Duties of a New Law Firm Administrator

RJH Consulting

By: Krystal Champlin

Volume X / Number 1:: JANUARY 2001
(Reprinted with permission of Ardmore Publishing Company)

Reader Question Submitted by (name withheld by request):

What are the duties of a new law firm administrator?

Question: Our office is small, and we have never had a law firm administrator. Now the attorneys have asked me to become the administrator. What duties should be assigned to the position? How should the announcement be made to staff? And what should I do to ensure success in the new position?

Although duties vary depending on the size of the firm and the philosophy of the partners, there are three categories of responsibilities every administrator should take care of, says attorney Bob Henderson of RJH Consulting.

Those categories are the finances, the facility, and the personnel.

Henderson knows law firms from both sides. Before becoming a consultant, he practiced law for 38 years and was managing partner of his firm.

The financial duties, he says, include overseeing all the accounting functions such as billing, collections, and budgeting. The administrator should also have the authority to call the firm’s CPA for financial assistance.

The facility management responsibilities include the purchase and maintenance of the equipment, the furniture, computer systems, and supplies.

And the personnel responsibilities are basically dealing with the people problems and making recom­mendations for hiring and firing.

The extent of the personnel authority will vary according to the firm. Large firms often give the law firm administrator the authority to hire and fire without attorney approval. In smaller firms, however, the rela­tionship between the attorneys and their assistants is close, and the attorneys want a say-so in the decision. In those firms, the law firm administrator usually interviews, screens, and recommends applicants for staff positions while the actual hiring decision stays with the attor­neys.

Get A Written Job Description
Have “a frank discussion” with the partners and ask them to decide exactly what duties they want the posi­tion to carry, Henderson says. Then put each item in writing as a formal job description.

But that’s only half the battle.

The most difficult obstacle new administrators encounter is getting the authority to carry out their jobs. Many a small firm promotes someone internally to take over the responsibilities and then doesn’t give that person the authority to carry them out. Instead, the attorneys “hang on to control” and “have a tenden­cy to micromanage.”

Bring that concern up in the discussion with the attorneys, he says.
Point out that without authority, the law firm administrator won’t be able to manage the staff. Point out too that overseeing the administrative work means money loss. That work only takes “highly skilled and highly paid partners away from practicing law and makes them perform functions that should be performed by management.”

Tell them that a good balance is for the partners to be responsible for establishing the overall firm poli­cies and for the law firm administrator “to have the power to make prompt, aggressive business decisions pursuant to those policies.”
Make It Official With A Title
Another item essential for success is a title. That helps as much as anything in retaining the authority.

Sometimes firms don’t give a title, and what hap­pens is that staff perceive the new law firm administrator as someone who’s merely doing more work, not as some­one who has a higher position.

Ask for “an official designation such as manager or law firm administrator,” Henderson says. He finds that the most effective title is administrator, because “it denotes a more professional image.”
Post It All In Public
To assume the new authority effectively, post the job description in a “conspicuous place in the office” so everyone can see that the law firm administrator has the authority to carry out those duties.

Doing that also shows staff that the partners have “bought into the job description” and will back the administrator on all decisions.
From The Mouth Of The Partner
The announcement to staff also has to be done with caution.

The managing partner needs to meet with staff to announce the promotion and also to go over every item in the job description so staff will know what to expect.

The partner needs to say that staff should always go first to the law firm administrator with any questions they have about the office.

All that drives home the point that the administra­tor has the responsibility and the authority to carry out the job plus the partners’ support. It’s a clear message that no one can “go behind the administrator’s back and get favorable consideration.”

Why New Administrators Fail
  • Henderson cites seven reasons why new adminis­trators fail— and in some cases even get fired:
  • Poorly defined goals. The attorneys have “no idea what they want the new law firm administrator to accom­plish.” To avoid that danger, outline goals at the beginning of each year. Ask the attorneys what they want most- to improve collections or reduce turnover or whatever-and make those the goals for the year.
  • No clearly defined person or committee for the law firm administrator to report to. Ask the attorneys to name just one person to report to, Henderson says. Otherwise, the administrator winds up with “10 or 12 bosses” and no clear direction.
  • Differing levels of partner expectations. Get the partners to decide on exactly what the administra­tor needs to be responsible for. Without that decision, there will always be disagreement on whether the administrator is doing a good job.
  • Failure to honor the administrator’s authority. Tell the attorneys that the authority they confer has to stick. Point out that if they give the administrator the authority to fire and then rehire a staffer who has been fired, the administrator will lose credibility and won’t be able to manage the staff.

More Causes of Failure
  • Not allowing the law firm administrator to make mis­takes. Tell the partners to expect mistakes, and explain that it’s not fair for a first-timer to be “called on the carpet the first time a mistake happens.” Point out that when there are mistakes, they will be correct­ed and not repeated.
  • Mismatched management styles between the managing partner and the administrator. Ask the managing partner how he or she wants situations han­dled and what sort of business and financial informa­tion to provide. That’s simply a matter of personality, but it’s a matter that has to be honored, Henderson says. If the managing partner wants bare facts and the administrator wants to go over every minute detail, the partner won’t be satisfied with the administrator’s performance.
  • Partner power struggles - Those have to be addressed as they occur or the administrator will be nothing more than “a pawn in a chess game.” If one partner gives a directive and another says to do the opposite, whose order gets followed? Either way, “the law firm administrator will make somebody mad.

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