October 23, 2012

The Evolution of the Professional Administrator

Law Practice Magazine

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April/May 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 3| Page 35

The Evolution of the Professional Administrator

By Robert W. Denney

Only the most senior partners will remember when there were no legal administrators and the managing partner, even in the biggest firms, handled administrative matters on a “when-absolutely-necessary” basis. Since those days, one of the most significant trends in the legal professional has been the continuously growing role of professional firm administrators. To appreciate their importance today, let’s review the evolution of the position.

It began with the appointment of an office manager to handle such routine tasks as ordering supplies, screening secretarial applicants, establishing procedures for incoming and outgoing mail, and scheduling cleaning services. As additional responsibilities were added to the mix—including actually hiring and scheduling support staff, monitoring and controlling overtime, conducting staff evaluations, and ensuring that the computer systems functioned—firms upped the title to office administrator. In many firms, a secretary or legal assistant was promoted from within to fill this position.

Then, as the firms continued to grow and open additional offices, they created the new position of firm administrator, assigning this person expanded responsibilities the lawyers did not have the time, interest or skills to handle. The scope of duties now reached to developing and enforcing personnel policies and benefit programs, assisting in negotiating office leases, negotiating purchasing or leasing of equipment, supervising maintenance of the docket control system, and overseeing the operations of the other offices, which, depending on their size, often had their own office managers. In some firms, the scope of responsibility also included the accounting department, but often firms created the parallel position of business manager or controller to handle financial operations.

At this point in time, law firms began to realize that, in most cases, a former secretary did not have the training or experience to be an effective firm administrator. This led to the birth of the professional legal administrator who, through education, experience and training, was qualified to handle the position. Having previously recognized this need, the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA), which was formed in 1971, had already expanded its mission and operations to educate, train and develop professional administrators involved in the management of legal organizations.

Enter the Top Business Officer

As the practice and operations of large and midsize firms have grown and become infinitely more complex, these firms have continued to expand the role of the non-lawyer professional administrator. In line with this trend, a growing number of firms have further elevated the firm administrator title to that of executive director or chief operating officer (COO). At this high level, the title isn’t as important as the scope of the non-lawyer executive’s role—which may involve responsibility for all the nonlegal functions in the firm. It’s quite a list and can include the following:

  • Recruitment, oversight and development of a team of senior managers to head each of the firm’s functions, as well as the entire administrative and support staff working under the managers
  • The entire financial and accounting operation, including ensuring its automation to the highest possible level
  • Human relations, including HR policies and practices to improve retention of both lawyers and staff
  • Technology and its integration, including developing an integrated database that serves every function
  • Production of a wide range of management reports and interpretation of the included data for firm management
  • Lawyer recruiting to ensure that it is organized, efficient and strategic (rather than just “filling gaps”)
  • In conjunction with the practice groups, lawyer training and development
  • Practice organization and management involving the profitability of practice groups and timekeepers
  • Coordination of marketing and business development with all other functions
  • Ensuring that practice group and lawyer business plans are developed and the accomplishment of plan 
    objectives is regularly measured
  • Non-voting membership on the compensation committee and on the executive or management committee
  • Representing the firm in community, charitable and business organizations
  • Participation in developing and implementing the firm’s strategic plan
  • Support and reinforcement of the firm’s culture

It’s an amazing list of competencies and responsibilities (and a far cry from simply handling mail procedures and cleaning services). Of course, even in some large firms today, as well as in far too many smaller and midsize ones, the senior administrative executive is still underutilized and underappreciated. However, this is not the case in the most successful firms. They realize this top professional position has become invaluable to the firm’s operation and success, in the near term and the long term. LP

About the Author

Bob Denney , President of Robert Denney Associates, Inc., has provided strategic management and marketing counsel to law firms for over 30 years. He can be reached at (610) 964-1938.