Law Firm Management

Empowering Law Clerks

During my career, I was fortunate to work with three phenomenal law clerks. I trained two of them. The third was trained on Bay Street. Each of them was exceptional because they were intelligent, capable, motivated, well-trained, and empowered.

Rarely accused of being overly immodest, I will take credit for empowering them.

How good were they?

My corporate clerks could read a sophisticated tax planning memorandum (which might provide for multiple incorporations, articles of amendment, rollover agreements, exchange agreements, amalgamations, and other corporate procedures), analyze the instructions, determine which documents where required, and produce a closing agenda with two hundred items on it.

They could then produce 95% of the documents on their own, prepare the closing files, do the required filings, and prepare the reporting letters and the accounts, all with minimal supervision and very few, if any, mistakes. They would coordinate with the client, our associates, the accountants, law firms in other jurisdictions, clerks and lawyers in different specialties within our firm, and our accounting department. They would review and update the minute books, no matted how messed up they were.

What did I do? Not much beyond drafting the other 5% of the documents, general supervision at a high level, being available to answer questions, document review, quality control and attending at the closing.

My lending clerk could handle files with a similar degree of independence. At one point I had extracted myself from handling loan files and turned the work over to one of my more junior partners. When that partner left the firm a few years later, I anxiously called one of the Banks to explain that I would be taking over the lending files and asked whether they had any concerns that the partner who had been supervising the work had left. The only question that the Banker had was whether my lending clerk was staying. When told that she was, he had no concerns with my partner leaving.

Our clerks billed at an hourly rate which exceeded the hourly rates that we could charge for our lawyers in their first few years, and they did it with far less overhead. We did not have to pay law society fees or professional insurance for them, and they shared an assistant. Do the math. It was an incredibly good thing.

Apart from being profitable, our law clerks could be relied upon. I would like to lie and say that I always checked every document, but I didn’t. When the pressure was on and they presented me with a package of documents which was a foot thick, I knew that it was extremely low risk to just ask them if there was anything unusual that they wanted me to look at or whether I could just sign without reading. And sometimes I did that.

It worked both ways. On any given day, my clerks were not afraid to tell me that they were under too much pressure and could not promise that the documents were perfect, and that I had to read them more carefully than usual. And I would do that, without any judgment or criticism. We worked as a team.

My clerks were never hesitant to say: “Are you sure you want to do it that way,” which was a polite way of saying: “You are doing it wrong.”  Sometimes I had a reason for doing something in a manner which seemed unusual to them, and that was a teaching moment. More often, they were right, and they stopped me from making a mistake. I thanked them, and they knew that I meant it.

Does it sound good? Here is how you do it:

  1. Start by caring for people other than yourself. I know that it is difficult for some lawyers, but it is worth a try.
  2. Then, hire very bright people. The type of people who learn something once and retain it. Experience is optional. Willingness to learn is not.
  3. Pay them what they are worth. Let me give you a hint. It is more than what you will pay first year associates.
  4. Take all the time that is required to teach them the technical information that they need to know. Be available whenever they need you.
  5. Train them to solve problems in the same manner as you would train your associates:  read the statute, read the regulations, read a legal text or subscription service.
  6. Have their back when some insecure junior (or senior) lawyer tries to stroke their own ego by bossing them around.
  7. Bring them in on the file from the beginning with full authority to speak to the client, the author of the tax memo and the other counsel whenever they consider it necessary.
  8. Always give them the full picture and have them do everything on the file that they can do.
  9. Never allow lawyers to make their work more difficult. For example, left to their own devices, lawyers who are not busy enough may try to find some billable hours by handling something on their own that the clerks are more capable of handling, and then calling in the clerks to do small parts of the file at the last moment. This invariably leaves clerks scrambling to fix mistakes made by the lawyers. Don’t stand for it.
  10. Implement firm policies to protect them from having to take instructions from lawyers who did not have enough experience in corporate law or emotional intelligence to be instructing them. When I was in charge, only a corporate lawyer at my firm was allowed to delegate work to a corporate law clerk. For example, if a real estate lawyer had corporate work to be done, it had to be delegated through a corporate lawyer. This did two things. First, it stopped the clerk from being given stupid instructions by someone who did not know what was involved in doing the work. Second, it meant that everyone supervising the clerks knew what they were and were not capable of doing and had an interest in maintaining their good relationship with the clerk.
  11. Always explain the “why” of what is being done on the file.

All that takes a bit of work, but the rewards, both professional and personal, are more than worth it. And no, there is no easier way to do it. Like everything else in life, you only get out what you put into it.

Dedicated to Mindy, Diana, and Kathleen, three great professionals.

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