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    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.

    Dianne Molvig

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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 75, No. 10, October 2002

    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.

    office staffby 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 mode."

    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 office relocations.

    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 direction.

    "The trend is for firms to empower administrators to make business decisions," Kannenberg explains, "and to give them more autonomy in making those decisions."

    Salary Ranges


    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 manager

    High wage

    $62,000

    $,000

    $101,767

    Low wage

    $23,712

    $47,000

    $67,200

    Average wage

    $45,839

    $69,790

    $83,492

    75th percentile

    $55,250

    $80,000

    $92,942

    50th percentile

    $47,000

    $68,266

    $82,500

    25th percentile

    $40,500

    $57,000

    $73,050

    Job title: Office manager

    High wage

    $50,128

    $69,992

    Low wage

    $36,005

    $43,992

    Average wage

    $42,890

    $56,867

    75th percentile

    $46,322

    $65,500

    50th percentile

    $43,472

    $58,344

    25th percentile

    $39,645

    $50,585

    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 work.

    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 firms.

    "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."

    Letting Go

    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 linger?

    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 hell."

    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 economic sense.

    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 running."

    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 hobbies."

    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 contends.

    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 delegate."

    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 full-time manager."

    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, Leanne Yaucher (seated) and 


Barbara Klukas.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 part-time paralegal.

    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 replacement."

    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 hiring one?

    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 org wislawmag wisbar 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."




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