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Are you a de facto Office Manager? (21st May 2013)

Doing a quick analysis of Smart Law Marketing clients, it was revealed that in over 50% of firms, the position of Office Manager (or similar title) had not officially been filled.
What usually happens is that the role of Office Manager is filled by a senior secretary within the office as the firm grows.  There is no appointment or announcement but the senior person just morphs into the role. The problem with such a situation is that there is no clear line of command and no clarity around what is expected of the “Office Manager”.
If you are a principal or partner you might not care, but having spoken to numerous people in the de facto “position”, the problem is real and obvious.

Almost without exception, all senior people within law firms want to help. They “have the back” of the Principal, whether he/she knows it or not.  The problem for the hapless Office Manager is that they don’t want to exceed their (unappointed or implied) role and feel foolish for publically over stepping it!  They may have even tried to raise it but chickened out. 
It’s not good to let the situation rest.  A law firm needs a healthy and positive leadership team to maximise its potential and to run smoothly. 

By making the appointment formal, a line of command is more clearly defined (remember to see it from the other person’s perspective). The reality is that staffing issues are more likely to be known by the “Office Manager” before the boss.  If that person knows he/she has the confidence of the boss to deal with HR issues then he/she is more likely to do so and fix them than to just sit by not knowing if it’s his/her role to step in or not.

So what should happen?

Basically it’s a matter of being honest and fair. Then on an ongoing basis it’s all about proper communication.  If the appointment hasn’t been made because of a fear that that will cause a wage rise then that doesn’t say much for the firm’s leadership.

It’s far better to actually have the discussion about money and about the perimeter of the duties that the role requires.  It’s critical to ensure that the Principal and the Manager understand and are in agreement about, how the firm is being run and what the general plan is. 

Ideally, the duties and job description should be written and discussed, to ensure there is no confusion or area of uncertainty.  In cases where there was uncertainty, in our experience, we found it was better for an Office Manager to make a call on an issue and deal with it, if the Principal was unavailable and it couldn’t wait and then discuss it with the Principal at the earliest opportunity and privately afterwards, rather than fail to act.  People make mistakes and even if the Office Manager did in that circumstance, it is a matter of discussing it, learning from it and moving forward. Office Managers too need to know they have the Principal’s confidence and be given managerial respect!

We recommend monthly meetings between Principal and Office Manager, with a time set and short agenda prepared where either party can raise issues. The meetings don’t need to be formal or long but they do need to be regular and afterwards, an action plan agreed to.

If you are a Principal consider the upside.  You have a senior person who feels more appreciated and who has more comfort and confidence in dealing with office “situations” or dramas that you don’t need to worry about.  The Principal will get more intelligence about office politics and be better informed when it comes to management decisions.  In short, it’s bound to improve the smooth running of the firm.

If you are a de facto Office Manager (or your firm has such a person) then consider the benefits a formal appointment could make to the firm.  So, go and have a quiet word with the boss. So often the boss will think it could be a money issue but invariably it’s not. If that’s so tell him just that.

We have developed a new concept for Office Managers of law firms, namely an Office Managers Forum. Have a look in the accompanying video. If you are unsure what to do, feel free to call me for a confidential chat.