How to Create Standard Operating Procedures for Your Office
Historians believe the first war in recorded history occurred in 2,700 B.C. between the Sumer and Elam civilizations of Mesopotamia, though I suspect a great number of battles occurred before then. The world’s earliest civilizations settled their disputes with adversaries on the battlefield, and history is littered with the remains of those disputes: ravaged cities, forgotten cultures, and the lives of soldiers and non-combatants. At some point, civilizations analyzed the costs of war and developed alternative methods for resolving disputes, like those of international law, negotiation, and treaties.
And yet, while we believe our human nature endows us with the intellect and compassion to resolve disputes amicably, our legal system permits a similar (though less morbid) battlefield for families seeking to resolve their conflicts. In this battlefield, a court relies on the law to “make right,” and, in a paradigm shift from the traditional battlefields of our distant past, the legal battlefield requires that a spouse or parent mask themselves as a party to a case, represented by a lawyer who is, by definition, adversarial toward the other party’s lawyer and, consequently, the other party. As a result, this environment provokes each lawyer to use his/her “might to make right,” regardless of potential detriments to the family.
But, like civilizations that adopted alternative dispute resolution methods in fear of the costs of war, so, too, did the law in its effort to restructure families, rather than destroy them (on the legal battlefield). While every US court must recognize a divorce by virtue of a final judgment of some kind, the law, in a paradigm shift from traditional litigation, can be used as a last resort, families can now settle their disputes by engaging in various courtless divorce processes, each having its own set of pros and cons but all sharing the benefit of avoiding battle. I use Joryn’s Court-less Divorce Processes poster as a visual aid and guide when conducting process consultations, and our clients find it most helpful when determining which process is best for their families.
The Staff Paradigm Shift
So how can your firm remain prominent among its competition while also evolving your family law practice?
The answer, of course, lies with your staff; they must make their own paradigm shift. Though change is hard, and lawyers are often the most resistant to change, it’s especially important that you ensure your staff’s smooth transition by creating standard operating procedures for your office that make adopting change less stressful. Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, is an excellent resource for overcoming any obstacles that stand in the way of your smooth transition.
In my office manager/paralegal role, I oversee these procedures and regularly update our firm’s office manual to reflect changes in the law, court procedures, and office policies. It is crucial that you, too, provide your staff with crystal clear directions, and that they understand these directions so that they may more easily habitualized them.
As the legal field evolves, so, too, must your office ambiance. If your firm does not already, schedule weekly staff meetings and frequent training sessions, and take time to engage your staff’s emotions. How are they adapting to their own paradigm shifts? Is there something your firm could be doing to ensure a smoother transition?
This starts with your firm’s office manual’s policies, operating procedures, and tasks. Because there are office procedures necessary to achieving your mission, your collaborative firm’s office manual should differ from a litigation firm’s office manual. If you expect your staff to make the paradigm shift, why leave your office manual untouched?
It Starts with Policy and Procedures
The task of adapting your office manual to collaborative practice requires time and attention to detail. Utilize these steps to create your collaborative office handbook:
- Start with a standard customizable office handbook, or even your firm’s preexisting manual. Add an organizational chart detailing job positions and descriptions for each. Be as specific as possible, as these will save you valuable time when you post open positions on the internet.
- Add your firm’s mission statement. See Open Palm’s mission statement here.
- Organize and detail the instructional sections. The more detailed your instructional areas are, the more likely your staff will succeed in their work.
- If your firm is devoted solely to courtless services, delete any mention of litigation, unless such information pertains to “the law as the last resort,” and any language that reflects the litigation realm.
- Allow your staff a designated place to buy into the firm’s mission and the tasks required to achieve it. Assign your staff or a supervising staff member to create weekly assignments for each staff member. Review and circulate tasks for any necessary revisions or reassignments.
- Lastly, finalize your office manual with updated staff meeting times and what you expect your staff to have prepared for office meetings.
- Then provide each existing staff member, and each new employee thereafter, a copy or electronic access to the manual. Open Palm provides electronic access so that our staff can take advantage of the software’s search function—eliminating the time required to flip through physical pages and improving our firm’s efficiency.
It Continues by Fostering the Right Environment
To ensure your staff’s successful paradigm shift, you must continue your efforts and foster the right environment, both for your staff and your clients. This starts with office ambiance. Your clients’ first (physical) encounter with your firm occurs when they arrive. Think of this as your firm’s curb appeal. Like homebuyers, clients develop their first impressions before turning off their cars. And remember, first impressions last.
Give thought to the physical structure of your office. Will your clients wait in a lobby or elsewhere? Is that space adequately lit and provide enough seating? Does your firm share its lobby space with other tenants? If so, does your building have cleaning procedures in place for this shared space?
Believe it or not, the first “Hello” clients receive is of your façade and any signs outside, and then your interior décor. Are your clients greeted by stylistic, yet appropriate (for your location) décor? Our clients enjoy a décor inspired by Florida’s biodiversity, and for good reason! Your firm’s décor should not, for example, be inspired by mountain landscapes if you are located in Chicago—perhaps a skyline is more appropriate. Your firm should allow your brand’s theme to permeate its office space. Avoid intermingling differing styles; consistency is key. Implement daily and weekly cleaning procedures to maintain your professional office ambiance.
Your firm’s décor serves an important role in greeting clients, but it is just one of many “Hellos” required of you. First impressions last. You should have a variety of refreshments available for clients, such as water, coffee, tea, and soda (remember to grab diet options, too). Your staff should offer visitors a beverage while they wait. And invite your staff to let their personalities shine during this and every client interaction. I’ll say it again: first impressions last.
If it is your client’s first visit, make sure that a staff member gives him or her a tour of your facilities (conference room, library, kitchen, bathroom, etc.), supplies, and staff (including office pets lurking around). Before the initial consultation, provide clients with preliminary reading materials organized in a folder containing, for example, CVs, articles, books, a participation agreement, and not-retained form. If you do not already, think about which physical supplies you intend to gift him or her. We often gift our clients stress stones (or palms) and leather journals.
In addition, you should provide clients your firm’s and any affiliated collaborative practice groups’ website information, as well as instructions for navigating them. Provide them with a folder containing similar materials for his/her spouse (or co-parent). This should include an invitation letter, consult waiver, participation agreement, etc. Ensure that your consultation begins with a discussion of process options. At times, I conduct initial process consultations with clients and use Joryn’s informative visual poster aids to keep myself and the client focused on processes. (You can purchase Joryn’s posters here.)
And Ends with Engaging Staff Emotions
From outright war to sedate negotiations, emotions play a critical role in making any paradigm shift. Engage your staff’s emotions during meetings and training sessions. Involve your staff in your practice group post-discussions, or recommend they read a few chapters from a book you found useful in crafting your firm’s ambiance. Clients know whether your staff is included and takes pride in your firm’s success; make sure your staff are prepared for and feel comfortable performing their responsibilities. By doing so, you will quickly learn your staff’s strengths and be better apt to play to them.
If you are interested in making the paradigm shift or would like more information about creating standard operating procedures for your office, please do not hesitate to email Joryn (Joryn@OpenPalmLaw.com) or myself (Assistant@OpenPalmLaw.com). As Your Collaborative Marketing Coach, we are here to help. Join us in Changing the Way the World Gets Divorced by visiting our websites: www.OpenPalmLaw.com and www.JorynJenkins.com.