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“Get it in writing.” That’s always good advice that lawyers frequently give their clients. If only they put it to use in managing their own offices. Most law offices operate by habit. Tasks such as opening files, preparing complaints or taking telephone messages are handled every day, without much thought given to the process. But what if an employee suddenly needed extended time off or, worse (for the firm, at least), packed up and moved to Tahiti? As the playwright Henrik Ibsen once observed, “A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.” When you suddenly find yourself minus a staff person, make sure information is readily available so that someone can step in and keep the office running smoothly. Drafting a procedures manual is a good way to keep chaos out of the above scenarios. Similar to a policy manual, a procedures manual provides a detailed guide to carrying out routine office tasks. Think of it as your own “Law Office for Dummies” guide. Ulf “Ron” Heller, a general practice attorney in Oklahoma City, drafted his first procedures manual nearly 20 years ago, but still updates it regularly. The manual covers everything from ordering supplies to outlining steps involved in handling specific types of cases. “With the nature of my practice, we may handle certain situations only once in a while,” he says. “Putting the steps in writing keeps us from having to go back and learn it again.” Heller also finds a manual invaluable for training new employees. This is a useful reference that allows new employees to quickly become familiar with office operations. “When a new task comes up [the new person] can look in the manual, rather than feeling the need to always ask questions,” he says. Employees may welcome guidelines that outline procedures and expectations. “A manual provides consistency,” says Jennifer Brinkley, legal administrator at the personal injury firm of Chambers, Aholt & Rickard in Atlanta. “That can be a comfort for staff. They know what to do, what not to do and how things work. It obviously doesn’t replace human interaction, but gives a good sense of consistency and direction.” She suggests making sure that firm policies are narrow enough for guidance but broad enough to allow discretion without giving the appearance of micromanagement. In other words, a policy detailing how to handle phones during the receptionist’s break is good. One that dictates specific times and lengths of the breaks themselves is overkill. Drafting a manual doesn’t have to be a lengthy or tedious process. The first step is to find examples. Ask fellow lawyers for samples or buy one of the many law office management publications offered by legal publishers. The Law Practice Management section of the American Bar Association has several publications available for purchase, complete with word-processing template forms. After reviewing the samples, draft an outline detailing the office procedures you want to document. Gather any existing informal notes or memos that spell out these tasks. All employees can contribute to the process. “When you get down to basic policies and procedures, have each staff member outline the process he or she uses,” suggests John Olmstead of Olmstead & Associates, a legal management consulting firm in St. Louis. “That information can then be easily incorporated into the manual.” Breaking down and putting the process on paper might actually strengthen your office procedures. It forces you to look closely at the process, correcting any flaws, oversights or unnecessary steps. A procedures manual is an important office tool. Nevertheless, administrative tasks often land on the back burner at busy law firms. Avoid that by setting a specific target date for completing each job. “Handle it like any other large project,” says Olmstead. “You need a goal even if it’s a year. There needs to be some accountability for getting it done.” The eight-member firm of Hyatt & Stubblefield in Atlanta drafted a manual over a period of about six months, replacing an outdated document. “It takes time to process all the information,” says Kristi Smith, administrator for the real estate firm. “One person comes up with the language, others need to review it or add their ideas. It’s not a full-time process.” Outside input can also be helpful. One of the firm’s attorneys solicited advice from the members of the local chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators. Once it’s completed, the manual should be available to all employees. Employees at the Chambers firm in Atlanta each receive a copy of the manual and sign a statement reflecting their receipt and understanding of the document. Because the firm’s manual also incorporates personnel policies, employees can refer to it for not only procedures but also for determining what rights and privileges they have, says Brinkley. The manual should be updated. Heller writes modifications in the margins of his master copy. His secretary then updates the document periodically. The manual is now up to about 60 pages, including sample documents, maps to the courthouse and other basic information. Schochor, Federico & Staton, a medical malpractice firm in Baltimore, relies heavily on manuals in its procedure-driven practice. “Our manual explains the whole process of how we work a case from the moment it comes in the door,” says administrator Carolyn Kramer. “So much of what we do relies on the system we’ve set up.” Kramer says outlining the litigation case review and preparation steps can prevent things from falling through the cracks. There are firms, of course, that resist anything that smacks of excessive corporate or bureaucratic behavior and feel that policy manuals fit right into that category. However, experts say that manuals are important for effective office management and income production. “There are many important contributions to the firm that can’t be measured in billable hours,” says Olmstead. “Anything that coordinates the business infrastructure of a firm, no matter the size, is beneficial.” A manual gives new employees the tools to become productive faster and quickly answers basic questions for seasoned employees. Time spent on organization is always time well spent, says Olmstead and others. In a busy world that is increasingly focused on doing things faster or better, streamlining office procedures may produce the one thing no one seems to have enough of — time. Karen Dean is a freelance writer in Monroe, Georgia.

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