Category: Human Resources

Job Opening – Law Firm Office Administrator

Solnick & Levin is a small law firm in Jenkintown, PA with a busy personal injury and workers’ compensation practices.  They have a job opening for a Law Firm Office Administrator.

The firm, which currently has 4 attorneys and 6 staff, is growing and will be nearly doubling its footprint into space adjacent to their existing office.  The expansion project is expected to launch in April.  The responsibilities include human resources management, facilities management, and management of accounts payable and accounts receivable.  Interested candidates should submit their resume and salary requirement to Mindy Levin, Esq. via email.  No calls or walk-ins.  The firm offers health insurance and 401(k); salary is commensurate with experience.

Coaching for PA Lawyers to Improve Marketing and Other Skills

My first major step onto the coaching soapbox came in the form of an article entitled “Coaching to Improve Skills,”  which appeared in the December 3, 2007 issue of The Pennsylvania Bar News.  I wrote it because I was sick and tired of hearing attorneys say that if an attorney did not instinctively know how to market, they would never learn.  It’s just wrong.

Most attorneys are not instinctively good at marketing.  However, marketing is very much a learned skill.  Any attorney is capable of learning how to become an effective rainmaker, or at least a strong contributor to a firm’s efforts.

The fact is that Baby Boomer attorneys grew up in a rapidly expanding marketplace.   Individuals and companies were happy to find an attorney who did decent work, and had a nice “bedside” manner.  That’s about all that was required to grow one’s practice through word of mouth.  There was plenty of room for new attorneys to try one methodology or another, and make mistakes along the way to honing one’s skills in asking for legal work, and referrals to new clients.  Those who chose not to do so were able to make partner by serving the needs of other partners’ clients.  Those “worker bees” chose not to develop skills outside their comfort level, because they didn’t need to do so in order to succeed.  That doesn’t mean that they weren’t capable of doing so.  Maybe they would have needed some assistance to get there, but if motivated, they could have.

When the marketplace leveled off, development of marketing skills started to become a determinant of who would make partner, and who would not.  Firms would invest enormous resources in helping attorneys develop professional skills.  But when the same attorneys did not “naturally” develop marketing skills by a certain point in their career, they were cut loose, on the assumption that they were a lost cause.  Such a shame.  Many who were cast aside went on to develop the skills out of necessity, in order to survive on their own.  Some did better than others, but most managed to survive in the profession.

Now that we’re in a highly-competitive, contracting marketplace, there is even less room for experimentation and trial and error in client development.  Smart firms are realizing that training in this area is as necessary as any other area.  And let’s keep in mind that real learning by lawyers is acquired by “doing” and not by “studying” about it.  That means one must know what to do, how to do it, and then practice and perfect the skills.

For many attorneys, coaching can provide the difference between success and failure.  And that doesn’t apply just to development of rainmaking skills.  Coaches work directly with attorneys to help them create a personal action plan.  They help attorneys identify what is holding them back, and develop strategies to overcome the roadblocks.

I have searched for coaches I can recommend for many years.  Most that I have met over the years do not meet my expectations.  It’s not about the credentials; it’s about the person and their methodology.  I have a few I can recommend to PA Bar Members.  Some focus just in marketing.  Others in more general areas contributing to success.  However, I was recently so impressed by one in particular, I will mention her here.

We became acquainted through LinkedIn.  After some e-conversation, we met in person.  Obviously I was impressed.  So let me recommend you take a look at the credentials of Dena Lefkowitz.  If you decide to call, tell her Ellen sent you.  I don’t get any referral,  just satisfaction knowing attorneys are getting the additional skill training they need to be successful.

 

A Law Firm with a Sense of Humor

Is it an oxymoron to say law firm and sense of humor in the same sentence?  Apparently not.  Creating a fun atmosphere attracts employees.

Back in the day when I managed firms hands-on, I tried to introduce humor into the workplace whenever possible.  My colleagues at other firms did not approve.  They thought everything about law firm life should be serious, dignified, and . . . yawn . . . never fun.  I never had a problem encouraging some of their top employees to make a leap to the environment I worked so hard to craft.

This week’s edition of ABA Journal Law News Now headlined a story entitled “Fake Summer Associate Hired in Prank by Law Firm”.  Of course, I had to look at the article and accompanying video.  Hilarious!  And a great recruiting tool, too!  You can be sure that associates across the country who are looking for a great work environment where they can have fun and do challenging work as well, will be hankering for a chance to join their team.

Jay Edelson is the founder and managing partner of Edelson LLC, as well as the instigator of this great prank.  KUDOS, Jay.  Your firm’s web site says your firm is different from other firms in most aspects, and clearly that is true.  You’ve figured out that hard work and a fun work environment are not mutually exclusive.  And in fact, when you actually allow and even encourage people to enjoy themselves while working, you will always get greater dedication and a superior work product.  If you can introduce fun into the learning process, it will enhance the process considerably.

There’s much to be learned from this simple prank.  Read Edelson’s blog post from Oct 15, 2009 in ABA’s Legal Rebels, in which he describes his training / mentoring philosophy.  Take it to heart.  He knows whereof he speaks.

 

Children Responsible for Parental Debt

I never heard of the “filial responsibility” laws.  Until I read about a PA resident who must pay for Mom’s $93,000 Nursing Home bill.  Now that I’ve read about it, I’m sure glad my sister has the “deep pocket” in our family.

I thought my first post when I returned from TechShow would be about one of the many wonderful lessons learned.  I was in fact going to post diligently from there.  But the Chicago Hilton has about the worst Wi-Fi access I’ve encountered.  It was tough just getting a cell phone signal.  It was fairly humorous to see so many lawyers with cell phones to their ears and bodies literally plastered to the windows like some sort of human antennae.  At night, when I got back to the room after the myriad of social events, I was just too tired to think, let alone write.

Now that I’m back I’m anxious to share, but an article in the Anderson Elder Law Newsletter entitled “Son Liable for Mom’s $93,000 Nursing Home Bill Under ‘Filial Responsibility’ Law” really caught my attention.  How could that be?  Well, it be!  And I am so shocked by this, I feel compelled to share it right now.  The article explains:

Some 29 states currently have laws making adult children responsible for their parents if their parents can’t afford to take care of themselves. These “filial responsibility” laws have rarely been enforced, but six years ago when federal rules made it more difficult to qualify for Medicaid long-term care coverage, some elder law attorneys predicted that nursing homes would start using the laws as a way to get care paid for.

And it was precisely the application of this law which caused the son to be forced to take financial responsibility.  Unbelievably, the law does not require it to consider other sources of income or to wait until a parent’s Medicaid claim is resolved.  Even more pernicious is that the law permits the nursing home to choose which family members to pursue for the money owed.  In this particular case, they ignored a spouse and other siblings, and went after the apparent ”deep pocket.”

Linda Anderson notes that after Pennsylvania re-enacted its filial support law in the mid-2000s, Williamsport attorney Jeffrey A. Marshall forecast that the new Medicaid law would trigger a wave of lawsuits involving adult children.  Obviously, he was correct, and this is just the beginning of what may become a tidal wave of lawsuits.  In Marshall’s blog post about this court decision he writes:

Children are often surprised to learn that they can be held responsible for their parent’s unpaid medical and care related expenses. It just doesn’t seem fair. But, whether fair or not, the Pittas case shows that the child’s support obligation to the parent is the law in Pennsylvania.  Children: be warned. If your parent needs long term care and may someday be unable to pay for it, you should find out about your potential financial liability and what to do about it.

So what is the son supposed to do, now that he has lost his appeal?  Is he to sue his father and siblings for their “fair share” of the debt?  Declare bankruptcy?  I’m just thinking out loud on this, while I shake my head in disbelief.  Our lives are already so stressful . . . raising children in a two-income household, trying to care for aging parents, trying to save for retirement in an ever-increasing financially hostile future environment, and to have some quality of life and semblance of balance in the current moment.  Is this the straw which breaks the back of American families?

I am so grateful I “strongly encouraged” my mom to purchase optional Long Term Care Insurance through her employer’s Cafeteria Plan some 30 years ago, so that it’s there if she needs it.   We found out from personal experience about 2 years ago how quickly the bills can mount after my mother suffered a fall at home.  The nursing home costs, followed by rehab at home, and then extended personal care until she was recovered enough to be completely on her own again, added up to a huge amount of money which her Medicare and additional excess policy didn’t cover.   They paid plenty, don’t get me wrong.  But there was a lot of uncovered additional expense, especially the personal in-home care, which cost a fortune.  At least the Long Term Care contributed toward some of that once the elimination period was passed.  (Although I admit I had to really duke it out with them to get her benefit paid, despite her making premium payments like clockwork for 30 years.  But hey, don’t even get me started on the topic of insurance companies!  :-(  )

If you have living parents, this is not something you can afford to ignore.  Make sure they have adequate insurance coverage, and talk to an Elder Care attorney just to see what risks you face, and how you might avoid them.  The investment to protect yourself now is a pittance compared to the potential exposure later.

 

New HIPAA Regulations Require Action

Final HIPAA privacy and security regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will require action by group health plan sponsors by September 2013.  According to an employee benefits blog issued by McDermott Will & Emory, the final rule largely adopts the proposed HITECH regulations with some additional expansions and clarifications, adopts revised breach notification rules, adopts a revised penalty structure for covered entities and business associates that violate HIPAA privacy and security rules, and incorporates protections required by the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).

You can find information about The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), in a blog post of mine written in late 2009.  Local healthcare attorney Jennifer Stiller guest blogged here and here in early 2010 about the HITECH and new privacy regulations.  And now, finally, we have final regulations.  You can read additional details in the excellent article written by Amy M. Gordon and Jamie A. Weyeneth of McDermott Will & Emory.

Law Firm Layoffs Continue — Quietly — to the Detriment of Service Partners

At a recent presentation to students at a local law school, I emphasized that law firms are still downsizing, in order to deal with continuing underutilization.  The layoffs are not as spectacular as they were in the past few years, and therefore rarely make headlines like this recent one anymore.  But they continue nonetheless.

I was making this point in order to emphasize the perils of becoming a service partner.  In “olden days” this was often called a “worker bee” partner.  In the Finders, Minders, Grinders scenario, this would be a Minder as a partner, or perhaps Grinder as a partner or associate.  In short, if you are not familiar with these terms, we are referring to an attorney whose career involves servicing clients of some other partner(s).

How does one become a service partner?  Early in one’s career, one is convinced by one or more partners with heavy books of business, that they do not have to do any rainmaking on their own in order to do well, and even to become a partner; just service the partner(s) clients and that will be sufficient.

Many a capable attorney has been drawn by the siren’s call of no marketing necessity, and the ability to do nothing but practice law to their greatest capacity.  Many have made the ranks of partner, although for the majority who worked at firms with non-equity partners, that is the level of partner they achieved.  Still, even without a share of profits, and perhaps no say in management, having the title and a nice compensation package was more than adequate when coupled with the ability to ignore rainmaking responsibilities.

Here’s the problem.  It’s a lie.  Maybe a good-intentioned lie, but a self-serving lie nonetheless.  Because when a lawyer depends on someone else to fill his or her plate with work, in all likelihood that lawyer will eventually have an empty plate, and no justification for continued employment.  In some small percentage of such cases, the service partner may eventually “inherit” the desirable clients when the rainmaking attorney dies or retires.  But that assumes that the rainmaking attorney makes it a point to actively work on succession such that the relationships that matter are passed on to the service partner.  In my experience, that’s not going to happen often.  So eventually, at the point in one’s career when the attorney expects to start working less hard, he or she becomes a liability due to a lack of work, and has to start all over again somewhere else, or as a solo with no business and lots of experience.

Some firms have called me in to deliver the bad news, because no one within the firm had the ability to look the 70+ year old attorney in the face and tell him/her that the firm could no longer economically justify their existence at the firm.  The feelings of betrayal are incalculable.  The attorney feels that the “deal” with the firm required them to continue to fill his/her plate.  Why aren’t other partners, younger partners, feeding them work to make up for the partner who retired or died?  Simple:  they are going to push the work downward, so as to maximize their profit, as well as their control.  They are not comfortable pushing the work up.  They can not critique performance comfortably, and many times, the older partner doesn’t treat their clients with the same significance as clients from the more senior partner(s) who used to feed them work.

Law firms today can’t afford to elevate attorneys to true equity partnership positions unless they are also rainmakers.  So don’t be drawn by the siren’s call of alleviation of rainmaking necessity, to rocky waters where your ship will eventually crash and sink.  Stay the course.  Even if it means asserting your rights to keep some time to work on your own meager clients, as you build your book of business.  Your very existence will some day depend on it.

Is Telecommuting a Bad Idea?

Cyberspace has been all abuzz about the new ban on telecommuting announced by Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer.  Is telecommuting a bad idea?  Well, I hate to sound like all the attorneys I work with, but the answer is “it depends.”   If you check out some of the articles written, many of which liberally quote former employees, you will note that people weigh in on both sides of the issue.

Arguments against the ban seem to center on two points.  The first point is that there is great irony in banning an employment policy which is enabled by technology, when the company is fundamendally rooted in technology innovation, and located in Silicon Valley, which is internationally known for technology innovation.  I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it.  What?  Is it giving the other technology companies a black eye?  Is this HR policy change such an abomination that it takes these forward-thinking companies into the dark ages?  I don’t think so.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m thrilled that technology exists which makes telecommuting and virtual office arrangements possible.  I have worked on a virtual office basis for the PA Bar Association for 14 years.  So it should be clear that I am in favor of such arrangements.  But only when they make good sense and work from a business perspective for both employer and employee.  That’s really what’s at issue here.

The second point being raised is that this is a very abrupt change in a widely-deployed work policy, and will leave a large number of employees unable to continue to work under a more “traditional” arrangement.  Again, I do understand.  But things change.  Economies change.  Companies change.  And so, too, must employees occassionally change.  The new CEO has taken fast and decisive action.  She is tasked with turning a company around, in an industry where change occurs in a nanosecond.  Should she take her time, examining each telecommuter individually to determine whether or not their arrangement is providing the necessary ROI?  The company could cease to exist or pass a point of no return before that exercise is concluded.

I’ve been in situations where decisive action must be taken, such as downsizing a workforce.  This is not something that can be done in pieces.  In the long term the harm to morale is greaterwith the gentler, more gradual approach.  It’s like removing a bandaid from a hairy arm . . . going slowly doesn’t easy the pain, it exacerbates it.

Here’s my take from an outsider’s perspective, but also the perspective of one who has been charged with turning around a company more than once.  One has to look at the organization one runs as a living breathing entity.  I always thought of the companies I managed as infants, entrusted to my care.  Like any nurturing mother, I was ferocious and unmerciful with anything which threatened the strength, growth or viability of my child.  It never mattered whose ox I had to gore in order to protect and nurture the child.  There were no sacred cows.  Any clear threats were quickly dispatched.  This rarely made me popular.  But it always made me successful, along with the company entrusted to my care.

If you read what former Yahoo workers have to say — along with the few current ones who dare to speak up — you will discover that in all likelihood the option to telecommute became an entitlement over the years, rather than a rare privilege.  Enormous number of workers chose to work remotely not because of lifestyle needs (which is what telecommuting should be about) but because of the desire to escape workplace scrutiny.  Sure, some people gave an honest day’s work for their wages.  But I think that an enormous number of people took advantage and were not earning their wages.

One of the problems inherent in telecommuting policies is oversight.  How does one know whether there is a fair exchange of work for pay?  In some instances it is relatively easy.  For example, a remote receptionist has to cover phones for a certain number of hours, regardless of whether the phone rings.  It’s easy to spot check to make sure they are doing their job.  A remote attorney is usually paid based on billable hours spent on client matters.  As long as the hours are reasonable, billable, and paid by the client, there is no reason to question efficacy.   But the reality is that for most jobs done remotely, it is difficult to determine  successful performance.  For that reason, employers need to think about what measurements they will have to gauge success before approving any telecommuting request.  And it should be openly discussed with the employee, so they know the terms of the arrangement.

I agree with Mayer’s move on many fronts.  The Yahoo workforce is probably in need of “rightsizing” and by making this change, attrition will eliminate some of this problem.  Yahoo depends on innovation to survive.  Innovation does not happen with a huge remote workforce of creative minds.  Innovation happens when you squeeze creative people into a workplace like sardines with a little extra elbow room, where they are forced to interact continually.  Allow them to be a little rowdy and undisciplined.  Provide food whenever possible.  And then throw in some food for thought, e.g. challenges to work on, and let them germinate.  Wonderful things will grow.

I would not be surprised if telecommuting is reintroduced to the company again in a few years.  But it will not be until there has been a turnaround achieved, if it in fact can be achieved.  And when it happens, it will be on a much more restricted basis, and more carefully measured and monitored.  And it will most certainly never again be allowed to be regarded by employees as an entitlement.

Is It Time to Change Jobs?

A terrific, short article on a FindLaw Blog lists “5 Signs You Need to Leave Your Law Firm Job.”  I’ve added five more reasons to change jobs, based on experience:

6.  Banging your head against a wall.  You feel like you’re fighting the same battles repeatedlyEach time, you’ve run into the same wall, and you don’t see any change coming in the foreseeable future.  It’s probably time to throw in the towel.

7.  Kicking the dog.  Your frustration and stress level is so high you take it out on the loving creatures and people in your life.  Attorneys don’t handle stress well as it is.  If yours rises to a consistently intolerable level, move on before your family tells you it’s time to move out.

8.  Rampant paranoia.  You are convinced that hushed conversations are about you, and that you’re the punch line of a joke when you hear people in the office laughing.  Remember, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t really out to get you.

9.  Extreme eating.  There is no happy in-between.  You either have no appetite whatsoever, or can’t get enough Chunky Monkey to reach a level of satisfaction.  When you need safety pins to keep your skirt from falling off, or to help close the waistline gap in your pants, it’s time to make a move for the sake of your health.

10.  Hair bristling on the back of your neck.  When the mere sound of a voice — that of a partner, staff member, colleague, or client — makes the hair on your neck stand up, it’s time to pack it up and leave before you do or say something really stupid.

Care to add more based on your own experience?

 

 

Use of Criminal Records in Hiring Decisions

I was instructing a class of 2L and 3L students at Drexel’s Earl Mack School of Law this past Monday, and included was my recommendation to use a credit and criminal records check for any potential new hire who would be handling client money, as a fraud prevention strategy .  In passing I indicated that there are certain legalities which will apply in order to do it properly, so as not to discriminate or violate privacy rights.

Today I received a Labor and Employment Alert from Ballard Spahr entitled “OFCCP Issues Guidance on Use of
Criminal Records in Employment Decisions” and the timing could not have been more perfect.  The guidance issued on this topic was issued by the EEOC Commission on April 25, 2012.

I continue to be grateful to Ballard Spahr’s hard-working and knowledgeable attorneys who keep pushing essential information out to people like me, in clearly understandable language.  It’s not the first time I have cited them and provided a compliment — something I don’t give too freely.

Attorneys have an obligation under Rule 1.15 [Safekeeping Property] to exercise a reasonable amount of care and due diligence in protecting client property.  When hiring employees who will handle client money — bookkeeper, estate paralegal, secretary in a small firm — the firm should check into the applicant’s criminal and credit history.  Failing to do so can have serious consequences, not least of which is the PR.  One law firm in Montgomery County found out the hard way.  They hired an estate paralegal without doing a reference check, let alone a criminal or credit check.  Only after money was stolen did they discover that the employee had previously worked for a law firm in New York, where she had been arrested for the same crime, and was out on bail when the PA firm hired her.  She was paying restitution to her former firm from the funds she was stealing from her new employer.  That’s about as bad as it gets.

Be sure to review the EEOC Guidance, or consult with a qualified attorney, so that you do it properly, and in a manner which does not have a disparate impact based on race or ethnicity, or any other protected category.  Yes, you have to be careful.  However, failing to check at all is taking a greater risk, and may create exposure for your firm for failing to take reasonable precautions in determine who handles client property.

While I’m doling out thanks, I wish to express my appreciation to Debra Speyer, the adjunct profession at Earl Mack, for bringing me back as a guest lecturer again this year.  I provided the students with an introduction to best practices for financial and procedural management.  It feels great knowing that at least a few of the new generation of baby lawyers will have some “real world” practical information when they graduate and join a firm or hang out their shingle.

Hiring for One Set of Criteria and Firing for Another

Hiring is not a precise science.  Mistakes happen, and need prompt correction.  Firms rarely fire too quickly when a mistake is made.  Usually it’s the opposite, with the firm letting things drag out far too long.  It’s put off because firing is unpleasant, and also because it’s an irrefutable admission that the hiring was a mistake.  You can greatly increase your success rate by hiring based on the same criteria that lead you to fire.

The fact that law firms typically hire based on skill and experience, but fire based on habits and attitudes, is the primary reason why lawyers are usually so terrible at making hiring decisions.  But you’re not alone.  Many HR professionals and administrators make the same mistake.

This topic was the basis for the brief presentation at last night’s reception at the Blue Bell, PA recruiting firm of Morgan Wentworth.   The purpose of the reception was to introduce Morgan Wentworth’s new Director of Legal Recruitment, Meg Halloran, Esquire.  Switching between two different brightly colored scarves, Meg posed as job applicant Amy, and then Bev.  I posed as the interviewer.  The program was entitled “My Best Secret Interview Questions.”

Meg Halloran, Esq (left) and Ellen Freedman (right)

 

Each applicant answered one of my sure-fire “behavioral” interview questions.  Then the audience was polled as to which candidate they favored, and why.  Each of the three questions posed clearly revealed the difference in attitude and initiative that a typical interview would not.

Asking open-ended questions which reveal subjective information regarding how a candidate resolves difficult issues, organizes workflow, handles conflict or stressful conflicting deadlines, reveals far more about the person.  Compare that to objective questions which may reveal years of experience, class ranking, number of appearances as first chair in court and so forth.  Objective questions will tell you only whether the candidate meets your skill and experience requirements.  It will not reveal whether they will thrive in your environment, or rise to the challenges you present.

Kudos to Patricia Mosesso and Ernie Szoke, founders and owners of Morgan Wentworth, for putting together a first-class reception.  The conference room and adjoining office were crammed with attendees who enjoyed food, drink, and conversation with familiar and new faces on an otherwise dreary weeknight.  I am appreciative of having been invited to design and present the short informational program.   And I greatly enjoyed working on it with Meg.  She was a great sport, and turned out to be quite the actress.

(Left to right) Patricia Mosesso, Ernie Szoke, Meg Halloran, Esq.

 

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