Job Descriptions Are More Important Than You Might Realize

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When it comes to job descriptions in a law practice, say what you mean and mean what you say. It's probably more important than you think.

Having a comprehensive job description for every position in a law office is essential for a number of reasons. First, it is a prerequisite to an objective and efficient bonus program, by which staff people are told specifically what they are expected to do and how performance of those responsibilities will be evaluated to qualify.

Another reason for detailed job descriptions is that when employees understand what they should be doing and the criteria by which they are evaluated, they are more likely to be committed to their roles, and their performances are more likely to yield positive results. Moreover, they are less likely to resort to legal action for perceived unfairness.

The absence of such descriptions, in contrast, promotes inconsistency, threatens objectivity, and opens the firm to allegations of unfairness.

Descriptions should include the specific, significant tasks of each position and the performance standards by which the accomplishment of the tasks is judged.

Staff people can, of course, make the extra effort beyond their job descriptions that can justify extra rewards — from volunteering to make collection phone calls on overdue accounts to using personal time for reading up on law firm management and suggesting ways to implement the lessons learned.

Job descriptions also are critical in making new hires. Hiring somebody is one of the most difficult challenges, but a job description can make it considerably easier.

From the lawyer's perspective, it begins by defining what you need, by asking yourself what you do now that could be delegated effectively, and to whom you could delegate it.

The principle is to delegate to the lowest level of competence you can so that your firm achieves the best rate of return on each person's work. That means that while you do the work that only you can do — serving your existing clients and marketing your practice to potential new ones — you are simultaneously leveraging skills of others at a cost of $X and charging that work out at a $Y billable rate so that there is a profit ($Y-$X) to the practice.

When creating job descriptions, list the characteristics of the ideal candidate to whom the particular work can be delegated.

For example, if it is an office administrator, you should have precise standards for document and file management, technology and software literacy, communication skills, and professionalism. If it is a paralegal, it means defining the precise areas to be handled, such as intakes, pleadings, research, depositions, summaries and so forth, and the skills required to handle those tasks.

Knowing what your needs are and what it takes to meet them is essential to finding the right employees.

Depending on the practice's size, the search process may be conducted in various ways. That could include in-house personnel or an outside agency or, in the case of the smallest firms and solo practices, by the lawyers themselves.

The search process could involve use of both print and online job search and job posting services as well as referrals from networks of colleagues, clients and bar associations.

Of course, even with a perfect job description and search process, remember that the hiring decision itself is ultimately a matter of gut feeling about the candidates and how they match up to your requirements and fit with the firm's culture.

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