Surprisingly, it is still not compulsory to have an office manual, but most firms have one.
Office manuals were introduced with legal aid franchising in the 1990s. Franchising was not compulsory at first either, but became mandatory in 2000 for anyone wanting to do publicly funded work. In 1989 the Law Society’s Solicitor’s Office Manual was published.
In the preface, the author (Stephen Hammett) said: ‘[The office manual] contributes in its own way as part of the Society’s overall plan and desire to see management methods and proper business organisation in offices. This is becoming increasingly relevant to those firms who concentrate on legally aided or other publicly funded work. In fact the Legal Aid Board will in the next few years be concentrating on raising standards of office management.’
Although not obligatory, office manuals are essential for firms that want to obtain Lexcel, SQM and the Law Society’s Conveyancing Quality Scheme standards. The requirements of the SRA on diversity, for example, would make life very difficult if you do not have one.
If you have a manual your motives may be varied: to satisfy auditors and retain the quality assurance standard, as well as protecting the firm from complaints or claims, and additionally to provide a resource to train the whole firm.
This book refers to the ‘traditional office manual’, meaning a paper hard copy document that has largely been replaced by an electronic version. Certainly, an updateable single document is easier to use than the dust-collecting folders dotted around the office in different versions (though, presumably, we should retain old versions in case of claims against the firm, so we can demonstrate the policies at the relevant time).
Authors: Vicky Ling, Matthew Moore
£75, Partnership Quality Systems
This book is both a specimen manual and a resource on how to tailor your manual to your firm. An alternative volume is available for sole practitioners. It is a hard copy and the reader can only access a downloadable version by subscribing to Infolegal, an organisation offering consultancy and training services for solicitors. There are different fee levels but £125 is the annual charge for a two- to five-partner firm for standard service. Purchasers of the manual are entitled to a discount on the subscription and subscribers get update alerts. I can understand the practical advantages of this, as even a CD issued with the book would quickly become outdated.
The authors are well known (particularly Vicky Ling in the area of legal aid). Each firm will want to adapt the manual accordingly and will find much value here, including guidance on the distance-selling regulations which we all need to consider.
I do wonder how you get people to use a manual once the managing partner has written it. How do you avoid it being dusted off every three years when the auditor visits? It is an opportunity to inculcate the firm’s values and objectives, and by continual reference to the manual in internal notices, emails and training, hopefully this can be achieved.
The prediction in 1989 about raising standards was correct. I wonder what became of the Legal Aid Board?
David Pickup is a partner at Pickup and Scott Solicitors, Aylesbury