Vol. 75, No. 10, October
Is it Time to Hire an Administrator?
Not every firm may need or want a legal administrator. But what are
some of the signals that it might be time to consider hiring one?
Lagging behind in your accounts receivable, high nonlegal staff
turnover, and unproductive staff could be indicators. Or maybe you're
spending too much time performing administrative tasks yourself and not
enough time practicing law. Read what prompted some firms to hire an
administrator and what tasks those administrators are performing.
by Dianne Molvig
You're a partner in a small law firm, and with each passing year the
demands on your time multiply. Not only do you have clients to keep
happy, but you face endless other tasks related to running your
practice: managing finances, hiring staff, buying technology upgrades,
monitoring insurance policies, ordering new office furniture, finding a
contractor to repair the roof ... the list goes on.
These responsibilities can devour hours of your day, all unbillable.
Something has to give, you tell yourself. But what? Sure, you have staff
to help out, but there's a limit to how much they can do - and how much
you're willing to entrust to them. Some administrative matters only you
and your partners can handle, in your view. After all, your names are on
the office door.
Still, one thought keeps nagging at you: Why am I spending so much of
my time in the office doing everything but practicing law?
That's a question attorney Bob Kohn of Kohn Law Firm, Milwaukee,
grappled with some years ago when he was still a sole practitioner. "As
the practice grew, I was doing more and more nonlawyer work," he
recalls. "I was a jack-of-all-trades."
Eventually, Kohn decided he had to find another way to operate. "If
you're going to grow and prosper in this business," he says, "you can't
run the show yourself. You can't be hands-on forever. I was a hands-on
guy. I started that way, and it took me a while to get out of that
Today, he readily unloads administrative duties onto Brenda Majewski,
his firm's administrator. "I put a lot of responsibility on her
shoulders," he notes, "and rightly so. That's where it should be. I
don't want to run the office. I don't want to be the human resources
guy. I don't want to be the one who manages the bills and finances. I
want to practice law."
Shifting the Burden
Kohn is among a growing number of Wisconsin lawyers who have opted to
ease their time constraints by adding a legal administrator to their
staff. What exactly does a legal administrator do? The nature of the job
varies somewhat from one firm to another. Broadly defined, however, a
legal administrator is a person who is "responsible for nonlegal
administration of the organization," according to the Wisconsin
Association of Legal Administrators (WALA, www.wi-ala.org), which has
about 80 members statewide.
Typical responsibilities may include some or all of the following:
recruiting and supervising nonlegal personnel, participating in
orienting new associates, reviewing finances, preparing budgets and
financial plans, overseeing
physical facilities and equipment, evaluating and helping to select
technology, handling the firm's marketing, and planning and directing
Not only do job descriptions differ among firms, so do job titles.
Administrator and manager are the most common choices. Some view these
two positions as different; others use these titles interchangeably, as
happens with "paralegal" and "legal assistant."
Lori Kannenberg, firm administrator at Lawton & Cates, Madison,
and a former WALA president, says the distinction between an
administrator and a manager lies in the degree of responsibility. A
manager, for example, may attend to supervising staff, bookkeeping,
billing, and so on. An administrator may do that plus get more deeply
involved with all aspects of the business side of the practice,
including having input in setting the firm's strategic business
"The trend is for firms to empower administrators to make business
decisions," Kannenberg explains, "and to give them more autonomy in
making those decisions."
What do firms typically pay their administrators or managers? Below are
results from the Wisconsin Association of Legal Administrators' 2001
Compensation and Benefits Survey. The 2002 survey, to be published later
this month, will be available online at www.wi-ala.org.
Fewer than 15 attys
15 to 35 attys
36 attys or more
Job title: Firm administrator/business
Job title: Office manager
Firm size also enters into what administrators do. A large firm may
have managers for various departments, such as technology, human
resources, accounting, and marketing, and those managers in turn report
to an overall legal administrator. By contrast, a small firm may have a
part-time administrator who spends the remainder of his or her time
performing another function, such as paralegal or legal secretary
Thus, the extent of autonomy and the exact duties vary by firm. "But
what I think is universal," Kannenberg says, "is that administrators
play the role of overseeing the day-to-day operations of the firm,
including supervising staff."
These days, firms of all sizes are bringing administrators on board.
Current WALA president Majewski notes that the fastest growing segment
of the organization's membership is administrators from smaller
"I think once your firm gets to be between seven and 10 lawyers, you
need to start thinking about having a full-time administrator," advises
Cindy Johnson of CareerTrac Professional Group, a Milwaukee law firm
placement company. But even smaller firms have taken this step. For
instance, Johnson is working with a four-attorney firm that's interested
in developing an administrator position.
Kohn, whose firm now has two partners and two associates, took on an
administrator when he was still a sole practitioner. He acknowledges
that his is a special case; his firm does a high volume of collections
work and has a support staff of 36 people. While still a solo, he had
six support staff, and he saw a need for an administrator even then.
Thus, it depends not only on firm size, but also the nature of the
practice - and, perhaps more than anything, on how willing the firm's
partners are to turn over administrative responsibilities.
"A lot of lawyers don't realize how much time they're wasting,"
Johnson points out, "and how valuable an administrator is. They still
think they have to do it all themselves."
With lawyers feeling increasing pressures at the office and finding
it harder to find time for their personal lives - as evidenced by
various Bar survey results - why does the "I'll do it myself" attitude
Part of it is the difficulty of letting go of management decisions.
In her 35 years of working with lawyers, "I have found that lawyers
don't like to relinquish responsibilities," Johnson says.
Lawyers, too, recognize this trait in their midst. "If you're going
to buy a copy machine," observes Green Bay attorney Greg Conway, "there
are people who will sit down and make a chart" to analyze the decision
in detail. "Meanwhile," he adds, "their (billable) hours are going to
Conway's 22-lawyer firm, Liebmann, Conway, Olejniczak & Jerry,
hired its first administrator about 15 years ago. As current managing
partner, Conway says it's important that he allow the firm's
administrator to do his job. "Scott (Heintz) knows how to do this
stuff," Conway notes, "and 99 percent of the time he's right. The other
1 percent, when I would have done something differently, I shut up. I
don't want to encourage constant reporting."
Another reason firms choose not to hire an administrator is because
they want to avoid adding another salary to the payroll, especially in
today's economic climate. Instead, the firms' partners opt to continue
handling administration themselves.
Johnson suggests another way to look at the affordability question.
"Keep track of your nonbillable hours," she suggests. "Calculate the
time you're spending on finances, marketing, personnel, and so on, and
multiply that by your billing rate." That exercise, she notes, may
transform a firm's outlook on whether hiring a legal administrator makes
Bear in mind, also, suggests Madison attorney Tom Solheim of Solheim
Billing & Grimmer, "You're paying for administrative services now,
one way or another. You may be paying for it in reduced ability to
produce revenues because you're taking all this time to keep the firm
Or you may be paying in other ways. Attending to administrative
matters "may come out of billable time," Solheim points out, "but I
suspect it mostly comes out of time for leisure, family, exercise, and
What to Look For
A legal administrator should offer a blend of financial and human
resource management expertise, Johnson advises. Still, she says, lawyers
often downplay the human resources side. "Accounting is bottom line,"
she notes, "so it's easier to comprehend because it's dealing with
numbers. It's nonemotional."
But the human resource management aspect of a law practice, although
less concrete, is equally critical, Johnson emphasizes. First of all, it
means avoiding legal quagmires in dealing with employee terminations,
harassment claims, and discrimination complaints. Most importantly, it
can boost the ordinary daily functioning of the firm, Johnson
She cites the environment that human resources administrator Bob
Isacson has created at Milwaukee-based Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren. For
instance, monthly social functions mix everybody together, unlike the
usual scene where lawyers, legal secretaries, and paralegals each hang
out in separate enclaves. As a result of this and other efforts, "there
is a lot of camaraderie in that firm," Johnson observes. Turnover is
almost nil. And people who do leave usually end up eager to be hired
back. That kind of continuity benefits everybody in the firm.
Finding an administrator with a background in both finances and human
resources can be difficult, Johnson concedes. Usually, a candidate's
strengths will lie in one area more than the other. Some administrators
may need additional training to carry out all duties of the job. That's
why Johnson encourages new administrators to join WALA, which offers
training specifically focused on administration in law firms, as opposed
to other types of organizations.
Understanding the nature of law firms - or being able to absorb it on
the job - is another vital job qualification. Moreover, it helps if
administrators understand lawyers' particular idiosyncracies. "Lawyers
like to take charge," Solheim notes, "and it goes contrary to our nature
to delegate important matters to other people. It's helpful if the
manager knows that about lawyers and can help us learn how to
That points to the multifaceted nature of the job, requiring more
than hard skills. "Sometimes you're a mediator," Solheim says,
"sometimes an affirmer, and sometimes a person who listens to troubles.
It involves a lot of tricky aspects."
Where to Look
Dianne Molvig operates Access
Information Service, a Madison research, writing, and editing service.
She is a frequent contributor to area publications.
Some firms hire a legal administrator from outside, while others look
within their ranks. In the latter, a legal secretary or paralegal
eventually becomes an administrator. Such was the case at Solheim
Billing & Grimmer in Madison. The three founding attorneys launched
the practice in 1994, and one year later, with two more attorneys on
staff, they saw a need for their secretary-turned-office manager to take
on additional administrative tasks.
"We were lucky that Monica (Hansen) could grow in the position,"
Solheim says, "and that she was willing to help out with clerical things
for the first year, when we didn't have enough management work for a
Today the firm has nine attorneys, and Hansen's job likely will
continue to evolve as the firm's needs change, according to Solheim. For
instance, the firm may hire a bookkeeper to free up more of Hansen's
time for expanded administrative duties.
Before Liebmann, Conway, Olejniczak & Jerry hired an
administrator, the firm's partners divided up administrative duties,
"very inefficiently," Conway adds. "People at meetings would promise to
take care of something, then they'd get busy and wouldn't do it. It
became chaotic." At that stage, a couple of legal secretaries took on
certain administrative tasks. That, too, became unworkable. Growing
portions of time spent on administration meant the secretaries weren't
as available to the lawyers they worked for. When neither secretary
wanted to switch permanently to the administrator's job, the firm hired
from the outside.
Dick Hemming, president of Consigny, Andrews,
Hemming & Grant in Janesville, prefers to train from within. When
Leanne Yaucher (seated) and Barbara Klukas evolved into the business
manager and the human resources administrator, others in the 12-lawyer
firm filled the vacated posts
Hiring from within means the new administrator already is familiar
with the firm's culture and the individuals in the firm.
Counterbalancing that advantage are some special challenges. For one, a
staff member who has worked alongside coworkers may feel uneasy about
becoming their supervisor. And those former coworkers may harbor
resentments about the administrator's new role.
Another potential problem with in-house hiring is that the top
candidates for the administrator's job may be the very employees that
individual lawyers in the firm don't want to lose. They'd rather hang on
to those people as their secretaries or paralegals, even though it may
be in the firm's best interest that they become administrators.
Dick Hemming of Consigny, Andrews, Hemming & Grant in Janesville
offers a solution to that quandary: foresee the need and train from
within. At his firm, two support staff, Leanne Yaucher and Barbara
Klukas, have evolved into the business manager and the human resources
administrator, respectively. When they moved up, others in the firm were
ready to fill in the vacated posts, although Klukas continues as a
To learn more ...
For a broader look at law firm administration in the context of firm
economics, please see The
Economics of Practicing Law: A 2001 Snapshot, by Dianne Molvig, in
the December 2001 Wisconsin Lawyer.
2001 Survey Report available. The Economics of Law
Practice in Wisconsin - 2001 Survey Report is available for purchase.
The special member price of $19.95 includes the report and any
additional analysis specific to your individual practice setting or
assistance needed in interpreting the information presented. Nonmembers
may purchase the report for $59.95. To order the report, or view the
report's introduction, go to report,
or contact the State Bar at (800) 728-7788.
Hemming says it's a constant process of bringing in and growing new
talent, and his firm starts early. "Of the last seven or eight
secretaries we've hired," he says, "I think five started with our firm
as co-op students right in high school." While in high school, the
students work part-time, but are treated as full-fledged staff members.
They know they're part of the firm and that jobs await them upon
graduation. Once they finish high school, they obtain two years'
additional training at area technical schools, while still working at
the law firm. As their skills grow, so do their on-the-job
responsibilities. By the time they become full-time employees, they've
already had three years' experience working in the firm.
"We've had so many of them come into the firm and impress us," notes
Hemming, who acts as the 12-lawyer firm's president. "So I think if for
some reason we had to replace Leanne or Barbara, I would hope I would
get some notice, and then I would certainly look within. If someone had
to give up a talented secretary, I'd get busy finding a qualified
Is Now the Time?
Not every firm may need or want a legal administrator. But what are
some of the signals that it might be time to consider the possibility of
What Is Your Experience with Law Firm Administration?
The Wisconsin Lawyer editors would like to hear your thoughts about
this topic. Have you hired an administrator and what is the impact of
this decision? Or are you with a small firm that has figured out how to
succeed without an administrator? What advice do you have for others?
Please email your comments to the editors. We'll collect your
comments for publication.
Lagging behind in dealing with your accounts receivable may be one
indicator. High nonlegal staff turnover could be another. Perhaps your
staff isn't producing as it should be, or you're constantly cornered to
referee employee feuds. And you find it tougher to devote uninterrupted
chunks of time to practicing law.
These are just a few symptoms that indicate something is amiss. But
perhaps the most telling sign, Conway points out, is how you feel at the
end of the day. The time for hiring an administrator is ripe, he says,
"when you were in the office 12 hours and you only marked down six, and
you go home frustrated and discouraged."