October 23, 2012

Invitation to Succeed: Advice on Integrating Professional Management into Your Firm

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April/May 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 3| Page 39


Invitation to Succeed: Advice on Integrating Professional Management into Your Firm

THE SCENARIO Clark looked at the e-mail confirming that the new administrator had accepted the firm’s offer. This would mean a big change for the firm. He had no doubt it was the right decision to finally hire a full-time administrator, as they had clearly reached a point where running the office wasn’t the best use of his time. He had too many other duties as managing partner, and both the firm and his practice were suffering. But now he was more concerned with the transition issues.

How would the staff handle taking instructions from the new administrator? Would she be able to handle the difficult situations on her own? How long would it take for the people in the firm to stop coming to him every time they wanted a decision? He was especially concerned about Maxine, their senior paralegal, who considered herself a bit of a queen bee and wouldn’t take kindly to receiving orders from someone younger, and with little experience in the firm. And he knew that at least one of his partners would back up Maxine, given how long she’d worked for him. There were the other partners, too … he needed to find a way to tell them they would have to alter their current ways of doing certain things and let the administrator sort out the day-to-day problems. She would have a lot to do beyond that, too, with performance reviews, a new office procedures manual and an aggressive strategic plan all part of her mandate. Clark needed to identify some positive steps to set up the administrator for success. He also wondered what things might set her up for failure and how he could stay ahead of those issues during the transition. 


Paving the Road to a Successful Transition

Cynthia A. Bauer is Chief Operating Officer at Primmer Piper Eggleston & Cramer PC in Burlington, VT.

Clark, while the concerns you have are valid, a carefully thought-out plan to address these issues will help make your new hire a success. Paramount will be obtaining consensus among all partners to support the new administrator. You should meet personally with each of them to ask for their support, emphasizing that confidence in—and respect for—the chosen candidate must be reflected by all. Do not allow your new administrator’s authority to be undermined. Otherwise, lawyers and staff will begin to lose confidence in the administrator and revert back to their old channels of command.

• Preparing the partners. When meeting with your partners, keep these discussion points in mind:

• A united front. Explain the importance of all shareholders presenting a united front to the firm’s employees, making support for the new administrator clear throughout the firm.

• The chain of command. Ask your partners to direct employees to the administrator when they are asked to solve problems. Explain that this will enable her to take on appropriate responsibilities and prove her abilities. In this way, the new hire will more quickly grasp the culture and problems at the firm and become a valued resource for partners and staff.

• An open-door policy. The administrator will likely need partners’ input to explain or resolve some issues. Ask your partners to make sure the new administrator feels welcome and comfortable seeking their counsel.

• The big picture. Remind your partners that the goal of this hire is to allow them and other timekeepers to spend more time practicing law and serving clients. Emphasize that it is time to let the professional management you’ve all hired handle the business and day-to-day running of the office. This will result in a more profitable, efficiently run firm.

• Preparing the staff. You also need to hold a meeting with the staff—including Maxine—before the new administrator arrives. Explain that one of the new administrator’s roles is to ensure that each staff member has the tools he or she needs to succeed. Ask what concerns they have, and address those concerns immediately, before insecurities can fester.

One particular note to stress with both partners and staff is that an efficient and successful law firm benefits everyone. The firm should be a team working together toward a united goal and the new administrator will help achieve this.

Also, if you want your staff to respect the position, then be a model in showing respect and make a statement from the start. If you stuff the administrator’s office in a converted closet behind the copier room, for example, the message you are sending is that this is not an important position. Consider providing your administrator with a senior partner-quality office and an executive title.

• Preparing the administrator. As soon as your new administrator starts work, it will be critical to prepare her for issues and challenges that could arise, which includes conveying any concerns that were voiced at your meetings with partners and staff.

Establishing goals for your new administrator is a great starting point to help ensure success. However, you must consider priorities carefully in the first months—and how you will ensure the partners’ support in those areas. Without their support, you are simply setting up your administrator to fail. You discussed three goals as part of your administrator’s mandate—performance reviews, a new office procedures manual and a strategic plan. Let’s consider each in turn.

It is often difficult to get lawyers to cooperate in completing performance reviews—they do not want to confront employees or be the bad guy with staff or associates. However, for everyone to benefit from the process, supervising lawyers must take the reviews seriously and fully complete the performance evaluation forms. Only then can the new administrator compile the information and work on addressing concerns or conveying praise.

Likewise, the partners must buy into any new office procedures. As an example, if a new time-entry procedure is implemented and the partners do not comply with it, associates and paralegals may feel they are not required to comply with new procedures either. The result is an administrator who loses credibility and cannot achieve the goals she is asked to achieve. And in this case, the firm will be less profitable as billing and collections get delayed. Everyone will lose.

The third goal, strategic planning, clearly requires partner support as well. Absent that, how can any new plan succeed? If, though, you obtain the full partnership’s support for the administrator’s role in the planning process, it will lead to goals being set and plans put in place to achieve those goals one at a time. And as each incremental goal is achieved, it will stimulate further teamwork in support of the strategic plan.

So Clark, if the support is there and you communicate the administrator’s role effectively to everyone, the minor issues you are concerned about will not materialize. Even Maxine will be comforted in knowing that her role as a paralegal will be strengthened and her longtime contribution to the firm will continue to be valued as the firm moves forward. In turn, the partners will not have to “choose sides”—nor should they. They should support each person in the role he or she was hired to do.


Setting Clear and Appropriate Expectations

RUSS BALCOME (rbalcome@telus.net) is a retired legal administrator, with over 30 years of experience. Most recently he was Western Regional Administrator for McCarthy Tétrault LLP.

Meetings with staff and associates prior to the arrival of the new administrator are very important, especially since these meetings can eliminate many of the rumors that are likely already circulating in the firm. Certainly there may be changes to firm operations and procedures as the administrator moves forward in discharging the role that is expected. But the overall goal of the new hire is to make the operations of the business more effective, to help the partners build a more efficient firm, and to allow the lawyers in leadership to concentrate on the job they were trained for: practicing law. You need to set the stage by making this clear in your meetings and stopping misconceptions dead in their tracks.

Here are some additional thoughts that should be considered.

• Firm culture and expectations. It is important, Clark, that you transfer the firm culture and philosophy to the new administrator. This can be done in a variety of methods. Most important is open, frank and ongoing communication between you and the administrator. She needs to hear your real feedback and comments, both positive and negative—don’t sugarcoat it.

Also, will the new administrator report to a management committee—of which she should be a member—both to deal with issues and to obtain overall guidance? You need to be clear about the chain of command and your management structure.

In addition, encourage the new administrator to observe the behavior of the office for a reasonable amount of time, say three months (or other appropriate period), prior to making any significant changes. It is important that she first understands the firm, the issues and the perspectives of the partners, associates and staff. If the administrator has prior experience with another law firm, it is also important to consider the culture and needs of the new law firm, before trying to make it the same as the former firm—the same processes don’t work in all firms.

Also, your administrator should be responsible for developing a team environment to support the lawyers and their clients in the practice of law. Without the cooperation of the lawyers and the staff, she cannot be very effective. The team requires an administrator who develops and guides the staff and helps them to succeed, not one who is ordering people to do tasks. Many of the most successful administrators spend most of their time developing the overall approach to support the practice of law.

• Administrator authority. Partnerships generally operate on a basis of consensus, rather than pure authority. Good decisions—even if they are tough—have a lot of support, while bad decisions don’t get much support. Your new administrator should understand this aspect of the business. In most instances, if firm administrators do a good job of understanding the issues, communicating with the affected parties, and making sure the appropriate partners agree, then their authority will not be challenged. If they don’t cover all the bases, however, regardless of their “documented authority,” they may not succeed.

• Change management. Your administrator should be expected to understand the implications of “changes to processes” before they are implemented in the firm. How will a particular change affect the various parties: partners, associates, paralegals and staff? Proper change-management planning, to make sure all aspects of a project are considered and under control before proceeding, will go a long way toward successful implementation of change in the law firm environment. Therefore, your firm should require the administrator to develop an implementation plan to avoid problems, with particular emphasis on how change will affect (1) the process in question, (2) the technology that will support it, and (3) the people involved. Trying to implement change without a fully developed plan can result in disaster.

• Performance evaluation and two-way communication. The firm’s managing partner or management committee should do a careful formal performance evaluation of the administrator at both the six-month and one-year marks, including feedback from the partners and some of the associates. Frank communication of the results will help ensure the new administrator is on the right track, meeting the expectations of the partners and the firm. If she is not, corrective action needs to be taken at an early date.

All the foregoing should help the new administrator succeed. However, it is also important to emphasize the need to treat her as part of the management team, to make the firm a better place for everyone who works in the firm. Above all, your new administrator should be encouraged to communicate and not feel she is “all alone on an island” in your firm.


Getting the Team on the Same Page

Paula A. Torke is Regional Director at Dorsey & Whitney LLP, in Denver.

Congratulations, Clark, for making the decision to hire a professional administrator. To ensure she succeeds in meeting expectations, it is important to have a detailed job description for her. If you were to research this subject, I think you would find others in the industry claim a greater success rate for administrators where the firms spent time establishing and adhering to a clearly defined job description. This step should really be taken before interviewing for an administrator to help ensure the hire has the skills necessary to perform the specific duties of the job. You should also provide all the partner-shareholders with a copy of the job description. This will help ensure they understand and accept the idea of someone other than a partner making recommendations, preparing agendas for shareholder meetings and participating in the same.

I agree that it is important for a new administrator to observe the behavior of the office for a few months before making any significant changes—and that the new hire take the time to meet with everyone in the office on an individual basis. A tremendous amount of information can be learned during this process. Moreover, it will be invaluable in showing all the members of the firm the new administrator’s commitment to hearing what they have to say and learning about areas that need attention.

The importance of developing a team environment was also mentioned previously. To help promote this, your administrator could think about involving given members of the firm in addressing issues that are near and dear to their hearts. Soliciting help from others can be one of the best ways to gain support on issues requiring some type of change. It also shows respect and confidence in others when you engage them to help in areas where they might not normally work. Most members of a law firm are smart, creative individuals with lots of great ideas on how to make things more effective and efficient.

Lastly, I could not agree more with the comments regarding the need for direct and honest feedback to the administrator. And at all costs, the managing partner should avoid discussing the new administrator’s performance with other members of the firm if he does not intend to also share it with the administrator. Once this type of communication begins, it becomes almost impossible for the new hire to succeed.


Listening and Learning

ROBERT B. LALLEY is former Director of Administration at Much Shelist Denenberg Ament & Rubenstein, PC, in Chicago.

Since this is the firm’s first administrator, everybody at the firm has a lot of learning to do, and the new administrator will need to focus hard on helping the firm family do this. The administrator’s resume should be communicated to the firm, as her previous experiences may be a big help in this respect, as well as offer a level of instant credibility. At the same time, she must do a lot of listening early on to avoid conveying a “know-it-all” attitude, which can be fatal. In this situation, the need for clear, concise and timely communication among all levels at the firm cannot be overemphasized. The managing partner and the new administrator should take the lead in this effort, working hand in glove to convey the notion that to talk to one is to talk to the other.

Based on personal experience, I also suggest that the new administrator go to great lengths to keep the administrative staff informed and up-to-date on the firm’s strategic goals and objectives, particularly including these areas: markets and types of clients that are being served, and with what services; the firm’s marketing strategy; and strengths and weaknesses of the competition.

This knowledge will empower them to do a better job because they will know “why” they are asked to do certain things. I offer this as an alternative to management by edict.

Finally, I sincerely hope that the new administrator has a good sense of humor. It will come in handy.


Moving Forward Strategically

John A. Cummens is Director of Administration at Dunn Carney Allen Higgins & Tongue LLP in Portland, OR.

Clark, two issues may be crucial to the new administrator’s success. The first is whether she is new to legal management or has managed a law firm previously. Depending on the answer, a managing partner’s course of action will be somewhat different (principally focusing on the issue of the administrator’s credibility with the lawyers and staff). Second is who decided to hire a firm administrator in the first place—and what the specific reasons were. Was there a broad base of support for this move? Again, the answer to this can make a significant difference in how the transition is handled.

It is crucial that all partners are in agreement about hiring an administrator, and what their expectations are for what’s to be accomplished over the first six to twelve months. When the new administrator starts, she needs to review these goals and objectives with the managing partner. Then, at a follow-up partners meeting, the objectives and goals should be presented in writing, discussed and agreed on to ensure buy-in from everyone. Otherwise, the venture will be dead in the water.

• The power of persuasion. An administrator’s power comes from developing relationships in which the people of the firm see her as credible, reasonable, knowledgeable and focused on the firm. Also, the administrator must be a good communicator and capable of persuading people to follow “the plan.” This requires that all the partners demonstrate strong, continuous and clear support for the new administrator. This starts in meetings with attorneys and staff prior to the administrator joining the firm in order to explain why a new administrator and why this person.

When I have joined a new firm, I have spent the first week or so meeting individually with each of the lawyers, primarily to ask them what their concerns and interests were and what they wanted their administrator to accomplish. This is also a good approach with the staff, although it may be done as a group meeting. The managing partner and administrator should then review feedback together, discussing any contradictions and possible problems. They must maintain regular and close communication on what the administrator plans to do on various issues, and what may be the problems hiding in the bushes, which also enables a managing partner to suggest a course of action, based on experience with the various players.

• Focus first on quick successes. Rather than having the administrator tackle culturally charged and complex projects like aggressive strategic planning at the start, identify several smaller projects that she can take on first. A few well-placed and visible successes tackling projects of interest to lawyers and staff gives an administrator credibility. The procedures manual might be such a project, as long as it does not involve—at least at first—instituting any radical new policies. It should be largely codifying existing policies and practices, so that everyone will know what is what. Also, its rollout should be a joint venture of the managing partner and the administrator. The key is moving cautiously, strategically (from the perspective of building the administrator’s credibility), and successfully with issues of concern to the partners and staff.

• History lessons. Following a highly successful administrator is difficult (you are always being compared, especially by the Maxines of the world), but since this is your firm’s first administrator, you won’t have that problem. Instead, Clark, because you were previously responsibly for running the office, the difficulty will be “reeducating” people to turn to the administrator going forward.

When one managing partner complained to me about people still coming to him on issues that he thought I should be handling, I suggested that the first comment out of his mouth to them should be, “Have you talked with John?” If they answered no, I advised that he should point down the hall toward my office and say, “Then please talk with John, since this is in his area.” If they answered yes, then he should ask, “What did John say?” and take it from there. This dramatically reduced the number of complaints that came to him. I, of course, kept him informed of brewing issues so that he would not be caught off guard, and he did the same for me.

Based on the success of that experience, I will close by advising that you employ the same tactic in your firm. Being vigilant against your people “reverting to the old channels of command,” as Cynthia phrased it, will be invaluable in giving your administrator the opportunity to shine in her new role.

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