Judge Steady, I won the lottery!,” exclaimed Court Reporter Sue Lucky. Yea for twenty-year employee Sue, who is celebrating by resigning that very day to find a new winter home near her grandchildren in Arizona.
An employer is lucky to get a week’s notice. All courts are “at will” employers and employees are free to resign at any time. A basic sense of fairness and the threat of bad references are the two major reasons employees do give notice and rarely does an employee give sufficient advance notice to actually hire and train a successor. Every organization needs to be ready for the immediate loss of personnel.
Each person in an organization has a specific role to play and if the organization is running efficiently, the manager may know very little about the daily processes. Every judge wants to have staff who can open correspondence, set trial dates, answer questions from the public, bring motions to the judge’s attention, stay on top of transcriptions, share information with the Clerk’s office efficiently, and take care of all the other office details without needing to ask the judge. However, with responsible staff who keep the office running well, changes can occur without the judge being aware of the change or learning the new process. If a staff member is lost and does not impart the daily specific knowledge of the job before leaving, it can be difficult to learn what must be done. When a judge retires or is succeeded by another, the loss of knowledge is even greater.
Lilia Judson, Interim Chief Administrative Officer, and Dave Remondini, Interim Executive Director of the Division of State Court Administration, are proponents of succession planning, as well as continuity of operations planning. In 2009, they required all Division staff members to prepare Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to ensure that the loss of a staff member did not mean loss of good operations. The SOPs were put on a shared computer drive which any staff member may access. Many things have changed in the office since 2009: a new Chief Justice, Lotus notes changed to Outlook, the common O-Drive changed to SharePoint in the Cloud, a major overhaul in the accounting program used, and elimination of some staff positions while new staff positions were created. Anyone who steps into a new position today, and tries to use a 2009 SOP as the reference for how to get things done, will probably find major roadblocks to accomplishing the tasks. SOPs are great for ensuring continuity but they must be updated as changes occur and there should be set times for review to make sure those updates do occur.
In addition to timely updates, another key to continuity and good operations is for the manager to review the SOPs for accuracy. It is so easy for a wrong procedure to become the usual process if the manager doesn’t know that the wrong procedure is being used and no one asks. Reviewing SOPs created by each staff member is a great way for a judge both to learn the specific operations and to find out if a practice is being used contrary to the judge’s instructions or belief.
Develop SOPs, review SOPs, keep them in a location accessible to all, and then cross-train staff. Have each staff member use another staff member’s SOP to follow a procedure. This has two purposes: it ensures that the SOP is well-written and it allows for cross-training so someone really can take on the job or tasks immediately if needed.
Judges have a keen knowledge of how memory fades because they frequently hear testimony from eye-witnesses to the same incident with very different accounts. Relying solely on the integrity and efficiency of even a good employee is poor management. Requiring those good employees to preserve in writing their job functions will help ensure a strong, working justice system in your court.