Coming on the heels of a 50% decrease in hiring of new associates seen in 2019 and 2020, law firms are now scrambling to hire and retain staff. Legal aid firms are not immune and many seem to be having it worse. In Minnesota, a recent report to the legislature stated that 32% of staff have turned over in the past year. Since staff turnover is costly, around 33% of the lost employee’s annual salary, keeping the staff firms already have is a great place to start.
“When nonprofits don't deliver on these values, morale suffers. Workers, trained to spot injustice, immediately turn sour on their own workplaces. The pandemic forced a reckoning around these issues. It also forced many public interest lawyers to reassess their needs and their goals.”
Certainly higher wages and more lawyers would help. However, decreasing revenues from traditional sources, like IOLTA and filing fees as well as private funders, make it unlikely that the changes will come quickly enough or in great enough proportion to stem the tide. Legal aid firms will need to seek alternative, cost effective ways to attract and retain staff. Focusing internally on improving job satisfaction for current employees is an effective and easy place to start. Redundant or ineffective processes can cause frustration, stagnation and decreased employee engagement. Using proven Business Process Improvement (BPI) techniques and tools to identify and improve these processes can go a long way to helping staff feel that they are using their time and talents to complete fulfilling and meaningful work, which in turn improves engagement. Engaged employees are much less likely to leave their employer (check out these important statistics about employee engagement).
While almost any firm process can be improved, there are three common areas that are ripe for improvement in most firms:
Employee onboarding: Weak or frustrating employee onboarding can have a strong negative impact on new staff. Tech Jury reported in their January 2022 round up of employee onboarding statistics that a negative onboarding experience can double the chances that an employee will leave, while a great onboarding experience ensures that 69% of staff will stay for at least three years (see more data here).
Redundant or purely administrative tasks: Processes that are repetitive, highly paper based or require significant manual data entry are great places to look for process and technology improvements. Reducing or eliminating time spent on these types of tasks reduces boredom and frustration and allows staff to focus on more stimulating and rewarding tasks. Document automation is a great example of an improvement in this category. Automating the entry of client data into common forms improves efficiency and reduces errors, making the task less onerous for staff.
Intake: Improving intake is a win/win for clients and staff alike. Streamlining eligibility screening and ensuring that important information is collected accurately, efficiently, and in the most logical order makes for a better experience for both staff and clients. Clients benefit from reduced wait times, reducing transfers and call backs, and reducing repetitive questions and the number of times they have to tell their story. Staff benefit from having as much relevant information as possible available to them as quickly as possible and spending less time conducting fruitless call backs to lost clients.
Business Process Improvement gives teams a structured and easy-to-follow method for examining the tasks and people involved in whatever process the firm wants to make better. Yes, it takes time and effort, but retooling processes to improve your employees’ experience and engagement outweighs the investment and allows employees to focus on meaningful and valuable activities that best use their time and talents. Intentionally creating a thoughtful process also leads to clarity of responsibilities for staff and puts essential tasks in the hands of the person best equipped to handle them. Often, teams conducting a BPI analysis identify related improvements or enhancements which can drive better outcomes for clients and/or more satisfaction for staff. More satisfaction leads to better engagement which leads to better retention.
BPI analysis includes team members and key stakeholders in the activities that drive process change. In the projects I have been a part of, participants often report that just having a voice in the changes being made, having their input and expertise considered, yields higher engagement and satisfaction. Just as often, participants view the investment of time and resources in making their jobs better as an indicator that firm management listens to and cares about employees.
New hires who are working and contributing are more likely to be engaged with their employer. More engagement, more retention. Intrigued or interested in getting started? Check out legalaidprocess.org for information and resources on process improvement or contact us.