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Your next administrator: 5 steps to ensuring a best fit

Many firms have succession plans for managing partners, but not for law firm administrators. As the operational leaders who are responsible for a firm’s day-to-day functions, these staffers possess a great deal of knowledge of your operations that no one else may understand.

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,” law firm management consultants Cynthia Thomas of PLMC Associates and Anna Rappaport of Excelleration LLC suggest these five steps when seeking a replacement:

  1. Identify current duties.  First, revisit your administrator’s job description since his or her duties have likely evolved since it was first created, especially if he or she has been on the job for more than five years. For example, “your current administrator might spend a bigger part of their day helping lawyers with log-in passwords” and other technology than years ago, since more lawyers now work remotely, Thomas said.

    Interview your outgoing administrator to best discover what he or she is actually doing on a daily basis. And, ask the administrator to keep a diary of his or her daily tasks over a month to help craft an accurate description of the position and what you’ll need in your next hire.
  2. Redefine the position.  Next, gather input from others in every department at the firm —­ from those in accounting, to those in marketing, including general staff members, associates and partners — to learn what they need and want.

    Choose a trusted staff member or an outside consultant to sit down with each person. 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.

    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?

    Once you’ve gathered all this input, it’s time to set priorities. Make a list, clarifying the qualities and skills that are “must-haves” versus those that “would-be-nice,” in order of importance. “Focus on the fundamentals first,” Rappaport advised.
  3. Assess leadership gaps. Third, consider how the administrator’s role may have changed since he or she was first hired. What kind of specialized skills does the administrator need now, given how technology may have shifted your billing practices and other daily activities of law practice. And, think about what you might need from your administrator in the years going forward.   
  4. Interview and hire carefully.  Take your time with the interview process. You can improve the odds of making a great hire by looking for an A-player instead of settling for “whomever checks the most boxes.”

    To best understand an applicant’s strengths and weaknesses, dig deep with your interview questions. For example, you might 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 the thought process of your candidates in terms of what you need in an administrator. 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?
  5. 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, suggesting a period of two to three weeks. Have the new hire shadow your 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.

Succession Planning for Your Next Firm Administrator” is available on-demand at no cost to ABA members. The program is sponsored by ABACLE and the ABA Law Practice Division.