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Manager’s Desk

Take Aim

Why policies and procedures are such moving targets.

By Gayle E. Mitchel

March/April 2008 Table of Contents


The most frequent complaint a paralegal manager hears involves policies and procedures. Wordsmithing is not mathematics. No matter how hard the pol­icy crafter tries to be explicit, with no room for error, so creative is the human mind that there always seems to be room for individual interpretation and misunderstanding. Labor lawyers have cautioned employers to put every staff policy and procedure in writing to hopefully address any situation that might arise, leaving as little as possible open to misunderstanding. Policies are dr­afted or revised with input from employees in response to a variety of human resource issues, changes in company size, culture and new legal requirements. Managers are left with a multiplicity of policies and procedures, some excruciatingly detailed, which might or might not hit the nail on the head, and all of which risk different interpretations.

Semantics aside, not every firm or company provides a hard copy of the policies and procedures to each employee. Several firms, including my own, have done away with the hard copy and put everything online at an employee accessible Web site. There are pros and cons to having either hard copy or online policies and procedures. Hard copies are easily accessible — unless you are away from your office. Internet accessible policies and procedures sound great but they only are great if the Web site is easily navigable and employees know where to look. Whichever format your firm uses, the keys to good policies and procedures are communication and adapting to change.

Communicating Policies to New Hires

The firm’s policies and procedures should be communicated to new paralegals from the start. My firm holds a one-day orientation for each new hire, discussing benefits, the absentee policy, hourly reporting requirements (both for paychecks and client billing), professional responsibility, dress code, law library and computer-assisted legal research procedures, management hierarchy, paid time off accruals and requests, accounting and reimbursement procedures, computer hardware management and all software applications. At the end of the day, new hires have had so much information pumped into them that they are on overload. I don’t expect them to remember everything, and I ask them to call me with questions they might have.

I also give them what I call my “Paralegal Cheat Sheet,” which essentially is an abbreviated version of the policies and procedures applicable to paralegals. The cheat sheet is four pages, alphabetized, and has answers to the most frequently asked questions. Topics include:

  • check requests;

  • gifts;

  • invoice processing;

  • jury duty;

  • make-up time;

  • meals;

  • overtime;

  • personal charges;

  • telecommuting;

  • timekeeping procedures for our client billing software;

  • timekeeping procedures for our electronic payroll system;

  • time off (paid and unpaid);

  • travel and entertainment reimbursements; and

  • vendors and personal guests in the office.

Each topic is followed by bullets with information about which form to use, hour requirements (if any), dollar amounts, billing codes, authorization required, to whom the form should be submitted, the go-to person for questions, and other pertinent information presented in the shortest and most succinct format possible. Any changes to prior versions are entered in red so they are apparent immediately.

Although I follow up with new hires on a daily basis for the first week, they usually will not ask me questions until the beginning of week two when it’s necessary to submit the prior week’s time sheet for their paycheck. At my firm, time calculations and time sheet submittal are done electronically using the firm’s intranet. I find it most useful to go to the paralegal’s work station when I am called to answer a time sheet question so I can show the paralegal the errors in time entries, or missing entries that cause the database to miscalculate, and work with him or her in making the correct entries.

While I am working with new paralegals on their time sheets, I also take the time to show them how to find the electronic policies and procedures on the firm’s employee Web page, since we already are logged into the intranet. The employee Web page contains a great deal of information but it is not at first apparent where to go to find the full version of the policies and procedures, which is one of the reasons I created the Paralegal Cheat Sheet. As we scroll through the online policies and procedures, there usually are two questions from the new hires: “Why are there so many?” and “How can all these possibly be relevant to me?” My answer to both of these questions is that the policies and procedures guide everyone through the daily complexities of getting our jobs done through cooperation and coordination with various departments, and also establish uniform standards and performance expectations.

Adapting to Change

Employees eventually master the existing policies and procedures. They know how to request their paid time off, which form to use to get a check to cover filing fees at the courthouse, or which out-of-pocket expenses and documentation need to be on a travel and entertainment form, as opposed to a petty cash request form. They eventually become old hands at understanding the system; they become comfortable where they are. Then, a policy or procedure is changed and the complaints start.

For example, I work at a regional office of a large international firm. We recently changed the evening meal policy by increasing the dollar amount allowed but restricting consumption of the evening meal to the office. The prior meal policy allowed paralegals to pick something up on their way home, but the cash reimbursement value was less. Under the old policy, administration received numerous complaints that the allowable dollar amount was insufficient to pay for a nutritious, well-balanced meal. The policy was changed to mirror the attorneys’ policy, which included the restriction that the meal now had to be consumed at the office rather than picked up on the way home. During my 6-year tenure at the firm, the meal policy has changed three times, and each time the benefit increased for the employee. Many paralegals didn’t like the restriction that the meal be consumed while at the office working. Even if the dollar amount was less, they wanted the old policy back.

In order keep the lines of communication open and better explain the changes, I held a paralegal department meeting with an open discussion. I assured our paralegals that the change was in response to comments received from them about the old meal policy, that administration really did take their input into consideration in the decision- making process, and that the change was an attempt to keep everyone happy and well nourished.

Communication with all employees is important when policies are revised, and the best analogy I have found to help our paralegals understand why policies and procedures must change is to draw a parallel with their hometown. We all remember our hometowns as they looked while we were growing up. Most of us usually move away for a period of time, perhaps to attend college, perform military service or maybe for a job, but we do return “home” eventually, for one reason or another.

I distinctly remember how shocked I was to be lost for the first time in my hometown, which I thought I knew like the back of my hand. I had been away for five years. I was riding a jitney from the airport to my parents’ house and so much new construction had occurred that I had no idea where I was. My next feeling was anger that things were not the same, and then resentment. How dare they change something I knew and thought of as just perfect the way it was!

Yet, all of us also have traveled through towns that have not changed since the last time we were there. No new buildings, no new streets, no new people — probably less. These towns might be holding their own, but it does not appear so on the surface. They are not changing and they have little or no future. Policies and procedures are very much like your old hometown — they must constantly change and grow to keep your firm moving into the future.

Keeping Your Policies Up-to-Date

You are not the same person you were three years ago and your workplace is not the same, either. Law firms and corporations have grown, merged or downsized. Many employers have enlarged their cultural diversity and look at both work tasks and personnel with different sens­itivities. Managers need to take advantage of the skills at their table and lead their workforce into the 21st century, and that means adapting policies to reflect the latest changes in laws and recent trends, including the following.

Revisions to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The changes to the FRCP regarding electronic discovery have once again brought technology and technological innovation to the forefront of both law firms and corporations. The exponential expansion of electronic communications has imp­acted not only the cases we handle but also how we work on them. Do any of you remember life at work prior to computers and the Internet? Do any of you still have typewriters in your offices? Have you checked the fax usage in your office lately?

E-mail has virtually supplanted written letters and phone communications in the business world and “deletion” of e-mails has led to sanctions and criminal prosecution in some cases. Law firms are not immune to suit. Have you covered preservation of electronic evidence with your paralegals yet and do you have a written policy covering retention?

Working remotely. Both lawyers and paralegals at my firm regularly log in remotely to perform work. Working remotely allows for more efficient use of time, effective case coverage if someone is unavailable to perform a task, and more prompt attention to attorney requests. Downtime while traveling now can be converted to productive or billable time, thanks to laptops. Paralegals with Blackberries have constant access to their e-mail and can respond quickly to emergency requests from attorneys.

Telecommuting by nonexempt employees also can be a thorny issue. Even though paralegals are “para-professionals” and are expected to conduct themselves ethically, questions of authorization and oversight need to be addressed, both to establish guidelines and to eliminate the potential for abuse. If you currently don’t permit your paralegals to work from home, could “extenuating circumstances” arise and if so, how would you define them? Would attorney authorization be a prerequisite? Who should be notified and would the work performed from home be subject to review and approval to substantiate that it required the amount of time the records reflect?

World economics. World economics also impacts our workplace. If you are at work today, your business is market-driven. The mega-bankruptcies in the energy and telecommunications industries yielded to a spate of mergers and acquisitions that now have slowed with the crisis in the credit industry. These changes are reflected in our caseload and overtime. Does it cost the same to drive to work today as it did just one year ago? What about the cost of parking? How would you feel if your employer paid for either of these based on a policy developed five years ago? With the price of oil at $100 per barrel, does your firm or corporation subsidize employee expenses for mass transit? Does it underwrite financial education programs or bring speakers in to address retirement planning strategies? If you have international offices, can your staff be off-shifted to accommodate business needs in a different time zone and will there be any incentives to do so? Have you been asked to “go green” yet?

Workplace diversity. For the first time ever, there are four generations in the workplace: the World War II Generation, Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964, Generation X born between 1965 and 1976, and Generation Y born between 1977 and 1994. Each generation is in a different stage of life; each has different needs, values and attitudes; and each represents different management challenges. The first step in dealing with these management challenges is to educate yourself. Over the past two years, I have attended four seminars on diversity and managing the generational differences in the current workplace:

  • “Investing in Human Capital” by Clifton L. Taulbert, The Building Community Institute, delivered at the 2007 International Para­legal Management Association’s Annual Conference;

  • “Integrating Diversity & Technology Into Your Leadership” by Howard B. Kravitz, managing director, Catholic Counseling & Consultation Center, Catholic Charities, delivered at the 2007 IPMA Annual Conference;

  • “Human Capital & the Road Ahead” by Terrance T. Murphy, Esq., then vice president of Kelly Law Registry, delivered at the 2006 IPMA Annual Conference; and

  • “Developing and Retaining the Right Talent” by Michael Lewis, human resources director, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, delivered at the 2007 IPMA Regional Manager’s Conference.

Once you attend seminars such as these, you will learn that each generation has different strengths to offer but also wants different results from their jobs in return. For example, the World War II and Baby Boomer generations had to learn technology, while Generation X and Generation Y grew up with technology as part of their lives. The World War II generation worked for the same employer from day one to retirement. Baby Boomer generations are more loyal to their employers and don’t frequently job-hop. The Generation X and Generation Y folks are more loyal to their professions and are not opposed to job-hopping. The World War II and Baby Boomer generations are very hard working, and although the Generation X and Generation Y members will work hard, they want a more personally fulfilling life and need to see how their work makes a difference. Try writing policies general enough to accommodate all of these differences, but sufficiently specific enough to take the question out of the answer.

Look at your existing policies and see if rewards are based on tenure or accomplishments. If rewards such as pay and bonuses are based strictly on tenure, the Generation X and Generation Y paralegals will feel stifled. Unrecognized for their contributions, they will be more likely to job-hop. Can you afford to lose this talent? Are there other ways to recognize contributions made by paralegals that are beyond what is traditionally expected? Is there room in your organization for a paralegal to grow and stretch into an entirely new, nontraditional job classification? Do your existing policies allow for, or even contemplate, this event? Toss into this mix the fact that once your paralegals have learned and are comfortable with the status quo, it will be changed. Is it any wonder that policies and procedures are alternately applauded or vilified? Our job as managers is to lead this diverse workforce effectively and to accommodate change.

Welcome Change

To be relevant to us today, policies and procedures must evolve. Today’s workplace has been transformed to accommodate technological change, generational dynamics and world economics. The policies and procedures we help craft are not perfect, but they can be changed. It might come in the form of criticism or complaint, but encourage the paralegals you manage to give you feedback. Our challenge as managers is to take ourselves out of the picture, take the time to document and draft the suggested changes and present them to upper management. For me, observing, listening to my staff and taking considered action is a process that has transformed the workplace. Highly adaptive policies and procedures contribute to a vibrant, relevant workplace and a happier, more satisfied work force.




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