Best Practices in Law Firm Administration and Administrators: If You're Not Ready to Take the Plunge...

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By far the most important factor bearing on the success of a law firm principal administrator is the degree to which the firm is ready, willing and able to delegate the requisite authority needed to carry out the responsibilities of the position.  Loading up an administrator with important job duties without the authority to make the tough decisions and actively manage the firm’s administration is unfair to the administrator and to the firm. This issue is accurately described by a cartoon I saw years ago. Its message: “If you want a manager to do a job, give her the authority she needs. If you want to do a job on a manager, give her the responsibility without the authority.”

Obviously, law firm partners are bright and insightful.  Sometimes, however, they know less than they think they do about how the business of a firm should be handled.  This, coupled with the personality makeup of most lawyers, can result in a very challenging work environment for ‘non-lawyers’ in law firms.  Administrators – outsiders to some partners – are viewed with skepticism.  That means that many partners are not inclined to delegate much authority to the administrator in the first place, and thus, an administrator’s ability to establish trust and credibility with a firm’s owners is a sine qua non to effective job performance.

Every firm falls somewhere on a spectrum, in terms of its willingness to delegate broad authority to its principal administrator.  Progressive firms understand that if the hiring is done correctly, their administrators are better trained and more experienced at handling the business management activities of the firm than is any partner.  Progressive firms thus delegate as much authority as they do responsibility. 

Firms on the other end of the spectrum simply don’t get it.  Either they fail to understand the important management principle underlying the issue, or they are accustomed to having practicing lawyers handle the firm’s administration and don’t understand that a trained business manager can do it cheaper, faster and better than most partners.  At some firms the history of administration being handled by lawyers is so engrained that they never will give anyone who is not a partner the authority needed to succeed in the position.

Which isn’t to say that any administrator, no matter how well trained and experienced, can expect to walk in the door of a law firm and be awarded the authority (or responsibility for that matter) needed to do the job. Instead, that authority has to be earned through job performance and over time.  All good law firm administrators understand that they have to prove themselves.   They must establish credibility to earn the trust, respect and confidence of key partners before authority and decision-making power is delegated to them. 

If a firm is not able to trust a non-partner to have a large role in its business management, they are well advised not to seek a high-performing, top-level administrator in the first place.  Inevitably, there will be a mismatch between what the administrator can do, and what the firm will allow the administrator to do.  The firm should save its money, and spare the unfortunate administrator the frustration of being thwarted in his or her efforts to help the firm succeed.

Of course, the ideal situation is to define the position clearly, hire the best administrator possible, and let that person have wide latitude in running the business affairs of the firm on a day to day basis. Doing so will result in a more profitable and better managed law firm, and the position will more than pay for itself. Far more. 



Jim Wilber has placed hundreds of law firm executives and business managers over two decades.  He advises law firms on administrative structure, management and leadership and is a former practicing lawyer and law office manager.  Contact Jim at jswilber@altmanweil.com

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