do things they may not consider within their traditional job description. For example, in our firm, attorneys occasionally answer the phones if the receptionist and the legal assistant are busy. The receptionist often acts as a runner, taking documents to the courthouse or going to the bank. The legal assistant may have duties ranging from acting as the firm comptroller to picking up an expert witness from the airport before a trial. In a solo’s office, small firm or boutique, egos come second; getting the work done comes first. Everyone in the office must know that he or she is not above doing whatever needs to be done. In other words, prospective employees must understand and accept that the job description won’t be written in stone. Everyone is expected to pitch in. With that in mind, there are many different ways to look for new staff. Our firm has done everything from running an ad in the local newspaper to hiring a professional staffing firm and seeking referrals from friends and colleagues, with mixed success. When we took out an ad in the newspaper, we received stacks of r�sum�s. But because the firm lacks a manager responsible solely for office administration, it was difficult to make the extra time to sift through and screen the applicants adequately. Professional staffing firms were expensive. Ultimately, we found it was more difficult with these approaches to gauge properly a prospective employee’s true personality and make a reasoned determination as to whether that person would be compatible with the other people at the office. For our small firm, the best source for new employees has been referrals from friends and colleagues. The biggest benefit to this approach is that it’s more realistic to find people who are compatible with other members of the office because they’re referred by those already familiar with the working environment. TAKE TIME TO TRAIN Clients who come to a solo, small firm or boutique firm expect more personalized service. Again, a small firm is like a family. Clients are like an extension of that family. Consequently, new staffers must be trained to treat each client like he or she is the most important client of the firm. Image is an important part of this training — especially in this competitive market. Everyone in the office, from the receptionist to the attorneys, must appear professional and on top of their game at all times. This is particularly true when hiring a new receptionist or secretary, who often is the first point of contact between a judge, a source of business or a client. Because various members of the firm often are extremely busy and there is no human resource department available to handle training, the biggest problem facing a solo practitioner, small firm or boutique firm in training new staff is finding the time necessary to do so. It also is important for attorneys and existing staff to take the time to explain the firm’s practice to the new employee. New hires must understand the big picture of what the firm does and why it does it so they can handle unexpected problems as they develop. The reality of solo or small-firm practice is that from time to time a legal assistant or staff person will have to make contact with the courts because an attorney is unavailable. We find it helpful to take all new staffers to the courthouses where we practice to meet the judges, coordinators, clerks, court reporters and other employees with whom the firm deals regularly. Having a legal assistant who is on friendly terms with the judges and court staff is an invaluable asset to the practice. One of the best things about working for a solo, small firm or boutique firm is the flexibility that employees enjoy. When things are slow, staff can run personal errands, take long lunches or go home early. But there is a tradeoff: Everybody has to understand that there will be times, especially with a trial looming, when everyone may have to work late into the night and weekends. At our firm, being flexible concerning work schedules when business is somewhat slower results in positive attitudes and more productivity when we’re in a crunch. STAFF PERFORMANCE One of the trickiest employee issues in a small firm is advancement. The reality is that someone hired to be a receptionist likely will stay in that job for a long time with little hope of moving up, absent significant growth in the firm. Likewise, because of the firm’s size, there is likely no partnership track for associates, as there is in large firms. So long as there are earned increases in responsibilities and salary, most people who work for a solo or small firm should understand if they do not get promoted to a new title. Another tough issue for a solo, small firm or boutique firm is dealing with poor performance from a staff member or attorney. No one likes to hear that he or she is not performing up to task, and no one likes to have to deliver that information. If your employees feel like family, however, this task is somewhat easier. Most employees will feel they have some type of personal stake in the firm, and if you explain how poor performance affects the firm’s reputation and the bottom line, issues of staff performance typically can be resolved in a positive manner. In a solo practice, small firm or boutique firm, staffers do not come to a job every day, but to a career. Take good care of staff and make each person feel like an integral part of the firm’s family so that the practice will enjoy increased productivity and staff longevity. Jeff Kearney heads Fort Worth’s Kearney Law Firm, a boutique firm devoted to the representation of persons and corporations in criminal investigations, trials and appeals. Board certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, he is a frequent author and lecturer in the field of criminal law. Wm. Reagan Wynn is an associate with Fort Worth’s Kearney Law Firm, a boutique firm devoted to the representation of persons and corporations in criminal investigations, trials and appeals. He is board certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and is a frequent author and lecturer in the field of criminal law.

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