Since World War II, major public and private organizations have used the doctrine of Completed Staff Work (“CSW”). Law firms in Illinois, whether solo practitioners or with 1,000 lawyers, would be well-served by utilizing the doctrine. The head of a law firm or a partner working with associates, paralegals, assistants and staff can benefit greatly from the principles of the doctrine, and will increase productivity, efficiency, and profitability
The CSW doctrine was formalized during the Second World War.1 Although the original source of the memorandum is unclear, reports indicate it was issued by Army Chief of Staff, George C. Marshall, in January 1942. It has also been attributed to Brigadier General Smith, a member of the Royal Canadian Army, who released it in August of 1943 while serving as Deputy Director of Supplies and Transport for the First Canadian Army. The memorandum states, in part:
“Completed Staff Work” is the study of a problem, and presentation of a solution, by a staff officer, in such form that all that remains to be done on the part of the head of the staff division, or the commander, is to indicate his approval or disapproval of the completed action. The words “completed staff action” are emphasized because the more difficult the problem is the more the tendency is to present the problem to the chief in piece-meal fashion. It is your duty as a staff officer to work out the details. You should not consult your chief in the determination of those details, no matter how perplexing they may be. You may and should consult other staff officers. The product, whether it involves the pronouncement of a new policy or affect an established one, should when presented to the chief for approval or disapproval, be worked out in finished form.2
In a law firm, the key responsibilities of a partner are to be responsible for: 1) lead generation, 2) lead follow up, 3) lead conversion, and 4) collection for legal services. It is essential that the associates, assistants and staff allow the principals of the law firm to hunt for business so that the staff can prepare and cook the business.
Applied in a legal context, a partner in a law firm may have only the bare bones facts with respect to several issues he presents to an associate. In upholding the doctrine, the associate must follow the 7 steps of completed staff work.
These seven steps are:
1. Identify the issue;
2. Collect and analyze the data;
3. Develop and assess options;
4. Develop a recommendation and draft a report to partner about issues and recommendations;
5. Obtain the partner’s approval;
6. Implement the approved decision of the partner;
7. Follow up on the legal issue that the associate will perform for the client.
In applying Completed Staff Work to a law firm situation, it is the study of an issue and a presentation of a solution by an associate in such a form that all that remains to be done on the partner’s end is to indicate his or her approval/disapproval of the work completed. The words “Completed Staff Work or action” are emphasized because the more difficult the problem, the more tendency there is to present the problem to the partner in a piece-meal fashion. This doctrine makes it the responsibility of the associate to work out the details. The associate should not consult the partner in the determination of those details, no matter how complicated they may be. The associate can consult with other associates or assistants in the law firm, or even seek outside consultation. However, the product or solution to the legal issue should be worked out in a finished form before it is presented to the partner for approval.
Writing a memorandum of issues and several options to the partner does not constitute completed staff work. However, writing a memorandum to the partner that gives a simple and direct solution with a few options to consider does. In most legal problems, a single document which may be prepared for the partner’s signature is a pleading, motion for summary judgment, pretrial memorandum, trial brief, or appellate brief which should be prepared in final form that only requires a signature. The theory of complete staff work does not preclude a rough draft but the rough draft must not be a half-baked idea. It must be completed in every respect except that it lacks the requisite number of copies. A rough draft must not be used as an excuse for shifting the responsibility to the partner for completion of a pleading, motion, etc.
The completed staff work theory may result in more work for the associate but the results will allow the partner to handle key office and business building tasks. Completed staff work further accomplishes two things:
1. The partner is protected from half-baked ideas, voluminous memoranda, incomplete work, and disjointed oral presentations; and
2. The associate who completes the work will gain valuable experience, be more readily marketable as an attorney, and will be able to handle any issues in a lawsuit or legal problem and find a solution in which he or she will gain confidence on the road to a seasoned attorney.
When an associate has followed the above steps, the final test is: “if you were the partner, would you be willing to sign the document and stake your reputation on it being right?” If the answer is in the negative – take it back and work it over because it is not yet completed staff work.
The impulse in a law firm is for the associate or assistants to ask the partner what to do in a piece-meal fashion. This makes for frequent interruptions throughout the day and can hinder the partner from completing his or her important duties. The partner’s responsibility in a law firm is to make sure business comes in the door. The associate’s job is to study, write, re-study, and re-write until they have evolved a single proposed action. The partner’s job is merely to approve or disapprove.
The completed staff work doctrine will make any law firm more productive, efficient and increase the bottom line. It will also increase the value of an associate and staff member, which in turn, will guaranty job security.
1. Municipal Police Administration by Institute for Training in Municipal Administration, 1961, p80-83.
2. Gov leaders.org, Growing Leaders for Public Service U.S. Army (Jan 1953). Army Information Digest
Jim is a founding member of Momkus McCluskey Roberts LLC, concentrating his practice in the trial of commercial cases. He received his Bachelor’s degree from Elmhurst College, his Juris Doctor degree from Northern Illinois University and a Master of Laws from The John Marshall Law School. He is the Second Vice President of the ISBA and a Past President of the DuPage County Bar Association.