Law school educated you on the law, how to analyze the law, how to argue your point, and how to think like a lawyer. Sure, there were some classes, lectures, or guest speakers who spoke about running a law office. Yet, not everyone comes out of law school with the idea of hanging out their own shingle. They don’t really think about office management. Lawyers practicing within an existing firm don’t really have to think about those concepts outside of whatever they need to do to manage their own caseload.
Office management for lawyers becomes a necessary topic if you think about or decide to open your own practice. There are so many books out there about management. There are articles and websites. You probably know a lawyer who went through the process of opening their own practice…and they probably have some real-world tips to give you. Just considering the volume of information (and not considering which management methods would be best for your practice and how you want it to operate) can be overwhelming.
We thought we’d take some of the stress off your shoulders by giving you the basic areas involved in office management for lawyers.
Technology and Its Role in Office Management for Lawyers
We’re sure you’ve noticed that technology is involved in practically every aspect of your life. It will also be involved in how you manage your law office. The general term for technology used by lawyers is “legal tech.” Something is considered legal tech when it is technology that is created to serve a need in the legal industry. So, for example, while there are numerous invoicing solutions out there for you to choose from, they may be used in many different industries. You could (and should) look for one that meets your needs as a lawyer. For example, you want invoicing software that has the ability to help you with your trust accounting needs.
Related: Essential Law Firm Billing Best Practices (Regardless of Firm Size)
Regardless of whether you’re looking for invoicing software, timekeeping, client management software, or even just an online place to store your documents, you must make sure that it meets your needs as a new law office owner and that it meets any requirement for data security in your jurisdiction. If your jurisdiction doesn’t have specific rules related to technology, look for ethics opinions. Also, check out articles published by the ABA about data safety best practices.
Please understand that you don’t need to start by adopting every legal tech solution you come across. Unless you’re particularly tech savvy, you’ll set yourself for frustration if not failure. Start by implementing one or two pieces at a time. Make sure your key choices integrate. For example, if your timekeeping software doesn’t integrate with your billing software, you (or your assistant) could end up manually inputting information from timekeeping into billing. That creates fertile ground for errors.
Office Management for Lawyers Should Include a Storage Plan for Files
You can’t and you shouldn’t keep every physical (or digital) file forever. Your office management plan should include a storage plan. First, check the rules in your jurisdiction. How long are you required to keep different types of files? Is there a specific way that you must destroy files when the time comes? What are you obligated to return (or try to return) to the client? What about digital files?
Related: How to Guide: Records Retention Policy Creation for Lawyers
If you don’t plan to become a paperless or paperlite office, you need to really consider physical storage space. If you’re going to be paperless or paperlite, you need to carefully choose your online document storage. Don’t go for the free or cheapest account offered by your preferred digital storage provider. You may end up with inadequate space. You also may not have the data security that you really need. Depending on the type of law you practice, you may need a digital storage solution that is HIPAA compliant.
We know that you know that this is an important concept for office management for lawyers. Yet, you’d be surprised at how often it is either completely overlooked or isn’t properly addressed. Depending on your jurisdiction, you may need trust accounts for each client or you may be able to use one trust account to hold all client funds. It’s important to know the rules in your jurisdiction to keep yourself out of trouble. For instance, California recently changed how flat fee agreements work.
Of course, there’s also the standard and mandatory practice of keeping unearned funds separate from your operating account. It is very important that you understand how to pay yourself from an IOLTA. Failure to truly understand how this works could lead to a bar complaint filed against you.
Related: Paying Yourself from an IOLTA: How to Avoid an Ethics Complaint
Money management also includes timekeeping and billing. Did you know that one of the most common complaints filed against lawyers has to do with clients not receiving an invoice on a regular basis or getting what they feel are surprise charges? Take care of your timekeeping and billing every day. Set a time weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly to send out invoices. Make sure that you’re providing adequate information about what you’re doing to move client matters along. This simple act can keep you out of big trouble.
Advertising Your Law Firm
An advertising plan is part of office management for lawyers. Megan discussed how the advertising rules can’t possibly keep up with how fast things change in the March / April 2019 ABA Journal: The Marketing Issue. Like all of the other basic tenets discussed above, it’s imperative that you know the rules in your jurisdiction and that you follow them. If you plan to hire someone to create or help you with your website or online content, make sure they understand best practices. You should be careful about what you do or say on social media, too.
Related: Social Media for Lawyers: Protect Your Reputation and Your Practice
Office Management for Lawyers Is Meant to Help You
We know that you just want to practice law. Going out on your own creates an entire range of new needs such as some of the office management basics discussed above. Understand that these things don’t just exist as something to take up your time. When properly addressed, they can actually help you reduce the risk that you might have a bar complaint filed against you. Think of it as proactive protection for your future!