Law firms chronically under invest in training and developing their people. One manifestation of this is the curious persistence of the part-time, combo secretary/paralegal/office manager role in many firms with more than five attorneys.
For a variety of reasons, too many law firm managing partners and executive committees are reluctant to hire professional, full-time office administrators. For example, I recently came across a 20 attorney office that for the past several years had relied on one of its secretaries to manage the office. This might not seem strange to lawyers, but it should. How often do you come across a company that generates annual revenues of between $10 and 20 million that doesn’t have a chief operating officer or some other chief administrator officer? Not very often.
Yet law firms persist in acting as if managing an office of 20 -40 employees isn’t a skill worthy of their attention or resources. They act as if human resources, accounting, finance, IT and related functions can be managed by pretty much anyone. Sometimes it’s a question of money. Some law firms resist paying substantial and competitive salaries to highly qualified administrators because of a misguided reluctance to pay a higher salary to a non-lawyer than is paid to some of the lawyers in the office.
More commonly, however, law firm leaders just don’t have the experience of working with a top-flight manager, and aren’t aware of the extent to which that a person with the right skill set and personality can spur the growth of the law firm. An experienced law firm administrator can free up the law firm partners to focus on serving clients, business development, and charting the future course of the firm. Moreover, in today’s dynamic market for legal services, implementing a growth strategy almost always requires changing and enhancing a firm’s administrative capabilities. To site just one example, a strategic decision to open up a new office requires the firm to engage in a whole host of administrative activities ranging from locating office space, negotiating a lease, creating marketing materials, hiring new personnel, and integrating a new location into the IT system.
This is somewhat of a chicken and egg problem. A high percentage of law firm partners lack the experience and expertise to manage administrative functions. Thus, law firms don’t spend enough time on strategic expansion goals in part because they lack the desire or aptitude to take on larger administrative burdens. As one managing partner told me a few years ago, “managing two offices is a pain.”
It is. That is why law firm administrators can be so helpful. Law firm leaders often complain that they spend too much time on managing inter office personality disputes or what they see as tedious administrative tasks. They complain that they struggle just to do the legal work of serving clients, coupled with submitting their time, and attending some partnership meetings. Very few partners focus on where the firm should be 12-24 months down the road.
A skilled law firm administrator isn’t a panacea. Skilled administrators usually have strong opinions and require partnerships to adjust. Thus, don’t hire an administrator if you think they will automatically rubberstamp every decision made by the partnership. A good law firm administrator will help manage change, and that by definition involves causing some partners and staff members to be pushed out of their comfort zone.
But if you are serious about running a law firm like a true business and want to speed up the process of growing a firm, hire a skilled officer and manager and support them in their efforts.