This is the last post of the series Developing and Funding a Plaintiff’s Personal Injury Practice. The last challenge in starting your own firm is ensuring you have the best resources available. People.
When John McLeish and I started our firm in 1999 we had one other lawyer who worked with us and 7 staff members. We have made a point of not growing the firm simply for the sake of growth. Despite this approach, we now have a firm of 11 lawyers, 3 articling students and 50 support staff. We currently employ an excellent office manager and receptionist, in addition to a host of excellent accident benefit clerks, law clerks and legal assistants. All of these people are absolutely essential to the success of our law practice, but this growth hasn’t come without its share of problems. There is truth to the saying “good people are hard to find” and we have had our share of mistakes.
It is important that the people that work for me are dedicated, hard working, intelligent and honest, but this is only a starting point. For me, one of the most important aspects of our firm is the atmosphere. It isn’t for everyone, but it is for me. For almost everyone in the workforce, you spend the majority of your waking hours with the people that you work with. You can pay people well and they will show up for work, but if you want them to go the extra mile, work has to be a place that they enjoy going. They have to like the people that they work with and they have to like you. If your employees like and respect you, they will put their hearts and souls into the success of your operation. You can’t force people to like and respect you, but if you respect them, treat them fairly and take an honest interest in their well being, you will find that they can’t help but reciprocate. I’m not suggesting that you should be afraid to point out peoples mistakes or take appropriate action to correct behaviour that is detrimental to the office so long as it is done the right way. However, once you realize that you have made a bad hiring decision, you should move as quickly as you can to undue the mistake by letting the person go. It doesn’t take long for one person’s bad attitude to fester and create division within an office. You will spend a great deal of time and money fostering goodwill with your employees. You don’t want to let your efforts be undone by a bad apple.
Of course, all the friendship and respect in the world isn’t enough to ensure that you retain the top talent that you have dedicated time to training. You also have to pay people fairly. People that are good at their jobs know that they are good and know that they have other employment options. You ca not fault even your most loyal employees for checking to see how comparable positions at other firms are being remunerated. If you are far off the mark, at best, it will be pointed out to you. At worst, your employee will move on to another position without giving you the opportunity to match. To avoid this situation, you should make routine inquiries to determine how other comparable firms are remunerating their employees. Over and above paying a top salary, you should consider:
- Having a comprehensive benefit package
- A clearly defined parental leave policy and sick leave policy
- An RRSP contribution matching program
- Adequate vacation time
- A bonus structure that rewards individual performance and the overall performance of the firm
- Paying a bonus to employees that bring work to the firm (typically a percentage of the overall fee on the file).
Over and above the foregoing, consider hosting staff socials. We have two major staff socials – summer and winter – each year. The venue and format changes each time, but the social always includes some form of team building event that requires participation on the part of the lawyers and staff in the office. I always have a good time at our firm socials and that seems to hold true for all of the people that work at McLeish Orlando.
Another significant source of employee turnover is lack of upward mobility or career enhancement. Employees that are new to the workforce and those that have up to several years of experience, may tolerate a job that they are not enamoured with if they feel that they are on the bottom rung of a career ladder and they are being required to pay their dues. Apart from being good for employee retention, “hiring” from within for advanced positions makes good business sense. Presumably, the employee that is a candidate for advancement is someone that has impressed you as being reliable and trustworthy and is someone that is already familiar with your systems.
You may wish to consider implementing a continuing education program whereby you agree to pay for some percentage of your employees’ ongoing training courses or furtherance of a diploma or degree in exchange for a commitment to remain with the firm following the completion of the course for a fixed period of time. If the employee leaves the firm within this timeframe, they are required to repay the firm’s share of the cost of the course. You may also wish to consider having your clerks join the Law Clerk’s Section of the Ontario Trial Lawyer’s Association and pay for them to attend the OTLA spring or fall conferences. The conferences are a good learning and networking opportunity and the chance to attend is a perk for a valued employee and gives other newer employees something to aspire to.
This paper is intended to be an overview of various tips and strategies for financing, marketing and running your new personal injury practice. For a thorough analysis of all of the aspects of file development and management I recommend reading The Oatley McLeish Guide to Personal Injury Practice in Motor Vehicle Cases, Canada Law Book Inc.