OSB Professional Liability Fund

Lawyers as Supervisors

March 23, 2018
by Rachel Edwards

As with many other aspects of running a law firm, law school does not teach lawyers how to be supervisors. The old adage “I just want to practice law, not be a supervisor,” doesn’t fit with the business model of a law firm if you have staff. If you hire staff, you’re a supervisor whether you like it or not. It benefits you and your clients if you put in the time to become a better manager and train your staff accordingly. Below are some tips and resources for lawyers to become better supervisors and ultimately better serve their clients:

  • Understand your ethical duties as a supervisor
    • Whether you are supervising a lawyer or a nonlawyer staff member, you are responsible for that person’s violation of an ethical rule if you ordered or, with knowledge of the specific conduct, ratified the conduct involved, or knew of the conduct at a time when its consequences could have been avoided or mitigated but you failed to take reasonable remedial action. ORPCs 5.1 and 5.3. It may seem frustrating to hire staff for the purpose of assisting you with your workload but still be required to supervise their work product. Yet hiring staff can be helpful for your organization and allow you to better serve your clients. It is a matter of putting in the time to create an environment in which staff understand the ethical duties involved in the practice of law, and there are clear procedures for how the work is to be completed in accordance with those duties.
  • Explain to staff the importance of their work
    • Staff may not understand the importance of their work and how their work product could have far-reaching implications for clients. Explain to them that they are in a position of helping others and they need to maintain compassion, professionalism, and hold themselves to a high standard.
  • Treat staff with respect
    • A good supervisor maintains a good relationship with staff. A supervisor’s goal should not be to control their staff but to guide them to do the best possible work they can, which then benefits the organization and helps to fulfill its purpose. Consider yourself a mentor with the hopes that your staff will learn and grow with the organization.
  • Improve communication and clearly delegate
    • Problems arise when lawyers fail to clearly delegate tasks to their staff. For example, a lawyer handed a pleading to his legal assistant and asked her to file it. Not understanding the task, she filed it in the filing cabinet rather than with the court as was his intention. A statute of limitations was missed and chaos ensued. While it may seem obvious to you as the lawyer, staff may not understand what you’re asking, especially if they haven’t been previously involved in the case and aren’t familiar with the circumstances. Consider utilizing delegation memos to specify case information, deadlines, and the assigned task.
  • Encourage staff to ask questions
    • Staff often hesitate to ask questions of their supervisory lawyer for various reasons, such as embarrassment or fear of a negative response. Keep the lines of communication open with your staff. Create an environment in the office where staff are encouraged to ask questions without fear of feeling embarrassed or fearful. While interruptions are frustrating, allowing staff to ask questions and clarify their duties can prevent mistakes from being made.
  • Create detailed office procedure/policy manuals and templates
    • In addition to clear delegation, creating detailed office procedure and policy manuals and templates can be helpful in assuring that staff understand their duties and responsibilities in the office. It also improves efficiency. Revisit and update your staff duties and templates on a regular basis. You can find sample office procedure and policy manuals on our website at www.osbplf.org > Practice Management > Forms > Category > Office Manuals.
  • Encourage staff to join networking organizations
    • For nonlawyer staff, this includes organizations like the National Association for Legal Professionals, which also has an Oregon chapter and local chapters throughout the state, and the Oregon Paralegal Association. For lawyer staff, this may depend on the level of experience of the lawyer and the practice area. Options include bar sections and county bar associations, among many others. Continued involvement in the legal community can be a good opportunity for training outside the office.
Working with others, especially in the legal profession, can be challenging to say the least. Use your interactions with your staff as an opportunity to improve yourself as a lawyer and ultimately an advocate for your clients.

Resources

www.osbplf.org > Practice Management > Forms > Category > Staff