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LAWBIZ COACHES CORNER: The importance of job descriptions

Ed Poll is a speaker, author and board-approved coach to the legal profession. He can be contacted at [email protected] Also visit his interactive community for lawyers at

Having a comprehensive job description for every position in the law office is essential for several reasons.

First, it is a prerequisite to an objective and efficient bonus program, in which staff members are told specifically what they are expected to do and how performance of those responsibilities will be evaluated to qualify for a bonus.

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 performance is more likely to be positive.

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 those tasks is judged. Staff members can, of course, earn extra reward by going beyond their job descriptions with tasks such as volunteering to make collection phone calls on overdue accounts or using personal time to read up on law firm management and then suggesting ways to implement the lessons learned.

Job descriptions also are critical when it comes to hiring. From the lawyer’s perspective, the description begins by defining what is needed, what could be delegated and to whom.

Delegate to the lowest level of competence possible so the firm achieves the best rate of return on each person’s work. That means that while law firm leaders are doing the work only they can do, such as serving existing clients and marketing the practice to potential new ones, they also are leveraging skills of others at a certain cost and charging that work out at a higher billable rate so that there is a profit to the practice.

When creating job descriptions, law firms must list the characteristics of the ideal candidate to whom the particular work can be delegated. If it is a secretary, there should be precise standards for document and file management, technology and software literacy, communication skills, and professionalism. If it is a paralegal, that means defining the precise areas to be handled — such as intakes, pleadings, research, depositions and summaries — and the skills required to handle those tasks.

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

Depending on the size of the practice, the search process may be conducted in various ways. That could include in-house personnel, an outside agency or, in the case of smaller firms, by the lawyers themselves. The search process could involve use of both print and online listing and job posting services, as well as referrals from networks of colleagues, clients and bar associations.

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

One comment

  1. Employers are finally starting to learn about the importance of job descriptions. They really are the cornerstone of the employee/employer relationship.

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