Many firms have a written succession plan for transitioning the managing partner role, but not for the operational leaders who are responsible for the firm’s day-to-day functions. Law firm administrators are often in charge or partly in charge of human relations, information and technology, building management and billing and accounting. They coordinate and direct the daily activities of the law firm and often have a great deal of knowledge about the operations of your firm.
If one day your firm administrator announces retirement plans or suddenly becomes gravely ill, you don’t want to be left scrambling. Are you prepared to hire an immediate replacement or bring in a temporary or interim firm administrator?
In the ABA webinar, “Succession Planning for Your Next Firm Administrator,” panelist Cynthia Thomas, a law firm consultant with PLMC Associates in Newbury Park, Calif., suggests following these five steps to maintain efficiency while you look for a replacement:
- Identify and clarify
When your administrator was hired, there was likely a job description that defined their duties. “Ask yourself if that job description needs to be updated,” Thomas said. “Your current administrator might spend a bigger part of their day helping lawyers with log-in passwords, for example,” especially if they have been in the job for more than five years. Interview the outgoing administrator to discover which skills are required and ask for a daily “diary,” documenting their day-to-day tasks. This will help create an accurate description of the position and everything it entails.
You’ll also want to re-evaluate the title of the position by looking at the demographics in your area. “In some areas, certain titles are more popular,” Thomas said.
- Redefine the position and requirements.
Communication is critical to redefining the role of the incoming administrator, said panelist Anna Rappaport of the consulting firm Excelleration LLC in Washington, D.C. Gather input from every department at the firm — accounting, general staff members, associates, docketing manager, marketing department, the outgoing administrator and partners. Choose a trusted staff member or an outside consultant to sit down with each person to ask what they need and want. Avoid having the outgoing administrator perform this task, because “people will want to censor themselves to avoid hurting the feelings of the person who’s currently in that role,” Rappaport said. “Having someone else do it is generally helpful.”
Sample questions might include:
- What do you see as the three most important aspects of the firm administrator’s job?
- What is one skillset that you would love to see the next firm administrator possess?
- What projects would you like the firm administrator to complete in their first year in the job?
As you get answers, be sure to ask follow-up questions, such as “What do you mean by good people skills?” Rappaport said. “To some people, that might mean someone who smiles a lot and is friendly but to someone else, it might mean someone who provides constructive criticism to staff.” In addition to personality traits, you’ll need input about specific skills required, especially if the office administrator doubles as office accountant, for example.
Once you’ve gathered all this input, it’s time to set priorities for this position. Make a list, clarifying the “must-haves” versus “would-be-nice,” in order of importance. Rappaport created a hierarchy of needs for firm administrators, which begins with competency for day-to-day tasks and expands to knowledge and skills to support big picture goals. “It’s important to stay grounded and focus on the fundamentals first,” Rappaport said.
- Assess leadership gaps. Throughout this process, keep in mind what leadership gaps you’ve uncovered. Do you need a risk-taker or is the firm risk averse? Do you want someone who can delegate as opposed to someone who tries to do it all? Leadership skills are important, so develop a leadership test to inform your decision, Thomas said.
- Interviewing and hiring. You can improve the odds of making a great hire by looking for an A-player instead of “settling” for whoever checks the most boxes. To understand an applicant’s strengths and weaknesses, dig deeper with your interview questions and use the applicant’s references. Ask specific questions using names of their references, such as “What would Joan Smith say are your weaknesses?”
Other sample questions might be:
- Tell me about a time you received conflicting messages from different partners and how you handled it?
- Talk about a time in the past year when you had to deal with a difficult team member.
- Describe a situation in which you had to change your leadership approach to get the results you wanted.
Explore their thought processes. Do they see their role as handling everything so the partners don’t have to think about it, or do they want to be told exactly what to do?
- Shadowing. Once you’ve hired someone, don’t rush the transition. “If possible, allow the new administrator to overlap with the old administrator,” Thomas said. Have the new hire shadow the former administrator to learn the ropes. “You want that person to feel free to ask questions and get up to speed.” Remember, succession planning is a process, not a one-time event.