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Standard 1.1‑4 on Relations with the Chief Executive

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The governing body has the responsibility to hire the legal aid organization's chief executive and should hold the chief executive accountable for the organization's operations.


Skills Required of the Chief Executive

The legal aid organization's chief executive is the individual hired by the governing body to manage the organization's operations and carry out its policies. The person selected will have a decisive impact on the organization's capacity to serve clients effectively. The position requires diverse skills including:

  • Effective management and leadership skills and the capacity and desire to act decisively and independently to carry out the organization's policies;
  • An understanding of and sensitivity to the needs of clients, including problems unique to the organization's service area(s);
  • The ability to interact well with major ethnic and language groups among the client population;
  • The capacity to work effectively with the governing body; 
  • The ability to maintain effective relations with the organization's staff and participating outside attorneys; 
  • The ability to command the respect of members of the bar, the judiciary, and others in positions of authority in the community;
  • The ability to ensure the integrity and accountability of the organization's programs and operations, including technology;
  • The ability to identify new funding opportunities and the capacity to raise additional resources to support the organization's operations; and
  • The ability to encourage professional development and enhancement of leadership skills among the organization's staff.

No one person will fully possess all of these skills. Different skills may be more important for some organizations than for others. Moreover, the balance of the skills the governing body requires in the chief executive will vary from time to time, depending upon such factors as the organization's history, the stability of its finances and personnel, the organization's priorities, future plans, and the skills reflected in other members of the organization's management team. It is the job of the governing body to find a chief executive with those management skills best suited to running a high-quality organization. In most instances, the governing body will determine that the chief executive of a legal aid organization should be an attorney. The governing body, however, may determine that a non-attorney candidate meets the criteria established by the governing body and would be the best candidate for the chief executive position. In such instances, the governing body should ensure that attorney-members of the organization's management are available to provide appropriate supervision to its practitioners.

Recruitment and Selection of the Chief Executive

In selecting the organization's chief executive, the governing body should seek to recruit a variety of qualified candidates, including those of diverse backgrounds, such as persons with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ and historically underrepresented candidates. If the client community is made up mostly of communities of color, the leadership and staffing needs to reflect the communities being served. Qualified candidates may be recruited both from within the organization's current staff and from the outside the community. To identify qualified outside candidates, the governing body may engage in an effective local, regional, and national recruitment search, advertising the need for a chief executive in a wide variety of print and electronic media. It is important to engage in affirmative, targeted efforts to reach out to qualified candidates through direct recruitment, personal contacts, and in-person interviews with prospective candidates. To assist in this process, governing bodies may engage search consultants or other experts. Affirmative efforts should be made to ensure a varied pool of candidates that reflect the diversity of the legal profession and the client communities served by the organization. 

The governing body should conduct intensive background and reference checks on all finalists to evaluate their experiences and abilities to ensure they meet the established requirements of the job. Recommendations from relevant bar associations may help the governing body assess each candidate's ability to work with the bar to solicit its cooperation and participation in the delivery of legal services. Recommendations from staff members who have worked with the candidates may help identify those candidates who have the requisite management skills and ability to work effectively with staff to maximize their legal skills. Recommendations from clients can help identify those candidates who have the sensitivity and skills necessary to relate effectively to the client communities. 

Where possible, governing bodies should anticipate potential transitions in executive leadership and engage in succession planning before the need to recruit and select a new chief executive arises. When appropriate, the governing body should work with the current chief executive to help develop a cadre of well-qualified internal leaders as well as to identify a pool of potential outside candidates from which the next chief executive can be recruited. 

The Relationship Between the Governing Body and the Chief Executive

A natural tension exists between the policymaking and oversight authority of the governing body and the chief executive's responsibility for day-to-day operations. This can be overcome if the governing body and chief executive develop an honest, open relationship based on mutual trust and a clear and specific delineation of areas of responsibility and authority.

The chief executive typically has authority for the organization's day-to-day operations; including implementation of the service delivery plan; recruitment of staff and participating outside attorneys; approval of major litigation, such as class actions and appeals, and of other major representation efforts; and approval of significant litigation expenses, as well as administration of established personnel policies, including decisions on individual salaries, hiring, firing, and otherwise disciplining staff. The chief executive is also often the public face of the legal aid organization.

Other operational areas should define the division of authority between the governing body and the chief executive, including, for example, the hiring and firing of senior administrative and management staff and the purchase of major equipment. In other areas, such as fundraising, the responsibility will be shared by the governing body and the chief executive.

The specific delineation of authority in all these areas is a matter of local judgment and decision. The governing body and the chief executive should reach a specific agreement about where responsibility in each area lies and how to resolve questions about who has responsibility to make decisions regarding unanticipated issues that may arise from time to time. In addition, they should agree upon a mechanism for the chief executive to make reports on a defined, periodic basis to the governing body on appropriate issues.

Oversight and Evaluation of the Chief Executive

The governing body should exercise continued oversight of the chief executive's work through ongoing review of the organization's operations and evaluations, conducted on a defined, periodic basis of the chief executive's performance. Like any staff member, the chief executive is entitled to constructive criticism as well as positive feedback on job performance. The governing body should establish a policy for annual review of compensation for the chief executive and, when appropriate, for salary increases or additional benefits.

The governing body should act directly, fairly and in a timely manner when it detects serious problems in the chief executive's performance. The chief executive should be advised of the nature of any perceived deficiencies and of the steps, if any, that the governing body determines are necessary to cure them. If appropriate steps are not taken to cure the deficiencies that have been identified and the governing body determines that it is in the organization's best interest to remove the chief executive, the governing body should do so in a manner that minimizes trauma to the organization, its staff, or its clients. Failure to act in a timely manner to remove an ineffective chief executive may leave the organization with long-term problems. 

Nevertheless, the governing body should not act precipitously to remove the chief executive, and should ensure that its actions are, and are perceived to be, fair. Before taking such action, the governing body should make sure that it has obtained a full understanding of the facts surrounding the alleged failures of the chief executive and has afforded the chief executive the opportunity for response, explanation and, if possible, correction. As personnel discussions, these evaluations should remain confidential in order to support the chief executive who may remain in that role following the evaluation.