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MANAGING THE OFFICE

Ensure success in your new job as administrator

As soon as you’ve accepted the position of law firm administrator, you need to establish expectations – what is expected of you and what you expect of others. Once those parameters are clear, you can implement any necessary changes with authority and confidence.

Walking into a new job as administrator?

It’s hard for a newcomer administrator to know where to begin work, what to change and what to leave alone.

It starts with the interview

The first item is to ask the attorneys what they expect of their administrator. Without that information, any new administrator is set up for failure.

Do it before accepting the job. Tell the partners, “I want to meet your needs. To do that I need you to tell me what you expect me to do.”

Most people don’t do that. They focus instead on salary and accept jobs without knowing what’s expected of them. They wind up with more money, but they don’t know what they have to do to make that money.

It may be difficult to get the partners to pinpoint their expectations. In most cases, if the checkbook is happy, they are too. But you should get them to think about what they want in an administrator.

Press them for an answer. Ask what responsibilities they want their administrator to take on. For example, is the administrator expected to do the payroll or does an assistant or outside company do it? What role is the administrator expected to play in the billing?

Ask too if they want a working administrator or a supervising administrator.

Hiring and firing say-so is necessary

Ask about the extent of authority. While that differs from practice to practice, the administrator should at least have hiring and firing authority. Without a fear factor to wield, the administrator can’t enforce any directives and will just get walked on.

For the same reason, the administrator should have the authority to set salaries and raises, albeit with the partners setting the parameters. There should also be authority to base the raises on merit as opposed to giving out across the board or longevity based increases.

Partner liaison is necessary too

From there, ask the partners to map out the reporting path.

Along with that, ask them to name a partner liaison or one partner to whom the administrator can turn for directions. If there are five partners, count on them wanting five different things. There needs to be a single boss who standardizes the job.

A liaison also serves as a guide for developing goals and objectives and thereby ensures that the administrator does what the firm believes is important. The liaison is someone to go to with your plan of action. “This is what I plan to work on. Is this something you want for the firm?”

Hello, I’m your new administrator

Once on the job, the first concern is to start off on the right foot with staff.

Many managers fail there. They bow to human nature and spend their first days trying to get staff to like them.

Focus instead on getting their respect.

Plan on a self-introduction that lays out the situation: “My name is A, and the partners have selected me to manage the fi rm. I have the authority for x, y and z. The attorneys have told me you are a good staff and I am here to make sure you continue to do well.”

That might mean the manager gets disliked right on the first day, but that will change later on because such an introduction generates respect. People like a manager whom they respect and who takes control of situations.

Better results, less work

From there on, it is a matter of observing how the firm operates and making constant improvements. The next logical issue is the question of what a new manager should and should not change.

First, don’t change anything having a personal connection to a partner. If a particular vendor is a partner’s brother, leave it alone.

Second, don’t make any change unless it gets equal or better results with equal or less work.

Then to bring those changes about, get organized.

Go to the partner liaison and say, “Here are the areas where I think we can improve.” Explain why the changes are necessary. Then lay out a plan for making the improvements and tell what the outcome should be.

Show that the recommendation comes with considerable thought. For example, if you are suggesting a new paint color for the work stations, cite studies about productivity supporting your color choice.

What if the answer is no? Keep a positive attitude. Respond with, “Okay but I wanted to make sure you knew I am looking at this for you.”

There’s also the issue of introducing change to staff. The key is to show them the big picture, for example, that entering the wrong data has an effect on billing and also forces another staffer to do this extra work to correct the error.

While staff participation in change is valuable, don’t get sidetracked from the fact that the administrator has the final word. Get ideas and get feedback, and if a staffer has a suggestion better than what’s been set out, use it.

But don’t let staff decide what to do. That’s the administrator’s job.

How to face the biggest problem

What’s the biggest problem to expect in the new job?

Chances are it will turn out to be staff.

Usually someone there thinks he or she should have been promoted to administrator. That person may even have been a viable candidate for the job. The issue may resolve itself with time. If it doesn’t, it has to be addressed directly:

“I understand that I may not be your favorite person because I was hired for the job you wanted. But I have to run this office, and to do so, I must have your support and cooperation.”

Never too late

What about the poor administrator who is already in the job and didn’t establish duties and authority and expectations up front.

That is a situation where the administrator has to set up a job description alone.

Find out what the previous administrator did. Usually the staff who carry the most responsibility can provide that information. Then observe and find out who is responsible for what.

To get a good overall view of how the firm operates, look at the checkbook. Knowing where the money is being spent, it is possible to see where changes can or need to be made in area such as vendor selection or unnecessary buying.

That type of information is a good starting place for improving the bottom line.

Do some limited audits to see if all the hours are getting billed on time. It’s not common for a new administrator to find a staffer sitting on unbilled time and incidentals.

Finally, list what appear to be the job responsibilities and also what areas should be improved. Ask the partners if these items meet their expectations.


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