Practice Pointers, Secretaries / Administrative Assistants, Small Law Firms

The Practice: Some Advice About Office Staff

I know that having people answer your phone or type documents for you is part of the past and a sure path to extinction, but for those that actually employ people and are looking for ways to better that relationship, read on.

Like many lawyers, I’ve been through receptionists and secretaries. Some left for school, or other jobs, and some left because they had a different concept of the truth, or the meaning of “9:00 a.m.”

I have three rules for office staff: never lie to me, never try to fix a problem without telling me about it, and be on time. When I hire a receptionist, I put a telephone on the conference table and say that “this is the most important thing in this office.”

The relationship between lawyers and staff has a built-in tension — they help you make money, but are usually paid a very small percentage of what you make. They know that. Yes, they aren’t as educated, they’re not licensed, and they shouldn’t expect to make what you make, but the premise remains. Your secretary or receptionist opens the mail and sees the checks, takes the credit card information, gives out the wire transfer information and gets the confirmations, and knows what kind of money is coming in. They are helping you run your practice so you can make money, and they need to be treated that way….

Your state Bar Rules govern supervision of non-lawyer staff, and supervision means making sure office staff knows you are in charge. Lawyers have been suspended and disbarred due to the actions of their staff, hence, my rules of “never lie to me,” and “never try to fix a problem without telling me about it.” Making clear that you are in charge and cultivating a relationship is not mutually exclusive.

Your relationship with office staff should evolve into something like a partnership, limited of course to the obvious barriers of who is legally permitted to perform what tasks. When I say “partnership,” I’m referring to putting your office staff in a mindset that their thoughts and ideas matter. When my office staff tells me that the files we are using are more expensive than others that would be better for my practice, I reward that initiative. The receptionist gives me information on a potential new client who called and then tells me what she thinks about the possibility of being retained, because she knows I want to know what she thinks. She’s not just there to answer the phone and sort the mail, her thoughts and ideas are welcome, especially when they save me time and money.

Lawyers often think that office staff is there to be told what to do, keep quiet, and do their job. They can do that, but they can also be a resource for you if you make it clear to them the important role they play in your practice. If you have office staff, they are the ones who first speak to clients. If they like your receptionist or secretary, they’ll call you fewer times. Would you rather come back from court or a meeting with four messages from clients asking basic non-legal questions, or your receptionist telling you that these four clients called and their questions were answered? If office staff feels they are part of the team, they will be happier, and they will help you by doing things like staying a few minutes late to finish a letter, or tell you that they have an idea that will streamline an office procedure.

Your office staff watches you, they know everything you do as a practicing lawyer, they think some of the things you do are a waste of time, and they want to tell you. You will be a better lawyer, a better business manager if you allow them to opine.

Many times, lawyers have a relationship with office staff that is limited to criticism when something goes wrong. Things go wrong, people make mistakes, and crisis moments happen with office staff. Meet with your office staff frequently, and watch those moments diminish. Have an agenda at these (short) meetings, but leave time for an open forum from the staff’s perspective. When your staff feels they can freely communicate, they will tell you things that you need to know. Don’t assume staff believes they can give you their opinions or tell you when something is “up” in the office — tell them it’s a requirement, and part of what makes the firm successful.

Last thing — don’t be a jerk about time off. You have a staff member that is rarely sick, always on time, and does good work? Suffer through a few requests for mid-day airport trips to pick up family or a few Fridays off to have a long weekend.

Office staff is an investment in your success. Like any investment, it requires monitoring and adjustments. Sometimes you need to cash out, and sometimes you see it as an opportunity to invest more.

Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at

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