Law Office Management
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Because You Really DON'T Know Everything!! How and Why to Draft Your Own Procedure Manual
By: Patricia A. Yevics
Director, Law Office Management Assistance
Maryland State Bar Association

            What would you do if your assistant decided one day to simply run away and never come back to work?  Do you know how every task in the office is handled?  Would a new or temporary employee have some way to figure out how to do all the day to day tasks that were handled so well by your former assistant?  Would you have the time to train someone new immediately? 
Let's say you do not have an assistant.  It's just you and a computer.  What would happen if one day you were unable to handle all the work in the office?  Would someone be able to come in and figure out how all of your tasks are handled? 
The reality is that solos and small firm practitioners have an even greater need to have written policies and procedures than larger firms.  In small firms, there is usually just one or maybe two people who know how the office runs on a day to day basis.  If something happens to one or both of those people, as a solo practitioner, you could find yourself with some difficult days ahead. 
The best way to avoid this scenario is for every solo and small firm practitioner to have a procedure manual for his/her office.  This will detail every activity that is done on a daily, weekly, monthly or even yearly basis. 
If you’ve already written such a guidebook, you can understand the benefits are worth the effort. If you haven’t yet put together your own procedures manual (NOTE: This is not an employee manual; it is a How To Manual), the task may seem overwhelming. But like anything else, once you break the project into smaller steps, it becomes much more manageable. It can be invaluable for new employees and for those jobs that are done only occasionally. If someone is going on vacation, you can be confident that other staff will be able to work effectively by using the procedures manual. If you’ve forgotten the steps to a project that you perform only now and then, your how-to-do-it guide will quickly refresh your memory. So why not start today to compile a ready-reference book on your job?  

GETTING PAST "I DON'T HAVE TIME FOR THIS"

            There is an old saying that "There is never time to do it right but there is always time to do it over".  Lack of time is one of the main reasons that solo and small firm practitioners give for not have such a document.  But if done in small steps, this can be an on-going and painless task.  If you have an assistant, paralegal, secretary or someone who handles your administrative tasks, this is the person who will start this project.  He/She will compile the information and work with you to get the job done. 
Another reason solo and small firm practitioners give for not having formalized rules and procedures is that they do not want a bureaucracy as in the large firms.  Having a How to Manual is not a bureaucracy.  It is good management.  Being a solo or small firm practitioner is NOT an excuse for bad management.

GET ORGANIZED

            There are three basic elements that make up an effective procedures manual: good organization, attention to detail, and clearly written instructions directed at your reader. A technique or procedure that you take for granted may not be familiar to a substitute. Before you begin writing, however, you need to decide on an organizational layout for the manual. This will depend largely on the nature of the jobs being described. The word processing section might contain such headings as Forms, Form Letters, and Form Paragraph Library, while the secretarial section would contain sections on such tasks as handling telephone calls and paying invoices. Whatever type of organization you choose be sure the format can be easily grasped by an outsider. It may be helpful to add an introduction that explains the basic organization of the manual.

LIST DUTIES
Once you have a general idea of how to organize your project, you’re ready to move on to the specifics. The primary purpose of your procedures manual is to describe all the major and minor administrative procedures that are done in the office on a daily basis.  But you must first pinpoint them and this may be harder than it sounds. Some jobs will come to mind immediately, but others will be more elusive. These steps will help you get started:
First, using your organizational format as a guide, you or your assistant will begin listing all the different jobs which are done every day, adding new tasks under appropriate categories as you think of them. You may also want to label manila folders by task categories so that you can easily retrieve your notes and working copy.
Next, have your assistant begin keeping a record of everything that is done daily over a two-week period. Try not to overlook any of them, even the most routine ones. Making a list of your duties as you do them will help ensure that you don’t forget anything.
Then consult your calendars and follow-up files to find those tasks or projects that are done monthly quarterly and annually
Have all staff list every different task each of them performs each day for a two-week period. Use your administrative staff as much as possible.
Have your assistant make a list of all the tasks that YOU do on a daily, weekly basis.  You will ultimately need to spend some time with him/her to go into more details.

DETAIL EACH TASK
You or your assistant are now ready to begin analyzing each task in order to capture all those details that are, by now, second nature. For example, how many copies do you make on a particular type of correspondence? To whom are they distributed?
Make notes of these details before you begin describing daily tasks. Be sure to list all the specifics for each task. That way, any substitute or co-worker will be able to complete the job as efficiently as you or others in your office do. Keep the following questions in mind:
What standard memo forms do you use? How do you set up client conferences? How do you handle visitors and telephone calls?  How are client files set up?   How is oncoming mail handled and distributed? What types of office equipment are you responsible for, and what are their basic operating instructions?   How do you check for conflicts?  How do you communicate with the client about fees?  What are the procedures for billing clients?  What are the procedures for paying bills?

            Compiling your notes and writing up instructions for each task you perform are undoubtedly the most time-consuming parts of putting together procedures manual. It may take several months before a final project is completed, but it doesn’t have to be a painful experience. Once you have carefully planned your manual’s format and contents, you can outline the most crucial instructions. Then work on the other procedures, in order of importance, as time permits.
As you or your assist adds a new procedure, it should be put into a binder or in a special folder on the computer so that anyone may access it.  I suggest that you have at least one hard copy of the manual.  Each time the manual is updated, the new date should be included on the materials.
This is not a document that is ever finished.  It will be changed as policies and procedures are changed, added or deleted.  It should be kept up to date.

            Finally, remember to date all changes and review it annually.  As with an Employee Manual, have employees sign when they receive the manual.  Rather than keep a paper version, you might want to keep the manual (Read Only) in a shared folder for all employees.  When you do make changes to an existing procedure or add a new one, explain the reasons to staff. 

            For a large(but not complete list) of some of the items to be included in both a procedure and policy manual, please go to http://www.msba.org/departments/loma/articles/articles.htm for a list of all articles.  This article will be listed under Office Management. 


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