The ABCs of Law Office Management

It may be surprising to some, but lawyers are terribly inept when it comes to managing their offices and law firms. The problems that poor management creates at a law office-including, but not limited to, organization, environment, relations, and overall work quality-are a major source as to why employees leave. 1 Seeing as law offices as a whole have developed a notorious reputation for high turnover rates in the last decade, management is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

Looking into what is involved in law office management and what needs to be done with it for an office to be successful requires an in-depth look. This article will serve to provide those who want to improve the management capabilities of their law office, or are interested in becoming a law office manager. It will not be a finite guide with information that is entirely set in stone; things change with time and new information is discovered and made available to those who need it. The main purpose of this article will be to provide the foundation for you, the reader, to build your management abilities on.

What Is A Law Office Manager?

Like the manager found in any other business setting, a law office manager's main duty is to oversee the day-to-day of a law office. It's an administrative position that is often responsible for much of the behind the scenes activities that most clients are unaware of. In some cases, the lawyers in the firm are not even fully aware of how much their managerial co-workers do. That lack of awareness might explain, or at least contribute to, why lawyers are poor managers when left to their own devices.

A law office manager will serve multiple roles, often several at a time. They may take on the role of secretary, accountant, librarian, salesperson, public relations specialist, or technician, to name a few. During the hiring process, many may be told to be prepared to take on the role of a paralegal in the office, even though they are not actually one. It wouldn't be surprising to find a law office manager taking on the role of everything but lawyer at a firm.

What Are Their Responsibilities?

The duties and responsibilities that a law office manager will need to do on a daily basis are going to depend on the firm itself. Bigger firms are, obviously, going to result in more responsibilities than smaller firms do. Staff sizes, whether it's in terms of the amount of lawyers or managerial staff at a firm, are also going to affect a law office manager's responsibilities. There may also be other tasks that are not listed in this article that a law office manager may encounter during their day to day.

  1. Scheduling-Scheduling is usually the biggest task that a law office manager is going to be involved with. Most law offices, when looking for a law office manager, will list schedule management as one of the main and important duties. 2 Each lawyer in the firm is going to have their own schedule, made up of dates for hearings, trials, client meetings, and other appointments. In addition, there are going to be schedules for the office as a whole. Things in the office would easily descend into chaos without out someone actively managing the schedules of the firm. Management, in general, is designed to provide order and a degree of control. Having a law office manager then can ensure that order remains in the office.
  2. Client interactions-Most of the client interactions a law office manager will have will be in getting the clients set-up at the office and continually coordinating with them throughout their case. When a client enters a law office, the first person they will interact with will often be the manager, who often takes on a secretarial or administrator role. The manager acts as a liaison between clients and lawyers, passing information back and forth, sending reminders and documents. Client interactions, as a result, require many customer service-like skills. 
  3. Financial duties-A law office is still a business and it is going to have many financial responsibilities that need to be addressed on a daily basis. Most of the finances at a law office are going to concern fees related to the court. There are also fees that the clients are required to pay as part of their contract retaining the firm's legal services. There may or may not be an accounting division within the firm, so billing services may fall upon the office manager. Combining the responsibilities related to client interactions and finances, law office managers may also be the ones to send or collect billing information and fees from clients. They may also be the ones to notify a firm's accounting division of services rendered so they can be added to a client's final bill. Most law firms, big and small, have their services set-up as being billable by the hour. 3 Tracking billable time accurately may also fall to the law office manager as a back up, and can prevent issues and disagreements between clients and the firm.
  4. Paperwork-Filing and organizing paperwork is another major aspect of a law office manager's responsibilities.  The organization of all that paperwork, regardless of it remains in hardcopy or is transferred into a digital format, takes a lot of care and attention. Due to a law office manager's administrative position, they are often the one who oversees the organization, creation, and movement of all of the paperwork in the office. It will usually be their responsibility to make sure that the right documents get to the right places and people, and by the time that they need to. The training and certification that law office managers need to have, as discussed below, are often necessary for this part of the job. Errors with legal paperwork can be disastrous and time consuming, so having someone who knows exactly what they are doing is crucial.
  5. Office organization-The general organization of a law office is primarily decided upon by the law office manager. They may have a basic foundation and input from the lawyers who own the firm, but the bulk of the organization of the firm is theirs. Being able to effectively organize-and keep up with that organization-is essential to the management of a law office. Designing an equally effective organization system is also essential, as it will need to be adjustable for changes and easy for everyone in the office to work with. Law office managers should also be able to work and keep up with their own organization designs, and make the necessary changes for them to do so.
  6. Training-Law office managers may be considered the most senior-ranking employee in the firm that isn't a lawyer. They may be the ones responsible for supervising other non-lawyer staff during normal operations. Their familiarity with the firm's structure and daily operations may make them perfect for conducting or supervising the training of new employees. Keep in mind that the tasks, duties, and responsibilities of a law office manager can cover basically everything in a law office. Establishing the firm's structure and organization, the daily routine, and procedures are usually a part of managing the office. 4 With that in mind, who better to train staff members who will be integrated into that structure than the person who keeps it running every day?


Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Law Office Management course?

What Limitations Do They Have?

Just as the lawyers in a law office are human and have their limits, so do law office managers. Some of the limits they have are a result of what they are capable of doing on their own-for example, if they are the only staff member that isn't a lawyer, then they take on the entirety of the workload without being able to divide it. Other limits are based on what they are allowed to do within the confines of the law. The limitations placed on a law office manager can affect their work, and it is necessary to be aware of what those limitations are. Keep in mind that trying to bypass one's limitations is acceptable in certain situations, while it can lead to serious consequences in others.

Within The Office-The limitations present within the law office itself will vary from firm to firm. Some limitations may be a matter of budget, the office's physical size, and the needs of the office. A law office manager should familiarize themselves with the firm's existing structure and organization. In doing so, they will become familiar with the limitations that are already present that may hinder their performance in some way. Setting their own limits-what they are capable of, what they are comfortable with-is also something that a law office manager can determine for within the office.

On A Legal Level-Most legal limitations that a law office manager will have is based on their involvement in a client's case. Every staff member in the office is bound to the same laws and regulations as the lawyers are. They cannot disclose information about a case to those not involved without the permission of the client. They cannot be access certain pieces of information about the client without the correct permissions and access routes. All staff, managerial and otherwise, is also held to a degree of legal accountability. 5 That too can create limitations for a law office manager.


What Qualifications Are Needed?

Very rarely will a managerial position be an entry-level one or not require some form of educational background to qualify. The extent of what requirements a law office manager will need to have will vary to some degree from office to office. Firms that specialize in a specific type of law may require potential managers to have some kind of background or familiarity with that law type.

Education-The educational requirements for law office managers are often either an associate's or bachelor's degree in paralegal studies. 6 Degrees in law office administration or management may also be considered as suitable requirement options. As stated above, some law firms specialize in specific legal niches like corporate, business, or criminal law. Those firms will often seek managers who have degrees or an educational background relevant to those niches. In some cases, a completed degree may not be necessary, so long as the person intends to follow through and complete it within a certain amount of time.

Experience-As with any job, having some level of experience with elements involved in the position is going to be necessary. For a law office manager, there is only so much that can be taught in a classroom setting and experience often fills in the gaps. Most degree programs will require an internship of some sort in order for students to graduate. Experience, from a hiring perspective, acts as a gauge of how well a person is able to apply their classroom knowledge to real world situations that are relevant to their careers. Familiarity with anything involved at a law office-software, finances, customer service, etc.-is also expected.

Additional Certification-When seeking a law office manager, some firms will look for managers who have certifications that are relevant for their firm. It could be for software programs that the firm regularly uses, which be needed over time as the firm goes through updates and changes in its internal structure. Classes on topics relevant to the firm-again, think in terms of legal niches-or for refreshing needed skills.

While it may not be an outright requirement or necessary qualification, continuing education efforts like seeking the next degree level may also be recommended. Some firms may offer some form of incentive employees who continue their education, like paying for some or all of the fees for a degree program. The most common option, in that regard, is a master's degree in law office management rather than paralegal studies.