Law Firm Articles

Best Practices in Law Firm
Administration and Administrators:
The Importance of Prior Law Firm Experience

The question invariably arises during any search for senior law firm administrators and business executives: How important is it that candidates have prior experience working in a law firm?

Prior relevant work experience is an important consideration in the hiring of any employee, whether in a law firm or not. Employers obviously place some value on job candidates who have experience similar to the position in question. There is nothing surprising about that. Why, however, does the question take on added importance in a law firm setting? What makes law firms different from most other types of employers?

The Law Firm: An Employer Like No Other

Law firms are owner-operated businesses where the owners are on site every day, where they generally are extremely interested in how the business is being run, and where they often are loath to delegate authority to non-partners or non-shareholders. Law firm partners or shareholders usually are bright and insightful. Sometimes, however, they know less than they think about how the business of a firm should be run. Usually they have little or no educational background in business or management.

The convergence of these phenomena, coupled with the personality makeup of most lawyers, result in a very challenging work environment in law firms for anyone other than the owners (and even then the work environment can be extremely challenging). Administrators — outsiders to some partners — are viewed with suspicion. That means that the partners don’t want to delegate much authority to the administrator in the first place, yet when they do, any perceived lack of good performance is jumped on and often blown out of proportion. Rightfully so, however, owners understand that anyone who is not generating revenue detracts from the profit that otherwise would go to owners. This “loss” of profit is even more unpalatable if the employee is not seen as a superior performer.

Thus, any new law firm administrator is in a precarious position from the very inception of employment. Contrast that with the fact that an administrator’s ability to establish trust and credibility with a firm’s owners is a sine qua non to effective job performance and one can see that a prior law firm credential may help a new administrator over the initial hurdle.

There are other types of employers, of course, that are similar to law firms. Other professional service firms – such as those of accountants, engineers or architects – most immediately come to mind. Of these, accounting firms (especially where consulting practices exist in addition to tax and auditing practices) are probably most similar, yet still it has been our experience that business managers with previous experience in accounting firms can find it daunting to succeed in law firms. Often, their initial reaction is summed up by a question they utter early on: “What do you mean the partners won’t follow orders?” Incredulous, these new administrators learn that the question is apt not only with regard to a partner following an order from the administrator, but even from other partners who sit in positions of firm leadership. The reality is that owners of accounting and consulting firms are much more likely to willingly delegate authority and responsibility both to other owners and to the administrators who support the business.

Which leads us back to the question posed at the beginning: How important is it that senior administrator candidates have prior experience working in a law firm? In my experience of more than 20 years placing senior administrators in major law firms, the best answer is this: All else being equal, candidates who have previous experience working in law firms are more likely to succeed as employees in a new firm and are much more likely to perform well early on in the new job.

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.

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