Smart hiring and effective training are two key ways to ensure that the outcome is positive both for the less experienced advocate or support staff and also the firm, say lawyers appearing on an upcoming panel discussion at the Law Society of Ontario entitled “Setting the example: Best practices for modelling, teaching, training and delegating to staff.”
“I see my role, at least initially, is to teach and to guide,” says Lai-King Hum, chairwoman of the April 2 event at the Law Society of Practice Management for Litigators, which includes the discussion on training and delegating.
“You want to hire people, though, who are going to drive themselves,” adds the human rights and employment lawyer, who heads Hum Law Firm in Toronto.
“I can teach you skills, but I am looking for people who care, who want to do it the right way,” she says. “The ones who will excel will not ask, ‘What do I do?’ They will come back and say, ‘I have thought about it. I think we should do it this way. What do you think?’” says Hum.
Social skills, which will be required both in terms of interacting with clients and other lawyers, are also as important as legal knowledge, she says.
“The person with the ‘straight As’ in law school is not always the best hire. I always look to see whether someone can engage with people,” she says.
Colin Stevenson, a commercial litigator and partner at Stevenson Whelton LLP, says the process is easier if you have made a good decision at the hiring stage.
“You have to hire the right people. If they are not, then you need to make a decision early on,” he says.
Once someone has been brought into the firm and shows promise, then senior lawyers should not try to micro-manage, Stevenson says.
“Part of the problem is at the partner level, where they cannot let go and there is a failure to delegate properly,” he says.
“The partner should be able to judge the situation and determine to what extent he needs to maintain supervision,” Stevenson says.
For non-lawyers working at a firm in support staff positions, there is a professional obligation to directly supervise any tasks that are assigned. In the case of junior lawyers, however, Stevenson says the goal should be to try not to interfere if possible.
“A lot of senior partners fail to let go enough. The trouble is, it ends up being stifling for the junior lawyer,” he says. Potential issues down the road can be avoided, he says, if a senior lawyer gives clear directions to an associate on a file at the beginning stages.
“Too often, we give bare-bones instructions. If you have concerns, ask for interim reports. With a new client, I try to have an associate or junior partner handle the file on a day-to-day basis and I have to be confident they will come back to me for advice at key points,” Stevenson says.
He adds that it is essential that the more junior lawyer is present at the initial client meeting and that it is communicated clearly as to what the role of each lawyer will be.
“I am still responsible for the strategic direction,” says Stevenson.
Tanya Walker, who heads Walker Law in Toronto, says the training and direction given to junior lawyers requires the senior lawyer to follow their own advice.
“You have to practise what you preach. We have a weekly meeting to go over our files. I am a stickler for time. I can’t expect to show up 10 minutes late for this meeting,” says Walker.
When assigning tasks to a relatively new lawyer, she suggests initially narrowing the request.
“I might ask them to draft one section of an argument,” she says.
The proper way to communicate with clients and other lawyers is also important to teach in a time of text messaging and the use of social media, says Walker.
“I copy them on communications. It is a way to understand what is appropriate,” she notes.
All three lawyers agree that good support staff, from clerks to assistants, is an essential component in any successfully run law firm.
“Give them accountability. Show them that you trust them and, when they do a good job, make sure to acknowledge it publicly,” says Walker.