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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    October 21, 2021

    Practice Management: The Role of Legal Administrators in U.S. Law Firms

    Think of a legal administrator as the go-to person in your firm responsible for one or more job functions and the engineer who ensures all the trains run on time. Four legal administrators talk about their unique roles.

    Christopher Cody Shattuck

    speeding train wheels

    Legal administrators play vital roles in law firms nationwide. When you think of the varying management structures, law firm sizes and needs, geographical and practice diversities, and ever-changing innovations and competitive legal market, it is difficult to paint a singular portrait of a conventional legal administrator.

    The truth is that legal administrators have a variety of backgrounds, job experiences, and job roles. Think of a legal administrator as the go-to person in your firm responsible for one or more job functions and the engineer who ensures all the trains run on time.

    To gain a better perspective of a legal administrator’s role, I interviewed four legal administrators whose law firms, collectively, have dozens of offices in several states, including Wisconsin.

    Job Duties and Characteristics

    “The role and job description of a legal administrator varies and depends upon the size, needs and leadership structure of the firm or organization. Most legal administrators serve in a management role and this is true for organizations of all sizes. For example, as a former legal administrator in a small firm, I was a manager responsible for overseeing accounting, information technology, human resources, workflow management, facilities and more,” says Jess Beyer, CLM, office manager and human relations manager of DeWitt LLP Law Firm1 and president of the Wisconsin Chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators.

    Christopher C. ShattuckChristopher C. Shattuck, Univ. of La Verne College of Law 2009, M.B.A. U.W.-Oshkosh 2015, is manager of Practice411, the State Bar’s law practice assistance program. If you have questions about the business aspects of your practice, call (800) 957-4670.

    In small firms, legal administrators often have to step into daily production roles when staffing needs arise. “If another team member that is responsible for billing, clerical, paralegal or secretarial work is out of the office or needs some additional assistance during busy times, law firm administrators often step in to address the temporary staffing needs. However, this arrangement is not a feasible long-term solution, as firm administrators need to focus their time managing operations and not engage in day-to-day production activities,” Beyer reasons.

    In medium-size and large firms, legal administrators manage core functions and also serve on or work very closely with the executive leadership team.

    “At my firm, one of my job functions is working on process improvement for onboarding employees, professional development of our staff, supporting employee benefits and payroll, and working closely with our firm’s leadership to support employee engagement,” explains Beyer. “We also have a legal administrator that serves as our firm’s vice president of operations (VPO). The VPO oversees the operations of our entire firm’s operations and works closely with our executive leadership team to help craft and meet our strategic objectives,” Beyer adds.

    The job title is not what makes a legal administrator vital to a firm. Rather it is the individual who brings their own background, energy, experiences, and leadership to a role that adds value to an organization.

    “There are several paths that can lead someone into the field of legal administration. You will see a variety of educational backgrounds, such as people with law, business, accounting, information technology, or management degrees. It is also common to see industry certifications, like Association of Legal Administrators, Society for Human Resource Management, Certified Public Accountant, Project Management Professional, and so on,” Beyer explains.

    “The desired characteristics for a legal administrator will vary and depend on the type of leadership structure in a particular organization. As a baseline, a legal administrator needs to be willing to invoke change when needed and effectively communicate with leadership and employees, while keeping in mind that processes or things that are well planned out do not always go as planned. Also, change is really hard in the legal industry, and a legal administrator needs to have the willingness and mental or cognitive flexibility to navigate the unexpected and get everyone working together toward reaching the organization’s goals,” Beyer concludes.

    Jess Beyer

    “As a baseline, a legal administrator needs to be willing to invoke change when needed and effectively communicate with leadership and employees, while keeping in mind that processes or things that are well planned out do not always go as planned.” – Jess Beyer, CLM, is office manager and human relations manager of DeWitt LLP Law Firm and president of the Wisconsin Chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators.

    Financial and Strategic Planning

    “Proper financial planning is not just a matter of ensuring the financial statements are orderly and kept up to date. Financial planning requires a good working relationship with your clients and financial institution, active supervision of current and future technology plans, managing leasehold interests, ensuring your human resources department has the capital approval for adding employees, and allocating the necessary resources for business development,” says Michael T. Bumgarner, CPA, CLM, CGMA, chief executive officer of Flaherty Sensabaugh Bonasso PLLC2 and president of the Association of Legal Administrators.

    Bumgarner explains that it is uncommon for a legal administrator to serve in the chief executive officer role.

    “A few years ago, our firm went through a succession planning project where the decision was made by our management committee that I would be promoted from chief operating officer to chief executive officer. The reasoning for the decision was to grant my new role the authority to manage the business aspects of our law firm, create a management strategy similar to the ways our clients manage their own businesses, and provide law firm owners with more time to focus on the practice of law. Under the new management structure, the managing member would manage the lawyers and I would be responsible and have authority to run the business.”

    Many law firms use quantifiable metrics or key performance indicators (KPIs) to gauge overall success. Common KPIs include the amount of revenue realized by each revenue generator, number of hours billed, revenue collected each month, client satisfaction review scores, number of new clients and cases per month, and growth in billable hours. Defining, measuring, and ensuring KPIs are being met requires a close collaboration between managing partners and legal administrators.

    “The use of KPIs is important in a firm and is second only to the strategic planning and collaboration that help define and ensure KPIs are being met. Our management committee regularly convenes to discuss billable hours, current or past-due client accounts, whether there is a need to increase attorney and staff in particular areas due to increases in new case referrals, short- and long-term capital expenditures, and opportunities to generate additional revenue. My role is to look at the business side of the services our law firm provides to our clients and identify opportunities to increase efficiencies, revenue, and overall satisfaction, whether for our clients or employees,” Bumgarner said.

    “Lawyers went to law school to learn how to be advocates for their clients. It takes years to become a great attorney, and that requires consistent education, training, and supervision. The same is true for business school graduates seeking to learn the most efficient ways for running businesses. When the two sides get connected on a team and work together, our firm benefits from having more than just a law school-educated approach to problem solving,” Bumgarner asserts.

    Michael Bumgarner

    “My role is to look at the business side of the services our law firm provides to our clients and identify opportunities to increase efficiencies, revenue, and overall satisfaction, whether for our clients or employees.” – Michael Bumgarner, CPA, CLM, CGMA, is chief executive officer of Flaherty Sensabaugh Bonasso PLLC and president of the Association of Legal Administrators.

    Human Resource Management

    “At our firm, our office administrators are responsible for all human resource activities for their respective locations. Our human resource management covers every stage from the initial recruiting to transitions, and everything in between, to include feedback, performance reviews, and opportunities for advancement,” says Daniel S. Peracchi, CLM, office administrator of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP3 and secretary of the Suncoast Chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators.

    It is a significant time investment for firms to recruit and onboard employees, especially in this tight employee-driven job market that has resulted in reduced applications and more bargaining power by skilled employees. “In light of the current labor market, it is now more important than ever to ensure that you are not just trying to find someone who will fill a position, but that you are finding the right person who will excel in your organization’s culture and wants to remain in their role for the long run,” Peracchi explains.

    After an employee joins the firm, there are several opportunities for the human resources team to help the employee increase efficiencies and maintain a proper work-life balance.

    “Performance reviews are a great opportunity to provide annual feedback; however, far more important are the active engagements on a daily or weekly basis. If someone is not meeting their performance objectives, those active engagements will help you determine whether the employee is overwhelmed with their caseload or if there are opportunities to increase efficiencies through additional training, technological automation, or temporarily redirecting additional resources,” Peracchi reasons.

    Another opportunity exists for firms to promote a culture of advancing and developing talent from their own ranks.

    “We firmly believe in developing a deep bench of talented individuals who want to advance their careers with our firm. This process includes strategy discussions with the managing and administrative partners to determine areas where needs are not being met. Next, a job analysis allows us to determine the allocation of tasks and responsibilities and what resources are needed. Internal and external recruitment would follow. We have been actively looking for opportunities where we can develop the necessary skills in house either by entry-level recruiting or the advancement of current staff members to positions of increased responsibility. This takes a considerable amount of time and training of our staff to ensure that they are ready to move into their next role with the firm. As we have progressed staff members into advancing roles, we work closely with them during the transition period to ensure they will thrive and succeed in their new role. It is important for other employees to witness advancements of their colleagues to help maintain a firm’s culture of developing and advancing internal talent,” Peracchi says.

    Transitions are difficult for any firm. Firms that pay particularly close attention to the departure reasons, especially those within their control, are in a better position to learn and make changes to avoid additional related departures in the future.

    “We use technology and active engagements to monitor our staff’s needs and workloads. We are always looking for opportunities to provide our staff with fulfillment at work, a better work culture, and work-life balance. Our staff deserves our best efforts and we also believe our practices are key to employee retention,” Peracchi explains.

    Daniel Peracchi

    “At our firm, our office administrators are responsible for all human resource activities for their respective locations. Our human resource management covers every stage from the initial recruiting to transitions, and everything in between, to include feedback, performance reviews, and opportunities for advancement.” – Daniel Peracchi, CLM, is office administrator of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP and secretary of the Suncoast Chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators.

    Marketing and Technology

    Marketing and technology plans are important for every firm, especially in firms that may not have the resources of larger firms. “As a legal administrator, I work very closely with our staff and managing partner to identify marketing opportunities and ensure our technology accurately captures the data we are seeking to measure,” says Tiffany Ho, director of operations for Rogoway Law Group4 and vice chair of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Committee of the Association of Legal Administrators.

    Common marketing activities in a firm include social media, search engine optimization5, word-of-mouth,6 and other creative marketing strategies that capitalize on current trends or client interests.

    “A successful marketing strategy we employed right before the pandemic was to create a set of compliance and regulation posters. The posters succinctly summarized complex regulations and our current clients really appreciated the quick reference guides. We also received quite a bit of interest for our complimentary posters from potential clients and other businesses in the cannabis industry. The digital demand for the posters also helped increase our rankings on search engines,” Ho says.

    In terms of marketing, firms often opt to either outsource their marketing activities or complete the work in house. “In the past, we worked with an outside marketing agency. We made the decision a few years ago to complete the work in house because we wanted more control over our timelines and needed more data-driven analysis of our marketing efforts. We also use customer relationship management (CRM) software to help manage the journey our clients take through our firm,” Ho explains.

    Data analytics and forecasting help firms determine their return on investment from marketing activities, client acquisition costs, cost expenditures, and future revenue projections.

    “One thing I learned early in my career was that attorneys respond well to data-driven reports. If you can make a case as to why a process should be adopted and the potential for revenue growth or cost savings, that goes a long way in implementing future changes. It is also important in the planning stages to get buy-in from everyone who will be impacted by the change. Firms that act solely upon the direction of managing partners and overlook the opinions of their support staff and associate attorneys will have a more difficult time getting the whole team to adopt and implement changes,” Ho asserts.

    Tiffany Ho

    “As a legal administrator, I work very closely with our staff and managing partner to identify marketing opportunities and ensure our technology accurately captures the data we are seeking to measure.” – Tiffany Ho is director of operations for Rogoway Law Group and vice chair of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Committee of the Association of Legal Administrators.

    Conclusion

    Legal administrators serve in varying management roles and draw on their years of experience and education to add value to firms. Take a look at the management structure in your firm and determine the number of hours your attorneys spend on nonbillable tasks. Organizations looking to increase billable hours and allow their attorneys to focus on practicing law should consider the positive effects of adding legal administrators.

    State Bar Resources for Law Firm Administrators

    As a law firm administrator, you have many responsibilities in your firm. The State Bar of Wisconsin has got you covered with helpful resources:

    Law Office Training Videos – If you want to incorporate training videos for your staff, clients, or contractors, check out our videos at https://marketplace.wisbar.org/Practice-Management/Videos.

    Paralegal Certification from the State Bar of Wisconsin – Visit wisbar.org/paralegal to learn how your paralegals can become certified or to search for other certified paralegals.

    Wisconsin Law Firm Self-Assessment – Ten modules covering a variety of law firm operations that will help guide your firm in reviewing compliance with Wisconsin Supreme Court Rules, available at wisbar.org/lawaudit.  

    Continuing Legal EducationWisbar.org/marketplace hosts many helpful substantive law, trust accounting, data security, and section-sponsored continuing legal education programs that will help your staff and attorneys stay current on important updates. 

    Confidential Consultations – The State Bar of Wisconsin provides confidential consultations to lawyers and their staff on ethics, lawyer wellness, and practice management topics. For more information, visit the ForMembers tab on Wisbar.org.

    Endnotes

    1 Four locations in two states (Wisconsin and Minnesota) with more than 130 attorneys.

    2 Five locations in two states (Kentucky and West Virginia) with 50 attorneys.

    3 Fifty-four offices nationwide with more than 1,600 attorneys.

    4 Three office locations in California with seven attorneys.

    5 See Christopher C. Shattuck & Spencer X. Smith, SEO 101: How to Drive Website Traffic (Wis. Law., Dec. 2020).

    6 See Christopher C. Shattuck, Budget-friendly Marketing Methods to Attract New Clients (Wis. Law., Nov. 2020).

    » Cite this article: 94 Wis. Law. 41-45 (October 2021).


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