Law firm Administrators are capable of doing so much more than most firms allow them to do. If you’re able to move from giving them instructions to allowing them to really embrace their role, they can provide a far greater value to your firm.
In my earlier years in-house with big law firms, I watched as law firms learned to rely on a roster of administrators responsible for different parts of the firm. These usually included finance, marketing, HR, IT, library services and office services. Over time, larger, national firms turned administration into more of a science, developing sub-specialities of various roles. For example, Marketing might be broken down further into roles for business development, RFPs, PR & communications, practice group or client team marketers.
Smaller firms were slower in embracing the concept of non-lawyer professional administrators. They started by hiring an in-house accountant because they saw the value in having a professional dedicated to this area. But as lawyers realized the value of billing instead of managing, they expanded the accountant’s role into HR, and even marketing. Sometimes a firm will find there is sufficient work in a particular area to hire a trained professional in HR, Marketing, IT, etc. But whether your firm relies on an Administrator for all managing functions, or has several professionals who can assist, I encourage firms to take full advantage of those roles by allowing them to dig deeper into their skill sets and providing the kind of data analysis and strategy that they are capable of doing. Here are some examples of how you can do just that:
Finance: You can’t manage your practice unless you see regular financial information on it. Most lawyers rely on the data provided by the firm monthly – usually billings and collections. That’s a snapshot of today’s reality, but it doesn’t really help with strategy. To truly manage your practice, start looking at data over time, and broken down by things like practice area, type of client, value per file, etc. Are your practice areas increasing? Declining? Is there a trend to when this happens? Can you see a change in the type of client you attract in different areas of law? Is your marketplace shifting geographically at all? How many clients are coming back to the firm for additional areas of law? How effectively are you encouraging referrals from past clients? All of this information can be collected, tracked and analyzed through your accounting system, with the help of a good client/file intake process. And don’t forget to analyze your non-billable time, too. All of this will help you to see trends over time. This in turn helps you to plan, rejig, and see connections between strategy and results.
Marketing: Most lawyers have a very passive use of their marketing professional. They’ll call on them when there is a very specific task. They will provide minimal information for the accomplishment of this task. I need an ad for a program on an event we’re sponsoring. I need help responding to this RFP, due tomorrow. I want some ideas for developing more business. Send out an invitation to this client event. It’s almost as if the lawyer were asking for a pill for their headache. If only it were as easy as handing out pills.
Like my previous post (on design briefs), strong marketing starts with more information, not preconceived ideas about what the outcome should look like. Instead, meet with your marketer to explain what you are wanting to accomplish, and for what target market. Explain what your competitors are doing (or ask them to help you find that out). Talk about how you’ve approached this objective in the past, and discuss the results (positive and negative, and why). Considering holding a client event? Don’t wait until you need an invitation to work with your marketer. Speak with them the moment you start to consider the idea. They can help to determine if that’s the right marketing initiative for your purpose, and if it is, they’ll help to structure every aspect of it to ensure its success – including a great invitation.
HR: Too often, HR is only contacted when there’s an issue with existing staff. They can be so much more supportive of your practice than that. HR can work with a lawyer to ensure they get the right staff. HR can assist when more training is needed – either due to new technology or due to an assessed weakness in a staff member. HR can also assist in finding additional help during crunch periods, to ensure a lawyer stays as productive as possible at all times. HR can also serve as a staff assessment tool: meeting with staff more frequently than an annual review to ensure that staff continue to feel engaged, happy and productive. Even if the lawyer and staff member have a great relationship, it’s likely that the staff member will be more open and honest about the working relationship with a member of HR than with the lawyer.
IT: Again, this is a resource that’s often called upon only when there are issues. Yes, they are helpful in such situations but they can be so much more. Tech experts can help to improve the ergonomics of your work station to ensure that those long hours result in minimal damage to your body. We seldom fully utilize the technology we have. Your IT person can provide you (or your assistant) with one on one training to make sure you understand the capabilities of the hardware and software at your disposal, show you valuable shortcuts, and help you get the most out of your tech. They can also help you to consider solutions to any special tech needs you might have, do research to narrow down the search, install the new programs and ensure you are properly trained in their use. I recall a senior lawyer who was not adjusting well to legal assistant sharing. Turns out he was a hopeless typist. IT found him voice automated typing software and ensured he learned to use it flawlessly. Problem over.
Library Services: With the increase in on-line resources, libraries are increasingly called resource centres. Resource specialists in a law firm can assist in finding precedent/case law, pieces of legislation and all of the things you’d typically ask a law librarian for. But they can also help with researching a target client, your competitors, a region or industry, etc. The move away from books and toward more on-line resources has only made librarians more powerful, as their resource base no longer needs to fit within their wall space. So, if everything is on-line, why do we need librarians? Because everything isn’t necessarily accessible to the average computer user. For example, newspaper databases are not openly accessible. And lawyers should ask themselves what the best use of their hourly rate is: searching for information on the internet, or doing the substantive legal work that results from this information?
Office Services: It’s more common for office services to be engaged by a lawyer’s assistant rather than the lawyer. But don’t forget how this important administrative department can assist a lawyer’s practice. Office services usually controls all mail and courier delivery, the purchase of all supplies, the maintenance of the offices, and catering. In this age of penny pinching, don’t assume that all of your needs will be anticipated and everything will be ready for you when you are. Think ahead to what you might need and ensure Office Services has a suitable “heads up” so they can line up all the logistical support you require to be successful.
Very small firms might have all of these roles played by a single Administrator. I think these Administrators should wear capes to reflect how truly amazing and versatile they are. But as you can imagine, as they have such broad responsibilities in their firm, they need even more communication and lead time in order to do their best for you.
If you know who your administrators are but don’t really know what they do, it’s likely that you’re not using them properly. Do yourself a favour and take each of them to lunch to chat with them about how they can serve you. It’s what they’re paid to do, and it’s what they love to do.
Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org