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Why your first act as a new administrator should be to rearrange the furniture

One of the most difficult ways to become a manager is to be promoted from within.

For a Colorado administrator, however, moving up was even more difficult because the promotion came with a directive to change the working atmosphere of the office.

The previous administrator, while knowledgeable, was not someone who encouraged a welcoming atmosphere, says the administrator of a family law practice in Denver.

The partners wanted that to change and they wanted the staff to relate to, and have good communication with, their administrator.

So the new administrator came up with a simple yet effective solution. She remodeled her office. And that alone was enough to start the wheels turning to meet the partners’ challenge.

From ‘go away’ to ‘please come in’

In its original condition, the administrator’s office was off-putting.

The Y-shaped desk faced the same wall as the door and was positioned at the far end of the wall. That meant people walking by couldn’t see the administrator sitting inside the horseshoe and facing the wall. To see her they’d have to walk in and look to their immediate left.

What’s more, there were no chairs nearby for visitors to sit in. The only way to talk to the administrator was to stand at the side of the desk.

The office was drab and colorless and the only other furniture was a round table in the opposite corner of the room, three inexpensive metal chairs, and gray metal file cabinets.

The message conveyed was “don’t come sit and talk to me at my desk.” And not surprisingly, staff didn’t. In fact, they avoided the office like the plague.

It didn’t take much to change the setting

The new administrator moved the desk to the center of the room so the right side now faces the door and the left side runs along a window. Now the office looks inviting and people walking by can always see her. She also replaced the round table and metal chairs with two comfortable leather chairs that are positioned directly across from her desk.

The metal file cabinets were originally next to the desk and were the first thing people saw as they walked in. She moved those to the far end of the wall and put two mahogany bookcases in their place.

“That softens everything,” she says. “Now there’s not all that metal shouting at everybody.”

Color, a few plants, and candy

Another change was to repaint the office. The colors were originally “haphazard and blah,” so the new administrator changed them to a pale grayish blue that goes well with the mahogany furniture and blends with the gray metal cabinets to make them less noticeable.

For more color, she added live plants and started bringing in flowers from time to time, not an expensive addition, she says. “I spend $10 on flowers and they last a week.”

She also set two bowls of candy on the corner of her desk nearest the door “so staff could come in and get candy if they wanted.”

And to it all she added some new age appeal with a rock salt crystal lamp that absorbs negative ions from the computer.

The final look, she says, is “soothing” and “a whole different feel than what it used to be.”

Hitting the issues head-on

Changing the office around was considerably easier than moving into the job itself.

The new administrator’s previous position had been that of assistant administrator and some people didn’t see the move to administrator as a promotion “but just a natural progression” of the job. A few staff continued to view her as a coworker, while others took the attitude that their former peer “was just trying to boss them around.”

It was also difficult for the paralegals to recognize her as their manager because in their jobs they are somewhat “protected by the attorneys.” They didn’t expect her to act as a manager for their area except when the partners told her to take up some issue with them.

So the new administrator’s approach was to address it all head-on.

During her first weeks, she met with everybody and covered all the issues she saw cropping up. And she was frank about it.

She told staff she was no different from them, that her role as administrator didn’t put her above anybody, and that the office had to run as a team.

To dispel any concerns “that the job was going to go to my head,” she told staff that the move “didn’t mean I felt I had lots of power.” She worded it as, “We are all people and we all have our faults and just because I’ve been given this position doesn’t put me above anyone else.”

She also explained that she had an open-door policy and that everyone should feel free to come to her with any matter. The new office arrangement, she says, illustrated that well.

And perhaps most important, she “eased off the gas pedal a bit” and didn’t set any new policies or make any changes in office procedures. She did that to show staff she was not trying to make her own mark on the job.

As to the paralegal management issue, she made it her policy not to make any changes that affected the paralegals until she’d talked to the head paralegal to make sure it was useful.

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