I’m writing this blog post from bed. Not my usual place of work, but I’m in the grips of a bout of man-flu. While the worst has passed, I do find the recuperation stage rather boring, so I am recuperating with my laptop.
Having not only lost my weekend, but now also a couple of days of work, my enforced down-time has got me thinking as to how small and medium-sized law firms deal with employee absence, whether that be through illness or family matters or whatever.
Just because an employee is absent, doesn’t mean that business stops turning over, so how can law firms make sure that an absentee’s work still gets done?
Let’s split short, medium and long-term absences and take a look at what tactics we might employ for each.
When absences are only expected to be for a couple of days, management of the situation is probably at its simplest. The majority of tasks or meetings can probably be put on hold or rescheduled, so long as all parties are kept informed.
But this can only be done if there is a clear path to do so.
Let’s start with any tasks to be completed. We need to know what tasks require attention. If they are squirrelled away in your employee’s notebook or even just in their head, you’re going to have a tough time finding out if there is anything urgent that needs to be dealt with.
In this instance it would be great if everyone in the office kept a task or to do list updated, that management can access if ever there is an absence. That might be an excel spreadsheet on everyone’s desktop, a shared Trello account (a free and very easy to use online project management tool), where everyone keeps an up-to-date list, or even just a whiteboard in the office that gets updated every morning.
The same goes for appointments. Are there any that need to be rescheduled? Are there any that simply can’t and require a solicitor to be present? An office-wide diary with shared access is essential to making sure that none of these appointments are overlooked, and will also help in keeping your day-to-day appointment making simple.
Whatever system you use, paper or electronic, having access to everyone’s task list and appointments means that if they are absent, you’re on top of it. Definitely worth keeping in mind when it could make the difference between:
“I’m terribly sorry we missed the deadline, Mrs Wilson, it’s just that James is off sick and……”
“Mrs Wilson, we’re just calling to let you know that your request has been processed. James is unfortunately off for a couple of days, but if you have any questions in the meantime, please ask for Alison, who’s dealing with your case and will be happy to help you.”
When absences stretch into a week or two, things can start to get a little more complicated. Not really long enough to justify temporary cover, but long enough that, if the absentee is a fee-earner, their case load is going to have to be managed.
So what about those cases? Ideally, you’d want to have a bulk-overview of all their case and client files, with the ability to see when the last movements were and be able to quickly glance at what’s just been done and what the next steps are.
With that ability, you’d be able to quickly build a profile of which cases need to be actioned in the period of absence and assign those actions to other fee-earners.
The reality may be somewhat different, especially if you’re still working with paper-only files. In this instance, if you don’t have an action plan in place, it might be sensible to do so. Are all case/client files easily accessible? Does each solicitor keep them well-ordered? Do you have access to a task list? A lot could be missed in a two-week absence if you don’t have clear access to the information you need.
During a medium-term absence, it’s not just existing business that you need to worry about. It is likely that your fee-earner will have new client consultations scheduled and that potential new clients will call looking for advice from a solicitor with your absentee’s area of expertise.
Putting off potential new clients could well mean they go elsewhere, and watching income go in the direction of your competitors really is unacceptable.
With this in mind, there is certainly value in putting a system in place where your other fee-earners are clearly assigned your absentee’s consultations, be that by volume or practice area. Make sure everyone, fee-earners and support staff, are clear on who should be assigned what – it’s all too easy in this type of situation to blame lack of communication for anything slipping through the net.
Getting whoever takes the initial call to clearly mark assigned prospects on a whiteboard visible to all will ensure there are no slip-ups. If you use a case and practice management system, it should be easy to assign prospects to particular fee-earners, with corresponding reminders tasks that everyone can see.
Longer-term absences bring their own set of problems. Bringing in temporary cover for an absentee means you’ll have to train your temp or bring a replacement fee-earner up to speed. How quickly and easily you can do this depends on your state of readiness beforehand.
This is not the time to be working in a disorganised office.
The speed at which you can train a temporary member of your support team will depend on how simple your processes and systems are. Presumably they’ll be competent in Microsoft Office products, but what about any other software you use? How complex is it? Do you have access to training materials? Is there another member of your team who can quickly teach the basics? The simpler your processes and systems, the better. Taking two weeks to train a temp to cover a one-month absence just doesn’t make sense.
Replacing a fee-earner equally relies on simplicity to get them up to speed quickly. As with temporary support staff, solicitors may also need to be trained on any software that you use, so the above questions also apply here.
In addition, well-organised case and client files will make a huge difference in moving the process along quickly. As mentioned earlier, having a system in place whereby you are able to bulk-view active cases and easily view their status will help you draw a clear baseline from which to work. If fee-earners fill out a week-end spreadsheet of the previous movements and actions, this will go a long way to keeping you prepared in the event of their absence.
It’s clear then, that having well-organised systems in place before any absences occur, will mean that you are better prepared to tackle them when they happen. It would be remiss of me not to say that a good case and practice management system will help you in all of the situations mentioned above because, well, that’s my job. Even if I am in bed.
To learn more about how PureIntuitive can help your practice prepare for absence, click here.
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