Vol. 84, No. 11, November 2011
One of the most valuable assets a legal office has is its people. An important task of a manager in a legal office is to help newly hired individuals quickly and efficiently become fully engaged, committed, and productive employees. The best way to achieve that objective is to execute a well-designed new-employee orientation plan.
Cornerstone OnDemand, a firm that offers talent management solutions, posited that employees are most likely to leave a company within the first 18 months of their tenure, and 90 percent of employees decide during their first six months on the job whether they are going to stay with an organization.1 A legal manager needs to make a good impression and get new employees up to speed right away. Getting a new employee on board effectively and efficiently reduces the cost of training and develops the employee into a valuable asset for a law firm or other legal organization.
The employee-orientation process should be designed to ensure that at least a minimum level of orientation is provided consistently, regardless of who is involved. The larger the legal organization, the more important it is to standardize this process so that everyone gets the same information and is aligned similarly with the organization’s goals. Successful orientation is just as important, if not more important, for smaller legal organizations because each employee constitutes a larger portion of the entire office staff.
Benefits to Successful Employee Orientation
There are a variety of benefits to successful employee orientation. One benefit is to accelerate the period within which the employee reaches full performance. In most legal offices, everyone, including the manager, is doing a lot very quickly. The longer the manager takes to acclimate a new employee, the less time the manager has for taking care of his or her other duties.
A corollary to reducing start-up time is that a successful employee orientation reduces the cost in resources needed to train employees and carry them in the organization until they are able to fully function in their new role.
Another benefit is improved employee engagement and job satisfaction. It is one thing to just have a new employee doing the bare minimum, but managers really want employees who are energized and voluntarily go beyond the minimum to add real value to the legal office.
Finally, a successful employee-orientation process can improve employee retention. It is expensive and time consuming to repeatedly go through the hiring process to fill a particular position. Reducing the employee attrition rate allows managers to spend more time on their legal work and less time on human-resource functions.
Evidence of Successful Employee Orientation
Evidence of successful employee orientation can take several forms. One is that successfully oriented employees will have more credibility. People in the law office will trust them more.
Successfully oriented employees also have greater acceptance by the law office personnel: they fit in better. The best-oriented employees don’t just fit in but are part of and help complete the team.
Employees who are successfully oriented have greater job satisfaction: they are happier in their jobs. Happier employees perform better in their jobs, which is the ultimate benefit from a successful employee orientation. Successfully oriented employees are more likely to achieve targets and exhibit leadership in their jobs.
How to Create a Successful Employee Orientation
The following tips will help a manager create an effective and efficient employee orientation.
1) Create a Timeline. First, create an orientation-activity timeline for the manager and anyone who will assist the manager with the process. Often, the manager and an administrative assistant plan the orientation. The timeline should specify the orientation tasks and the number of days or weeks needed to complete each task before or after the new employee’s start date. The timeline should name the person responsible for each task, provide a task-status indicator, and include a comment section.
The list of preparation activities will vary widely depending on the organization, but generally these should be completed before the new employee’s first day. Preparation activities could include such things as setting up the telephone and computer, stocking the employee’s desk with appropriate materials, and posting a welcome message in the appropriate venue to let other staff members know a new person is starting.
2) Create a Welcome Kit. One of the most important tools for a new employee in a law office is a welcome kit. The welcome kit helps answer questions a new employee might have. This kit typically contains a variety of types of information. One of the most important (but often overlooked) categories is general information about the organization’s vision and mission. What are the goals of the organization? What are the key initiatives? What are the organization’s most noteworthy achievements?
Depending on the size of the organization, a manager might want to include a welcome letter from a senior member. A new employee needs to appreciate that he or she is joining an organization that has a history and culture – whether the organization is a large law firm or a small firm with a few attorneys.
The welcome kit should contain information on the employee’s role and include a job description, an organization chart if it is a large organization, and a list of key telephone numbers inside and outside the organization.
The welcome kit also should include law office policies and procedures, which fall into two broad categories. One category involves general human resource issues, such as professional responsibility and ethics guidance covered under the Wisconsin Supreme Court rules and the organization’s ethics, diversity, and vacation policies. The other category is more directly related to the new employee’s work output. This might include the process for the review and filing of briefs or motions, the internal office filing system, and information about the law office’s form and document library.
Consider also providing basic how-to information in the welcome kit. Examples include instructions on using the phone system, filing an expense report, and obtaining office supplies.
The welcome kit’s contents will vary depending on the new employee’s position. Attorneys will receive some different information than paralegals, who will receive different information than administrative assistants. Furthermore, a law firm partner’s welcome kit would be different than that of an associate. A member of a litigation department would receive some different information than would a member of a corporate law department.
3) Take Time with the New Employee – Orientation. On the new employee’s start date, the manager must take time to meet with the new employee, give an overview of the organization, and explain the orientation process. The person providing administrative support also should meet with the new employee to go through more of the how-to items on the checklist. On the first day, the manager should have the new employee meet primarily, if not exclusively, the inner circle with whom he or she will be interacting most frequently, and take care not to overload the new employee with too much information.
The first week of orientation should include a series of meetings to introduce the new employee to people and to review substantive work issues, but some time should be unscheduled so the employee can digest information and figure some things out on his or her own.
This leads to another important aspect of the welcome kit. The manager should provide a written schedule for the new employee. It need not schedule every moment, or be too detailed, but it should give the employee an idea of what the first week or so will be like. This will give the employee an opportunity to plan and to ask questions about various aspects of the schedule. Depending on the size of the law office, the manager could spread out the introductory meetings over several weeks.
4) Take Time with the New Employee – Debrief and Forecast. The manager needs to do more than plan the orientation; he or she should regularly check in with the new employee to make sure the employee is progressing properly. Start by meeting with the employee at the end of the first week to discuss how the week went what to expect during week two and to answer the new employee’s questions. Proper orientation takes time, and these meetings are a good example where time should be invested in the employee.
Continue to meet at the end of every week for the first month to discuss what took place and forecast future activities. After the first month, the manager probably does not need to hold such meetings with the employee every week, but it is still a good idea to meet each month for the first six months to complete the orientation and to discuss progress toward the orientation goals.
5) Set “SMART” Orientation Goals. The manager also should establish orientation goals for the new employee. These should not be complicated or hard. They might be things such as gaining proficiency with a certain office system or process or building a relationship with certain key people in the organization or outside the law office (for example, at the local courthouse).
When considering goals, keep in mind the acronym “SMART.” Goals should be:
- Specific – the goal must be clear;
- Measurable – to determine whether the goal has been achieved;
- Attainable – the goal must actually be achievable;
- Relevant – the goal is worthwhile for the new employee to work toward; and
- Timely – the goal should be able to be achieved by the target date.
A manager could set several SMART goals. For example, a new employee could update certain forms in the firm’s form library, assume responsibility for maintaining the firm’s filing and docketing system, or write a certain number of briefs within a specified time. Each of these goals is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.
Kenneth R. Dortzbach, Northwestern 1996, is senior group counsel – GWS at Johnson Controls Inc., Milwaukee, and has managed employees in the United States and Europe. Reach him at com kenneth.r.dortzbach jci jci kenneth.r.dortzbach com.
6) Assign a “Buddy.” Often a manager will need to enlist additional help with orienting employees. In mid-sized and larger law offices, it is often good to assign a “buddy” to the new employee. A buddy is not a mentor or a supervisor but an equal who can act as an extra proactive and reactive resource for the new employee. The buddy can answer questions about the work environment and culture as well as the host of smaller questions that inevitably arise during early weeks in a new job. The buddy must be capable of being an ambassador for the department or firm.
A buddy can play various roles in the orientation process. For example, a buddy could focus on helping the new employee understand the job functions. Or, a buddy could focus on on-site issues and answer logistics questions such as finding good places to eat lunch. Often the same individual can satisfy both buddy roles, but there are situations when different people need to take each role. For example, if a firm is adding a paralegal to a satellite office that currently is staffed only by one attorney, the attorney might be the on-site buddy, but the paralegal also should have a job-function buddy from another office to help answer job-function questions.
Getting a new employee properly oriented in an effective and efficient manner is critical to any law office’s operations. A successful orientation process will use a variety of tactics, including carefully planning a timeline with action items, providing a welcome kit to the new employee, and presenting meaningful guidance from the manager with backward and forward looking feedback. The result will be better employees who stay with your organization longer.
1 Sukanya Mitra, “Strategic Employee Onboarding,” posted on CPA2Biz.com (March 20, 2008).