Lawyers are highly intelligent, capable human beings who can probably reasonably do any task placed in front of them.  That doesn’t mean that they should.  The wise business person focuses on their core competency, and for lawyers, that’s the practice of law.

There’s also the belief by some (well, many) that lawyers are typically not good business people.  Despite being in a profession that relies heavily om precedent and research, they tend to make business decisions based on gut feel.  They don’t tend to involve a range of stakeholders in decision processes, believing they know all perspectives already (or believing that those other opinions don’t count).  They frequently side with the status quo, on the assumption that if it’s worked in the past, it probably will in the future.  They are risk averse so they tend to pick what they believe to be the less aggressive path.  This also causes them to prefer incremental change when they admit that something needs to shift.  Less than 25% of law firms conduct any form of client survey, believing that they don’t need to hear from the client because they – the lawyers – already know what the client is thinking.

If this is sounding familiar or if you are defending these behaviours in your mind, you’ll need to trust me that you’re better off focussing on the law and hiring professional business administrators.

In law firms (and depending on size of firm), this usually includes a lead Administrator or Office Manager and a lead accountant.  It could also include any of the following: a Marketing Manager, an HR Manager, an IT Manager, a Resource Centre Manager.

Having a strong admin team doesn’t occur by happenstance.  There are three key steps to improving the chances that you’ve recruited and are supporting a fabulous team to manage your firm.

  1. Plan before you hire: Too often, the decision to create and hire for a position occurs as a fix to an issue. The design of your administrative team should not be done on an emergency basis.  It should be carefully thought through.  Consider the roles you believe you need.  Consider the skill sets and personality required for each role.  Develop a detailed job description, and then write an ad for that job.  If you feel you need to expand the team in any way, use the same discipline.  In your job description, describe who will oversee that position, how they will interact with direct reports and the lawyers, and identify what “success” will look like a year down the road for a successful candidate.  I don’t mean what they will get paid or bonused, but rather: “By the end of 2018, our new controller will have implemented a new matter type system, transferred over our books to the new computer system, and have developed comprehensive monthly financial reports that partners find helpful but not overwhelming”.
  2. Hire carefully: You’re not just looking for skill sets, you’re also looking for fit. One of the greatest challenges in firms successfully hiring an Administrator is that while they might find someone who has the skills needed, they end up being too aggressive (or not assertive enough) to do the job well.  I’ve also seen firms hire certain roles with the belief that they wanted an assertive individual (especially in areas such as marketing) and then find that they really wanted a yes man or woman.   If you hire someone with certain skills and then expect them to adjust their personality to fit the firm afterwards, it won’t work. People don’t change that easily, and with so little motivation.  Figure out and be honest about the type of person you need for each role, then hire to those standards and requirements.
  3. Support them: Once you’ve got your team in place, respect them. If you’ve given them clear roles and lines of responsibility and accountability as well as targets or mandates, and been clear on the type of person you’re looking for in each role, let them do their job.  Don’t cut them off at the knees on certain projects or decisions.  Don’t veto every suggestion they put forward.  Include them in appropriate business meetings (including executive meetings and even partner meetings for certain agenda items).  Listen to them when they identify an issue, suggest a solution, or offer an opportunity for the firm to pursue.  Encourage your admin team to work closely together.  This might include regular team meetings to discuss what each other is working on, and for the Administrator to share what’s going on with the firm so everyone can adjust where appropriate to better support the firm’s business goals and realities.

Lawyers are intelligent; but one of the smartest things they can do is to surround themselves with good administrators who have been carefully selected, given very clear mandates, and are well-supported once in the role.

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