Empower Your Chief Administrator

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Despite many law firm leaders who get this right, there still are far too many who don’t appreciate all that a top-notch executive director or COO can do for their firms, and who limit their effectiveness by way of short-sighted management practices. A strict requirement for the success of any good law firm principal administrator is to ensure that they and their administrative colleagues are operating effectively, efficiently and with a sense of urgency that matches what lawyers expect. If a principal administrator doesn’t achieve that, he or she won’t survive in the job.

Superior law firm principal administrators, however, bring another valuable dimension to their roles. They are students of the legal services marketplace, conversant in and knowledgeable about the big challenges facing law firms today – competition for clients and lateral partners, the advantages of technology’s modern tools, and the peril inherent in housing or being responsible for their own important, confidential information and that of their clients. They can be leaders for their firms in understanding and delivering what clients want, including new pricing arrangements, a laser-focus on efficiency and process, and partnering with and prioritizing the best interests of the clients.

No matter the skills and attributes of these talented professionals, too often they still are not allowed to have the authority to make important decisions stemming from the realm of their responsibilities, and too often they are treated only as administrators and not the business managers and executives that many of them are. This omission often correlates to firm size, but not always, as there are small firms that get this right and large firms that don’t.

The common denominators of firm leaders who empower their administrators are emotional intelligence, managerial and leadership confidence (and not arrogance), and a thorough understanding of the benefits of a true team orientation. What they also have in common is an understanding that appropriately delegating responsibility and authority from a firm’s partners to others (whether the delegation is to administrative leaders or lawyer leaders) does not mean that owners have to give up the indicia of ownership. Instead, it means that partners should exercise control in those areas where their activities are most valuable to the firm (the delivery of legal services, the training and mentoring of juniors, setting a firm’s strategic course, relationships with clients, and business development), and let others carry out the roles where they can add the most value, unimpeded by ego-centric personalities who just don’t get it.


 

James S. Wilber is a principal with Altman Weil, Inc.  He advises law firms and corporate law departments on administrative structure, management and leadership and is a former practicing lawyer and law office manager. He has placed hundreds of executives and business managers in law firm administrative positions over more than two decades. Contact him at 414.427.5400 or jswilber@altmanweil.com.

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