When I think of finding the right person for the role of the office manager, I liken it to asking myself, “What is the last presidential candidate you have analyzed that had the perfect resume to be the President of the United States of America?” If they did, they would have graduate level degrees in economics, business, a law degree, and a CPA with expertise in taxation. In addition they would have been an officer position of General or higher in the military, hold advanced training in diplomacy, world history and of course, political science, public speaking, and be an expert in the congressional law making process. Pretty impossible, correct? Consider the office manager position for a small law office? The required skills include accounting, banking, computer repair, IT spending, marketing decisions, human resources, Dale Carnegie skills at winning friends and influencing people (including high paid lawyers) being attacked and resolving argumentative client complaints on invoices on a daily basis and lastly, the organizer of the office birthday cakes on a monthly basis.
Almost impossible – right?
The History of Your Office Manager
If you started like most growing law firms as a solo practitioner or a small law office, there is a high probability that an experienced assistant rose to the level of office manager. He or she probably did so because he or she was very good at being your assistant, capturing nuances of the job, assisting you and the management of the small law office and began to take on responsibilities as you fed him or her with bank deposits, billing, client receivables, and balancing the firm’s bank accounts. In other words, he or she probably morphed in to the position of office manager by merely starting as your general administrative assistant and then growing to the point of having the aforementioned skill sets. In reality, those skill sets cannot be acquired on the job without outside training (unless you are prepared to face many instances of failure).
If the office is growing, and the responsibilities of the office manager begin to expand because of all the nuanced issues that come up in the growth of a law firm, the office managers will need additional training or know when to rely on the outside accountant or other outside consultants of the law firm. Remember, no matter how much on the job training occurs for the office manager, he or she cannot be held to the standard of being an outside tax accountant for the preparation of your tax return and financial statements nor should he or she be held to the standard of being a lawyer in managing all of the HR problems around the office. Outside help will be needed as the law firm grows. As the office continues to grow and you provide more responsibility and your reliance grows on the office manager, outside training and outside experts are necessary. These are good problems to have. Nevertheless, they are problems that need expertise.
Notwithstanding the incredibly difficult resume an office manager would need to have to be successful, as well as the ability to get outside training in the more technical aspects of running a law office, there exists a certain list of items that should not be compromised and should be very well expected of your office manager. Those skills should include, but not be limited to:
- Competence in billing and accounting software;
- Sending out bills on time;
- Handling irate client calls on billing;
- Oversight of cost management of office overhead;
- Managing certain human resource responsibilities and tracking payroll information and vacation days;
- Hiring, firing and managing support staff;
- Responsiveness to partner requests; and
- Continually striving to improve office manager skills.
As you can see, the main accounting and billing software for the law office is critically important and the office manager needs to be an expert at that software. All efforts should be made for the highest level training on the software for the office manager. If the office manager cannot become an expert on that software, he or she is not cut out for the job. So long as there is a support system for the software, and a help desk, there should be no excuses for the office manager not to master the software that runs the law office.
The office manager needs to be an extension of the managing partner. His or her job is to serve as an absolute support mechanism and system for the managing partner. The financial infrastructure is run through the office manager on a day-to-day basis. Of course it will be reviewed by the outside accountants and tax returns will be prepared based on the financials of the law office, but the day-to-day activity needs to be kept up and input on the modular accounting software for the law office.
Finally, as the office grows, you must be willing to provide your office manager with the support of outside consultants, or be prepared to deal with the consequences.
Through it all, when the office manager responds to partner requests timely, and notwithstanding requests from clients, support staff, associates and partners, you will know you have a great office manager when the birthday cakes are delivered on time.
For any further discussion on the role of the office manager for you or your law firm, please reach out to Kerry Lavelle at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule an appointment.
Kerry Lavelle is the author of "The Business Guide to Law: Creating and Operating a Successful Law Firm" published by the American Bar Association. It can be found on the ABA website at: http://bit.ly/1J1p0Aa. He grew his solo practice to a 26-attorney firm, accumulating numerous awards and commendations along the way for his legal work and community service. He is a frequent speaker at bar association seminars and conferences on law office management, and has served as an adjunct professor for business, economics and law school classes, and has served on boards for the Northwest Suburban, Illinois and American Bar Association.