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Does your law office have a manual? Do you have an existing manual and feel like there is something missing? A law office manual is a helpful reference tool for your team and can:
- give step-by-step directions on office processes
- help train new staff
- reduce mistakes, misunderstandings or false expectations
- identify ways to improve client service
- boost employee performance
This “Top 10” list is a starting point to tailor a manual for your firm. Remember to update the manual regularly, and engage colleagues and staff in its development and revision.
The Top 10 things to include in your law office manual are:
The introduction should provide employees with a broad understanding of your firm and encourage pride in being part of the team. You might include your firm’s mission statement and company history to emphasize your objectives and track your progress. Also, describe the purpose of the manual and how it should be used.
- General Policies
General policies establish your law office as a safe and respectful workplace. Detail how your firm will deal with confidentiality, security, privacy and harassment.
- Employment Policies These policies demonstrate compliance with employment laws and set out what employees need to know including expectations, roles and benefits. Consider including classifications of employment (full-time, part-time, casual), probationary periods, evaluation processes, and promotion policies.
Clearly set out standards for employees’ behaviour as representatives of your firm. You can regulate, to certain degrees, dress codes, online representation (such as social media profiles and blogging) and web browsing. Consider addressing personal phone calls, audio devices and workspace presentation. Express the policies in ways that support a positive and functional working environment.
b. Office Hours, Hours of Work, Holidays and Leave
Detail your firm’s hours of operation and when employees are to be in the office. Include overtime policies, time-reporting procedures and windows for lunch and other breaks. Absence reporting for medical, parental, bereavement or other reasons should be addressed. If your firm allows for telecommuting or alternate work arrangements, outline the procedures for approval and implementation. At the start of each year, update your manual with a list of dates during which the office will be closed (statutory holidays, etc.). Don’t forget an emergency closing policy (inclement weather) and an emergency exit plan (with a designated employee gathering site).
c. Payroll and Benefits
Outline payroll dates and methods of payment. Also discuss applicable benefits (health insurance, profit-sharing, etc.) and procedures for submitting claims.
d. Job Descriptions
Identify roles and responsibility for tasks including procedures for delegating work and adjusting workloads, including the process for seeking assistance from other staff members.
- Client Service
a. Firm Representation
Detail how your staff should deal with the public and clients. Consider including scripts and templates for telephone reception, email inquiries and greeting clients in reception. Uniform guidelines result in a more professional image. Ensure your staff are aware, and continually reminded, of the importance of client confidentiality.
b. Client Representation
Inform staff about procedures for engaging and declining representation. This includes customer service standards for intake; retainer (and non-retainer) letters; contingency fee agreements; conflict checks; collecting client identification and verification information; billing procedures; and the receipt, retention and return of client documents.
Excellent client service requires that staff know and implement your processes for all forms of communication. Describe how staff should engage with couriers, process servers and court runners, and how to manage correspondence (faxes, emails, texts and regular mail).
- Office Procedures
a. Filing System
Thoroughly describe your filing system including file-opening procedures. Chronicle how to build a file going forward. Detail your preferences on organizing, labeling, and even appending materials to the file folder. Provide procedures for file transfer and closing. Specify how to handle matters with outstanding invoices.
Protecting confidential information is imperative for any practice setting. Detail back-up and anti-virus systems, shredding policies and access/locking procedures for file cabinets, internal offices and your office building.
c. Calendar Control
Detail how to do calendaring, limitations, diarization and file review. Include “in advance of” and “follow-up” dates. Appoint a lead staff member for these tasks and designate an alternate to ensure coverage. Diarize dates for the payment of Law Society of Alberta membership fees and insurance, trust accounting uploads, and other reporting requirements (including your CDIC report).
d. Work Product Appearance
Set out your standards for formatting, font and layout for memoranda, emails, forms and letters produced by your firm. This adds to your firm’s professional image.
A clear, descriptive billing statement aids in client satisfaction. Ensure that staff understand the importance of this document. Itemize the information included in time entries, describe the billing statement and list the charges and costs to be billed. Inform your staff about trust and general accounts. Establish and maintain strict procedures for all accounting transactions and highlight the critical need for adherence. Consider reimbursement and petty cash procedures.
- Technology, Equipment and Supplies
Inform your staff about office technology systems, service providers and vendors. This might include ordering procedures, version and warranty information, and payment processes for equipment and supplies.
- Emergency and Disaster Response
Inform your staff how to handle an emergency, such as a natural disaster, including where to access emergency contact numbers, muster points, etc. “Modern” disasters, such as server crashes, are equally important to address. Establish disaster recovery procedures, such as recreating files from server backups and consider establishing alternate worksites and protocols should your office be inaccessible. Keep passwords in secure, off-site places, which can be accessed by a staff member.
- Updates and Acknowledgment By Employees Upon Review
Your manual can be in print or electronic form. Ideally, you can easily update it (note dates of amendment on the copy). Revisions can be as needed and an annual review is recommended.
b. Employee Acknowledgment
Require employees to read the manual as part of their orientation and have them acknowledge that they have done so. Employees should also be notified of any updates to the manual, as well as review it on a regular basis. This facilitates their understanding of the contents and your reliance on the policy.c. Disclaimer
Ensure that policies comply with legislation and include a disclaimer explaining that, if there are conflicts between policy and legislation, the legislation prevails.
This is your catch-all. Anything that might not fit elsewhere can be included here, such as contact information for local police, fire and emergency services, building access codes, parking information, and even kitchen rules…
Although it requires significant time and effort upfront, your law office manual is a highly effective tool. It provides guidance, certainty and can facilitate productivity and morale. The Law Society Practice Review team is happy to provide further tips for the content and organization of your law office manual, but remember, it will be most effective if crafted by, and for, your specific law firm.
Donna Moore is Legal Counsel with the Law Society of Alberta’s Practice Review department.