HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF ADMINISTRATORSby Joel A. Rose
A firm establishes lawyer management and employs law office administrators to aid in its successful operation. If a law firm's management and administration are to achieve excellence, lawyers and administrators need to understand conceptually what the firm must accomplish. These concepts are:
All these concepts are bound up with the business side of law practice. Leadership and organization of the firm help them to move successfully.
The Law Office Administrator
Administrators for law firms come in various packages. The need for such a person may have become apparent as the firm grew in size and complexity, and the attorneys saw the need to conserve much more highly paid lawyer time which was increasingly devoted to administration.
In a smaller office, the administrator's functions may be carried out or directed by a senior partner. Or the administrator's position may be a part-time post filled by a senior secretary, bookkeeper, retired person or paralegal.
In somewhat larger offices, a professional is sought who may or may not have a background in law office management. The individual more likely is not an attorney. As an alternative, the firm could use an "administrative partner." In terms of economic value, an administrative partner, usually at the middle level, would lose perhaps $60,000 to $90,000 or more billable time (plus the cost of a full-time lesser management person than a top-flight professional administrator).
In very large firms, the administrator is generally a non-lawyer professional supported by other staff and supervisory personnel. However, in light of today's economic conditions, the firm in its wisdom may conclude that for its purpose and history, the post should be held by an attorney, perhaps one of its own under-utilized partners.
The Administrator's Functions and Relationships
General direction over the various functions of the office administrator is usually provided by a senior partner, a management committee, or a managing partner, and also by the other committees of the firm with which the administrator maintains liaison.
The administrator usually has overall responsibility for implementing the day-to-day administrative, personnel and fiscal functions as agreed upon with the firm's lawyer management.
The authority and responsibilities of the administrator may be classified into broad areas of work, namely:
In some firms, the administrator may be a lawyer or nonlawyer or exceptional capability, operating in an atmosphere of great acceptance by the partners. In such situations, the authority and responsibility of the administrator can be greatly extended.
The administrator should possess the sensitivity and the ability to communicate with and for lawyer management, be a voice for the business side of the law practice and be capable of carrying out the administrative policies of the firm.
An administrator operating at a high level will have a beneficial impact on: retained income, with related contributions to gross income, cash flow, and billings; cost of personnel, logistical support for practice development activities, space, automation and supplies; use of legal assistants (paralegals), secretaries and clericals.
There should also be evidence of a good application of cost-effectiveness concepts; such as: organization planning; managing automation; aiding committees; oral or written communications which support lawyers and are not excessive; providing and interpreting data; good employment, safety and other personnel practices; purchasing policies; and knowledge of the best law office practices.
The administrator can set objectives at the start of each year for areas in which accomplishment can be expected during the coming year, and be judged by performance on these objectives by year-end.
One of the problems for a new nonlawyer administrator of professional caliber or potential is to gain acceptance among the lawyers, and even entrenched non-lawyers.
Some ways that this is accomplished are to:
The administrator who knows how to test the waters will find greater acceptance. The time to test the waters is preferably before anything is directed or reduced to writing. Once a decision is made, or a draft is submitted, by or to the administrator, the author is ready to defend his reasoning.
Even after the decision is made, an open door for further discussion or interpretation, or "a seven-day rule" (a device whereby any executive decision (other than emergencies) was communicated to all the partners who were given the opportunity of raising objections within that period of time) may aid in the acceptance of decisions. Some policies and procedures take a long time before general acceptance and some may need modification or change if they cannot stand the test of time.
The administrator should be familiar with the data system and methodology of the income distribution system. The professional administrator can help to insure an orderly compilation, analysis and presentation of important data. By participating in the preparation or written plans, the administrator will often make a valuable contribution to lawyer management.
Each lawyer controls for the client and his or her firm the management and economics of the cases for which he or she is responsible. As an originator or maintainer of client work, a lawyer needs to be responsive to the business development and income distribution policies of the office. It is the response of the individual lawyer, in support of a professional management approach, that enables the law office to provide a prompt, effective and profitable service.
One creative contribution, such as the development of a new area of law or the establishment of a very important branch office, may be of unusual long-range importance. It is the cooperation of the team in support of an innovative management that brings the total, well-rounded result. The law office must consider and utilize ways to examine the development of new clients or client areas, and further development and retention of current clients. It needs to review its receipts from specific fields of practice and analyze the pattern of continuing clients. Each lawyer needs to be aware of his or her own market area, including specialty needs, and the population, industry or other growth contraction that may affect their practice. He or she should find ways of determining client reaction and opinion to their work product and economics. The administrator can help prepare and analyze these trends.
Effectiveness, in terms of a quality professional service, and a satisfactory income at appropriate costs, is the main objective. Efficiency is subordinate to effectiveness.
For example, a lawyer who is a brilliant litigator may be unable to use automated equipment. His or her work may not emerge in time from the typing center, thereby causing emotional disturbance during an important case, because of an imposed system, which may be tremendously costly to the firm. Another litigator may be better at drafting and more conscious of informing the administrator of his or her priorities. This attorney delights in the fact that automated typing retrieves and produces hard copy in a matter of minutes. The administrator should have a continuing role in how automation, system and personnel should be managed to aid in the effectiveness of the individual producers of income.
Cost-Effective Management is becoming a more frequently used term in law office management, both in private practice or in corporate law developments. The administrator should be utilized to evaluate an individual's performance in aiding cost-effectiveness.
Every private practice firms needs to provide economically justifiable billings both for its clients and its own profitability. To do this, the firm must evaluate its operations. Among the factors to be considered are:
And the firm's management has to evaluate the administrator. More law firm are using the following factors for such an evaluation:
Good Management Needed More Than Ever
The managers of today, in any enterprise, are operating in a period where all concepts and values are being questioned, where change is more rapid. Social, technological and human relationships require a heightened sensitivity. We are in a period when people don't like to feel managed, but perhaps, for that reason, good management is needed more than ever, if the law firm is to be both responsive and achieving.
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