Working with staff is one of the most important aspects of running a law firm. Oftentimes, we are with our staff more than we are with our own families. So, building a family and team atmosphere at work is crucial to our own well-being. Erv Nevitt, a plaintiff’s personal injury attorney from Chicago, knows this all too well after having spent several years as a paralegal before graduating law school.
Lawyer Minds: Erv, tell me a little bit about your practice and your law firm.
Erv: I have a firm of seven lawyers and approximately seven support staff members. We focus on catastrophic injury, and we go to trial a lot. Trial is my favorite part of practicing law — if I could be in front of a jury all the time, I’d be a happy camper. And although I’ve been practicing for five years, I’ve actually been in the legal world for almost 12. I started off as a paralegal before I became an attorney.
Lawyer Minds: Tell me how your working as a paralegal affects how you practice law and how you supervise your paralegals now.
Erv: I think for my paralegals, for better or for worse — I did their job before they did, so I have a very good understanding of what it is that they need to accomplish and how long those tasks should take. I think that background really provides me with the ability to create a good workflow for my paralegals. Some lawyers have no perspective on how long it takes to get that motion you asked the paralegal to draft actually drafted, or how long it takes to get a defendant served. I have a certain perspective of the nitty gritty nuts and bolts of the practice that I think a lot of lawyers really don’t have. And, when my paralegals are not getting tasks done as quickly or as efficiently as I think they should be, I can look back on my experience of having done those things and say, “Hey, you can do it this way or you can do it that way. There’s a better way to get it done.”
Lawyer Minds: Do you use your experience to motivate your team as well?
Erv: We create goals as a firm. For instance, “We’re going to make X this year in attorney’s fees.” We’re very transparent with the paralegals — letting them know that this is the goal — and our paralegals are all incentivized to reach the goal because they get a bonus based on the firm getting to its goal. So, we’re all kind of rowing in the same direction. That’s something that the partners at my firm — the original partners Greg Copeland and Ben Crane — put into place when I was a paralegal.
And, back then I remember thinking, “Wow. That’s really important to me: to feel like I’m part of the team.” I think it helps everyone on the team see the big picture and help us row in the same direction.
Lawyer Minds: I think one of the things we can all relate to is determining the ratio of lawyers to paralegals and vice versa. How do you and your firm tackle that issue?
Erv: I’ve had this conversation with a lot of people and it’s kind of an ongoing … I don’t know if “moving target” is the right phrase, but I feel like our needs change depending on case load and depending on where you’re at with certain cases in your firm. My firm, because we’re relatively small, when we’re in trial and we have three or four lawyers working on a case that’s in trial, and things start shifting, then all of a sudden what you’re expecting out of a paralegal before trial changes when you get into trial. So, for us, it just changes depending on what we’re trying to do. And we are constantly evolving, experimenting, and changing. We have used different models where we’ve had a paralegal for each attorney and realized that wasn’t necessarily what we needed. So we would then change the roles. For example, my firm now utilizes a settlement specialist. The only thing he does in our office is work on the cases after they’re done settling: working on the lien negotiations, and getting them across the finish line.
If you take that job off of the paralegals handling their own cases, then you can see that those paralegals are able to get more done in other aspects of the case.
Paralegals also used to order their own medical records and they don’t anymore. We have a medical records clerk that orders and gets records in. So, we found that if you separate the roles of the staff out a bit more, you can get a little more out of the individual paralegals working the case all the way through. Again, for us, it’s constantly evolving. We’ve gotten better, but I think there are still some places we can improve.
Lawyer Minds: What are your thoughts as to post-COVID-19 in the way Cook County (Illinois) handles its docketing system? Sometimes it can be pretty laborious. Are there going to be changes in the court system and how cases move through the system?
Erv: Fingers crossed! I’m hopeful that there will be. For people who are not familiar with Cook County, well, it’s just a huge mess of a system that’s very bureaucratic, and nothing really changes quickly. If you have a personal injury case file in the law division in Cook County, you’re in front of the judge once a month to report on the status of your case. There’s not a scheduling order, so it’s very time consuming. For example, I’m in front of a judge giving a 45-second report on what’s going on in my case and being told to come back 30 days later.
For someone who is running his own practice, time matters, and that’s just not very efficient. I think if we were to put scheduling orders in effect, then we could follow up with a judge who makes sure the order is followed and ensures there are consequences if it’s not.
I know a lot of jurisdictions are doing things like Zoom hearings or remote hearings. Unfortunately, that’s not a thing that Cook County has done. So, I would like to see them kind of embrace technology a bit more just to make the whole system a bit more efficient.
Thanks again to Erv Nevitt for sitting down with Lawyer Minds. Erv can be contacted at https://www.coplancrane.com/about/attorney-ervin-nevitt/.