I’ve written about this in the past but it merits repeating.  As you critique your past year and prepare to make plans for the year coming, consider one of the best ways to improve your efficiency and promote productivity in the firm.  Professional legal managers (office manager or COO, Accounting Manager, Marketing Manger, HR Manager, IT Manager, etc.) are the hidden gems of successful firms.  Here’s why:

  1. Management is their core competency. It’s true that they don’t meet with potential new clients or practice law.  Those are the lawyers’ core competencies.  Managers manage – and law firm managers (in the right conditions) tend to do this extremely well. They act as silent partners, working behind the scenes to create the best possible circumstances for the lawyers to do what they do.  Management makes sure technology works, that accounts are overseen, that marketing ground-work is done, that staff are there and ready to help.  Lawyers might believe they can do these things but honestly, they can’t do them nearly as well and trying takes up valuable billing time and often causes issues that then take twice as long to clean up.  Oversee them, certainly.  But let the management professionals do the day-to-day management.
  2. It’s far more cost-efficient to have managers manage your firm. Let’s say that a lawyer in your (smaller) firm charges $350/hour.  I would imagine your office administrator likely makes closer to $50/hour.  It makes not sense to have the lawyer attempt to manage the firm when it’s not their core competency and it costs the firm $300/hour.   Yet too often, law firms allow lawyers to take on these position (or micro-manage those in these positions).  Leave law firm management to law firm managers and I promise, we won’t show up for court one day in your place.
  3. They know law firms, so there’s less of a chance they’ll get frustrated with you and leave. The legal industry is the toughest one to manage. Lawyers like autonomy (ever hear the expression “herding cats”?)  They have a low tolerance for risk or change.  They believe in their hearts that they can do everything better than anyone else.   These characteristics combine to make change occur in a law firm at a snail’s pace.  Most mangers won’t put up with that. But law firm managers are used to it.  They know tricks to get Partnerships more comfortable with change. They make shifts happen in increments, so it’s less scary. They look at calendars instead of stop-watches to measure progress.  They’re ridiculously patient with law firms because they play the long game.
  4. They tend to be passionate about their specialty area. In order to stick within the legal industry, you have to LOVE what you do.  It’s rare to meet a professional legal manager that isn’t passionate about their specialty area.  They want to do their best, always.  They want to take the firm to that next level.  They are proud of their teams.  They want to be there.
  5. They are experts at leading from below. Not only are lawyers impossible to herd, but they don’t like being told what to do.  Even if the person telling them is an expert that they’ve paid to tell them what to do.  So, law firm managers have become experts at encouraging change by making the lawyers feel like it was their idea all along. We call that “leading from below”.  How prevalent is this skill? Let’s just say you probably have no idea what you’ve been “encouraged” to do this past year.
  6. When respected and given the space to do their job, they will focus on continuous improvement. Passion for the job can be killed by resistance.  But when managers feel listened to, and are given the time, money and resources for their projects, their entire focus is firm improvement.  Remember that management is ultimately about managing change.  And that usually means progress. The natural state of law firm managers is to improve things: their own performance, their department, and firm stats.
  7. When they feel valued, they will stay with you through thick and thin.  When professional legal mangers truly feel part of the firm, they will do whatever it takes to help the firm achieve its business objectives.  I remember being part of a high-performance management team during some pretty lean times when our COO said to us “we need to cut the budget by 25% immediately”. We all took a big breath, then we started generating ideas for how we could do this – on our own but also by partnering with other departments.   Valued and respected law firm managers will go though fire for you.

This all makes sense, right?  So why is it so difficult for law firms to hold onto professional legal managers?  (Incidentally, this is a also a list of reasons why a law firm manager should leave their firm).

  • They hire badly. It’s shocking how few firms draft up an org chart and then job descriptions before hiring management. Know as much as possible about the positions you are filling before you fill them.  Otherwise, you, the candidate or both will be unsatisfied with the placement in due course.
  • They micro-manage. Once you have a manager in place and they are clear on their role and responsibilities, let them do their job.  This doesn’t mean “give them lots of rope with which to hang themselves”.  Check in from time to time.  Let them know you’re overseeing the situation and there to support them if and when needed.  But don’t hire them and then tell them exactly how to do their job.  A good manager will leave.
  • They take back autonomy: Many a law firm manager has left because the job they were offered is not the job they end up with. Committees are there to help oversee an area, and to support it in Partners’ meetings.  The members aren’t there to pretend they are experts in accounting or IT or Marketing…they aren’t.  Don’t hire a manager and then strip them of their responsibilities and decision-making.  They’ll leave, and frankly, you would too.
  • They override policy and lead by exception. Too often, I’ve seen firms develop policy or procedure. But as their management team attempts to manage by these documents, the firm will allow lawyers to be the exception to the rule.  Over and over again.  How can a manager expect to encourage anyone in the firm to adhere to policy when the Managing Partner is giving various Partners “outs” right, left and centre?
  • They don’t respect or value them. Many a firm has hired a position because they’d been told it was needed, but then treated that manager as if they were of little real value.  Hire people you would invite into your Partner meetings.  Hire people you believe have substantive knowledge and experience in their area of focus.  Then listen to them.  Ask them questions, but from the perspective of someone who wants to learn something…not someone who wants to teach the person you just hired about their own profession.  And not like you’re trying to catch them in a trap of some kind.
  • They pay them poorly over time. Managers often transfer firms when they no longer feel they are being paid their worth.   Inevitably, a move results in a jump in pay.  This is because law firms settle into a comfortable situation, and lose sight of the value of their managers on the open market.  That’s a mistake.  Remember when I said a good management team would walk through fire for their firm?  The COO of our group advised us that he had set up the best team in the city and as such, he would make sure we would always be the best paid in the city for our respective posts.   The firm demanded a lot of us, but it didn’t take us for granted.  Hire good people, oversee them well, and keep them financially happy.

I appreciate that managers show up on the expense side of the ledger.  But great managers actually allow for greater lawyer productivity.  They enable the firm to be more profitable by efficiently managing the firm’s business.  They are indirectly responsible for all of the productivity in the firm.   Consider them the foundation on which you build your house.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms, lawyers and administrators.  She can be reached at heather@heathergraygrant.com