The Bar News

Best Practice Tips: Documentation of Processes and Procedures in Firm Procedural Manuals

Asked and Answered 

By John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Q. I am the sole owner of a six-attorney personal injury firm in San Francisco with five support staff. My father started the firm 25 years ago and has since retired from practice. I took over the practice five years ago. At the time I took over the practice, we had just my dad, myself, a couple legal assistants, and no technology. Since then I have done a lot to grow the practice, including adding attorneys and staff as well as implementing technology. My biggest problem is training new attorneys and staff. We have no written documentation as to how we do things, so training has to be done orally by myself or others every time a new attorney or staff member joins the firm. Can you offer any suggestions?

A. It sounds like you don’t have a written employee handbook or procedures manuals. These are essential tools that every law firm should have, regardless of size. These tools dramatically reduce time that has to be spent by others to on-board new employees and can facilitate bringing on lower-cost employees with less experience, such as recent law graduates or paralegal graduates.

The employee handbook outlines the firm’s employment policies and contains sections such as:

  • Relations with clients
  • Objectivity
  • Confidentiality
  • Investments and other financial dealings with clients
  • Outside work
  • Overtime or bonus
  • Salary review
  • Insurance coverage
  • Sick leave
  • Vacation and personal time off
  • Maternity leave
  • Continuing education and tuition reimbursements
  • Time off to attend various training and professional functions
  • Dues for professional and other organizations
  • Allowable expenses and reimbursement procedures
  • Involvement in civic and other community organizations
  • Speeches, articles, and books

An operation or procedures manual is the firm’s how-to guide. It defines the purpose of work, specifies the steps that need to be taken while doing the work, and summarizes the standards associates with both the process and the result. Your operation or procedures manual specifies this is how we do it here. Every process in the firm should be documented. Sections in your manual might include:

  • Making initial new client appointments
  • Handling the new client appointment
  • Opening new clients and matters
  • Closing matters
  • Billing procedures
  • Processing cash receipts
  • Processing vendor payments
  • Handling retainer payments
  • Managing the firm’s trust account
  • Managing the case file
  • Filing the lawsuit

Procedures manuals are often a list of steps in outline form. The American Bar Association has a book that may help you get started. 

In my earlier life I spent nine years in the United States Air Force Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) office, and there I learned the importance of policy and procedures manuals and I carried this into both law firms where I worked prior to starting my consulting practice 34 years ago.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC, (www.olmsteadassoc.com) is a past chair and member of the ISBA Standing Committee on Law Office Management and Economics and author of The Lawyers Guide to Succession Planning published by the ABA. For more information on law office management please direct questions to the ISBA listserver, which John and other committee members review, or view archived copies of The Bottom Line Newsletters. Contact John at jolmstead@olmsteadassoc.com.

Posted on April 24, 2019 by Rhys Saunders
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Member Comments (1)

Look at some of the available form procedures books, but also
just start your own. When you encounter some undocumented policy or procedure, write what it is/should be. Start with one page (suggest word processing, not paper). Then add the second. In a short while you'll have something that at least documents how the firm does things. Likely helpful to circulate your draft among those affected, at least for comment, perhaps seeking concensus. There are a few things that the law mandates or prohibits—pay attention to that compilance. Daniel Kegan, Chicago

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