Joyce Patrick-Bai 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Law Firm Administration: It Ain’t Rocket Science! …but in some firms, there can be a firecracker in the works! A law office makes a choice: Its attorneys will manage day-to- day operations or a non-lawyer manager is hired to do the job. When managers are hired, they report to a managing partner, a management committee and/or directly to the shareholders, depending upon firm structure. Whatever the structure, as firms grow, managers are typically hired so that lawyers may focus on lawyering activities required to support their clients. A firm may hire an administrator, an office manager or a combination of administrative managers – some generalists and some specialists. Generalists usually have a working knowledge of all aspects of firm management. Specialists typically concentrate on one of five areas of management: 1) human resources (HR); 2) technology (IT); 3) finance, 4) marketing; or 5) office operations. Some firms employ managers with specific experience in legal management, while other firms obtain business managers from non-legal businesses and immerse them in the policies of law firm management. No matter who is doing the job, good firm administration is essential to promote viability, visibility and to assist lawyers by maintaining systems that keep their firm relevant to their community. Law office managers network with other managers and obtain legal management training through associations like the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA), Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), and Legal Marketing Association (LMA), to name a few. These associations provide a peer group for administrators, especially for those who are the only manager in their firm. Association training generally focuses on one or more of the five management areas listed above and may also provide information specific to the legal industry. Law firm management requires a unique perspective because violations of the rules of ethics and issues relating to client care may put a firm at risk. Attorneys may limit risk and protect resources by supporting good firm management. Consider these examples: DOCKETING: Selecting software and determining a strategy for docketing must begin with a review of the areas of practice. Docketing is always a topic for a newly organized firm. Adding or changing practice groups should also trigger a review of software and the procedures used for implementing and reporting the docket. Some practice areas require specialized rules-based docketing to monitor events imposed by the courts, government offices, tribunals and other organizations. An intellectual property (IP) firm, for instance, practicing with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO), the Library of Congress, U.S. Copyright Office, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN –company that oversees Internet-related tasks) would have very different requirements from a firm practicing family law, a practice area primarily governed by state courts. Where a firm has a global practice, dates and deadlines can become even more complex. A robust system with flexibility is necessary when dates are coming from a wide variety of sources. In any case, under-performing software makes docketing cumbersome and puts the firm at risk of missing deadlines. LIABILITY INSURANCE1: High quality work, good communications and timely client care offer the best protection of client rights and limit practitioner liability. Conversely,loss of client rights in even one matter can be devastating. Per attorney premium cost for professional liability insurance may be high and the application process for liability insurance can be daunting. A thorough review of the firm’s policies and practices is required each year prior to completing the application and firms with a risk reduction plan are rewarded with lower premiums. For specialty firms, addendums may be required for practice area analysis and further financial disclosures. Firms that work in the area of IP are asked to submit the percent of work done in each technology sector (i.e., Chemical, Mechanical, Electrical, etc.). Adding an IP department to a general practice firm would likely raise premium rates and, potentially, could be a cause for nonrenewal if the current carrier has no appetite for IP. Carriers often prefer to cover specialty firms to those who attempt to be a one-stop shop. This is especially true for smaller firms where professionals are stretching skills across practice areas. Diligent managers help firms to decrease insurance premiums in a number of ways. Efficient tracking of data for the application process is the first step. Some companies also offer a 5% to 10% discount for firms who employ a certified legal manager (CLM) or credits for CLE, certified specialists, bar memberships and membership in ALA. Firms with a proven track record will benefit financially when their managers have a good relationship with their insurance broker and with the underwriter. Though tempting, jumping from carrier to carrier to chase a lower premium, in the long run, may increase premium costs and reduce the number of carriers willing to provide insurance. LAWYERING vs. TINKERING: Attorneys who are technology savvy can be a unique challenge for firm managers. It’s not just because these lawyers (the ones who wear dress shirts with two pockets — you know the type) are more demanding about software, PDAs or computers bought for their use. It is because they want behind the scenes access to firm technology. Though some attorneys believe it as their duty to make things in the office “run better,” this is almost never a good idea. First, they need to concentrate on client projects and firm productivity. And second, if the tinkering gets out of hand, systems might be compromised and software licenses invalidated because of a seemingly harmless change. Just the act of improper software installation could be a violation of copyright laws. The cost to the firm can be astronomical if management loses control of technology and allows a culture of wanton disregard. If an attorney is tinkering with computer systems in order to customize software or to make hardware more robust, it should be seen as a big red flag. EMPLOYEE HANDBOOK: A well-designed employee handbook is essential. Unless a firm practices in the area of employment law, it is a good idea to hire a third party to review or to prepare from scratch an employee handbook. Managers must receive training in how to administer firm policy relating to employment. Employees also require training in order to maintain a smooth running staff. A number of employment law firms as well as some independent payroll or human resources businesses have departments designed to assist in preparation and training relative to the firm handbook. Even if a firm does not want continuous representation in this area of its business, a scheduled periodic review is recommended. CONCLUSION: Overcoming law firm management issues can be challenging. Managers are successful when they solve problems, create a better work environment and help attorneys obtain the tools they need to support clients and contribute to the community at large.
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