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This may seem like a straightforward question, but it’s not. Why? Because the causes of poor performance are not always straightforward. It can be the result of someone who doesn’t have the skills or attitude to perform. Or it can be the result of someone who is being asked to do too much.

Both types of employees are unproductive and can impact your cases. Your job is to identify productivity issues and then dig into the reasons for the subpar performance to determine if it’s a systematic problem that the firm needs to address, or an individual productivity issue.

Be careful not to get caught in the trap of rushing to judgement based on one set of metrics alone, such as the average paralegal caseload at your firm. And once you identify a productivity issue, drill down to determine the causes. Underperforming employees can be incompetent … or overloaded. Some things to consider:
  • If you have identified incompetence as the issue, do you need to provide additional training, or is there a lack of interest, drive, or ability?
  • If you have identified overload as the issue, do you need to redistribute caseloads, or ensure that the employee has (and is using) tools to manage her caseload?
Each answer leads to a different response, but it will be a response that addresses the real issue. This should lead to improved productivity. And productive employees keep cases moving, which keeps clients happy – both of which drive profit for your firm.
For information on the types of key performance indicators law firms can track to get a handle on staff productivity, get our list of 29 KPIs to Measure Paralegal & Attorney Productivity.

Below I will share with you some key questions to consider when trying to determine the root cause of a productivity issue. In the 30+ years I spent practicing law, I managed high volumes of cases and people and found that asking questions always helped. The answers you uncover should help you get a handle on whether an unproductive employee needs help, a nudge, or a farewell.

Note: For the purpose of this post, I am assuming a very basic personal injury law firm structure – one where the bulk of the work responsibilities shift from the paralegal in the pre-demand phase to the attorney in the post-demand phase. Every firm is different, and you should adjust these questions and answers to accommodate your firm’s structure. While the focus here is on paralegals, the same concepts can (and should) be applied to attorneys and other employees at your firm.
What Kind of Cases Make Up Your Paralegal’s Caseload?

It’s important to have a handle on the composition of paralegals’ caseloads. What types of cases (soft tissue/subjective injury, definitive injury, wrongful death, etc.) are included? Balance this information against your understanding of what time and effort goes into managing each type of case at your firm.

This differs for every firm – some firms have separate teams who handle specific tasks, such as medical records follow-up and referrals, while paralegals in other firms might perform these tasks. Understanding your firm’s expectations by case type will help you determine whether your paralegal has an unbalanced caseload and legitimate reason for being overwhelmed.
Your case management software should also be able to help you here. GrowPath has a gravity report which assigns an algorithmic value to each paralegal’s caseload. This report breaks down the types of cases, as well as the number of cases in specific stages, so that a manager can objectively compare caseloads of all paralegals at a glance and see who might be overwhelmed and who might have capacity.
What Stage of Work Are the Bulk of Your Paralegal’s Cases In?

If you have a paralegal who is underperforming, you can gain additional insight into possible reasons for this by looking at the work stages of the cases.

  • If paralegal A has the bulk of his cases in pre-demand, for example, and you have identified a dip in KPIs (he’s behind on client contacts or requests for outstanding records), this could be an indication that he has too many cases in that stage and that he’s having a hard time prioritizing. A manager should step in and provide guidance at this point.
  • If paralegal B has the bulk of her cases in post-demand, where the workload responsibilities have shifted to others and she, too, is behind on tasks, it’s possible she’s not capable of doing the job efficiently. Or you might uncover some process or operational issues – perhaps she is performing tasks that are not her responsibility – which might need to be addressed by a process change.
Law firm management thought leader Eric Sanchez discusses how a deeper dive into case status, balanced with a solid knowledge of the tasks involved in these stages, will give you a clearer picture of what might be causing a paralegal’s underperformance. Data is your friend here.