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Friday, February 14, 2003

Paper Clips and Complaining Attorneys Make Office Managers Surly


In a column I wrote for this publication a few months ago, I made a couple of possibly unflattering references to estate planning attorneys. I got a lot of mail out of that one. Now, I think it might be time to turn my attention to another member of The Firm’s cast of characters: the office manager.

It’s not that office managers are bad people. My guess is that most are formerly good people who have become unpopular by dint of what they do for a living.

Law office administrators have the most difficult job at The Firm. They have to decide which secretary works with which attorney, plan office functions, hire and fire staff, keep expenditures within The Firm’s budget and assign office furniture. While they may be able to escape being blamed for the commission of legal malpractice or the loss of a client (this is what junior associates are for), virtually any other problem at The Firm is pinned on the office manager.

One law firm chairman compared managing a law firm to "leading the opera with 75 prima donnas trying to sing at once." The office manager’s mission is to keep a large group of temperamental, demanding people with diverse interests happy and the office running smoothly.

Mission: Impossible.

As with any group of people, it would be wrong to say that office managers are all alike. They do, however, fit quite nicely into two categories within which gross generalizations can be accurately made.

The first type of office administrator is a former secretary, paralegal or recruiting coordinator who either distinguished himself in his former position or, as is more likely the case, was picked for the job on the spur of the moment when his predecessor either was fired, quit or otherwise was run out by law firm colleagues.

He isn’t trained to run an office, but he is bright enough to learn quickly. Besides, how hard can it be to do an impossible job? The most important thing is that people like him and his winning personality—just what The Firm needs to get over the person who previously held the job.

The second type of office manager holds a graduate degree in human resources, professional administration or some such. She has, very obviously, attended scores of leadership seminars and listened to a few too many motivational tapes.

Office managers, be they personable or Ph.Ds., enjoy a honeymoon of about a day and a half. It all begins to come crashing down after that first executive decision. The following scenario is typical:

The office administrator decides to purchase plastic paper clips instead of the cheaper metal ones the Firm has been using. A penny-pinching partner notices the additional expenditure and raises the issue at the next partnership meeting. Meanwhile, attorneys and staff complain about the new paper clips and begin to badmouth the manager and question his abilities.

After the paper clip debacle, the office manager is second-guessed on everything he does.

Fighting the good fight gets the embattled office administrator nowhere, and he starts to lose his battle for survival. The perennial smile disappears, and he is now disheartened and looks so depressed that people start mistaking him for an attorney.

By the time he actually leaves, he never wants to see another lawyer or law firm again for as long as he lives (except, of course, the lawyer and law firm he hires to sue The Firm upon his departure).

©2003 ABA Journal

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