October 23, 2012

Choosing Your First Administrator: Pointers and Pitfalls Learned Through Experience

Law Practice Magazine

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April/May 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 3| Page 37

Choosing Your First Administrator: Pointers and Pitfalls Learned Through Experience


Twenty years ago when I joined my current law firm, it was led by a benevolent managing partner. He was aided in daily operations by a former paralegal who had been elevated to business manager. Thirteen years later, he decided to step down and put himself on a short track to retirement, and shortly thereafter, I was elected managing partner. At this point, the firm faced a new set of leadership questions.

Having expanded one lawyer and staff member at a time in the preceding years, we had now grown from six lawyers to fifteen, with a total employment of over 40 people. Even so, my partners still expected me to maintain a full-time practice. It was apparent that I was going to need some help handling the firm’s day-to-day operations.

But what kind of help? Generally, even in the smallest firms, a legal assistant dedicated to substantive work, or sometimes a receptionist, is given some responsibilities in the area of firm administration. This is what had happened with us, in the form of the paralegal-turned-business manager. But as a firm gets larger, administrative tasks increase in quantity and complexity—and it needs a qualified person to perform those tasks without the constant oversight of the partners, so that client work doesn’t suffer.

We had never had more than a business manager to help with simple administrative tasks. We had heard about full-time administrators, but now we had to ask ourselves: What is a firm administrator? Is it something only for the big firms? Did we need one, or would our current business manager suffice?

It is my belief that any firm with more than 12 lawyers and staff members needs to consider hiring a firm administrator. At that point in size, fee-generating shareholders, even with the help of a typical business manager, are not able to fully deal with the details. Having come to this realization in our firm, we ended up being faced with two crucial questions. Here is how we approached the questions and the lessons we learned in doing so.

1. Should We Select an Administrator from within the Firm?

In a growing law firm that hasn’t undertaken planning, what often happens is that a legal assistant staff member is elevated to the firm administrator role. One advantage of such a move is that the person being elevated is familiar with the firm. In addition, after looking into the potential salary demands of a professional administrator, partners may like to focus on the short-term financial benefits of hiring from within. We initially made this mistake, and as a result, I was ultimately put in the position of terminating a dedicated 20-year employee.

In most cases, as we learned, the risks of hiring from within outweigh the advantages.

The first risk is the “Peter Principle” —meaning that it’s possible a competent staff member will be elevated to incompetence. If this occurs, management will be stuck in a situation where hiring a competent administrator is still necessary while simultaneously facing the prospect of losing a very valuable employee. The fact is that it’s very difficult for a firm to successfully place a previously elevated staff member back in a formerly held position.

A second risk is that of creating a “union leader.” The elevated employee was previously just one of many staff members, and staff members spend great amounts of time together. -Camaraderie among firm employees should be seen as a positive. However, it must be remembered that elevating one of the current staff may result in having an administrator who is much more likely to “take sides” not in line with good business decision making, but instead is overly protective of staff interests. Staff discipline and termination may become difficult as a result. I’m not suggesting that management should discriminate based on an assumption that the applicant will necessarily behave in a “union leader” way. However, the interview process for the position should be rigorous and contain serious discussions regarding staff and ownership relations.

2. What Should We Have in Our Administrator’s Job Description?

The choice of who to hire as firm administrator is one of the most important decisions a law firm can make. Hiring the wrong person can lead to problems and division within the firm, as well as wasted organizational resources.

For our first administrator, we considered the following areas in developing a job description for the position our firm needed to fill:

  • General firm operations
  • Human resources management
  • Office administration
  • Marketing duties

However, to be truly effective, the firm administrator must wear many hats beyond these business functions. An administrator needs to be able to communicate effectively with partners, associates, paralegals, legal assistants and other support staff and to lead, guide and direct staff in the pursuit of their work for firm attorneys. Moreover, given the importance of strategic planning, he or she must help lead and direct firm owners as they pursue the firm’s vision. It is therefore critical to only hire an administrator who exhibits strengths in the areas of managing diverse people and activities, coordinating and controlling operational efforts, prioritizing and analyzing needs, and general problem solving.

After first making the mistake of hiring an existing staff member without an adequate job description in place, we fortunately learned from our mistake. We have now had a very effective, dedicated and qualified firm administrator in place for several years.

About the Author

Tom Grella is Managing Partner of McGuire, Wood & Bissette in Asheville, NC. A former Chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section, he is also coauthor of The Lawyer’s Guide to Strategic Planning: Defining, Setting and Achieving Your Firm’s Goals ( ABA, 2004).