An Associate's Quiet Ally: Firm Administrators

Reprinted from the Lexis Nexis Communities

Associates new to law firm life, or even those at mid-level, are at a distinct disadvantage when trying to understand the firm's business operations. All lawyers today need to be more sensitive to their firms' financial realities, yet even many partners do not have access to data about the firm's realization rates, client retention rates, cash flow and other key performance data. And if partners are in such a position, how can the firm's associates understand the organization's performance and what it means for their personal future?

A very practical answer lies in a direction too few associates pursue: develop a good working relationship with the firm's senior administrators. Administrators who are familiar with the firm's financial information and marketing can help associates truly grasp the essentials of business competency. This should involve the full range of business disciplines that administrators as financial and marketing professionals deal with every day. When financial and operational information can be secured and questioned personally through dialogue with an administrator, the chances are better that the associates hearing it will understand why they need to be concerned about the firm's financial health and their part in the process.

The successful administrator is someone who serves as a strategic counselor to help the firm survive and grow. The staff professional - whether responsible for firm administration, finance, marketing or all of the above - can take a strategic position as the impartial facilitator who has only the success of the firm at heart. The staff person has a unique capability to be the resource, the go-to person, the guide. By helping associates in this way, administrators enhance their own value to the firm.

What are some of the ways such a dynamic can work? Certainly they will vary by firm, but these are just a few examples:

  • Administrators can make the information available for associates to determine their own P&L in order to determine and enhance their worth to the firm. This information would include not just billable hours but markdown averages and direct and indirect expenses. Such are part of the administrator's everyday job requirements. Giving associates the tools to "do the math" is a role that administrators are uniquely positioned to perform.

  • Law firm administrators can play an important role in facilitating a young lawyer's growth in the marketing communication process; administrators have involvement with and oversight of many communications channels. For example, administrators can develop, and make available to lawyers, client surveys to be sent out with an invoice or at the conclusion of a matter.

  • Other business development activities also go smoother with an administrator as ally. Examples include helping to set up an informal client visitation schedule, or to develop blogging opportunities, or to participate in firm meetings. Administrators are ideally situated to organize such activities through encouraging the use of client relationship management (CRM) software and database systems.

Associate development requires planning and developing the kind of overall goals and specific strategies that administrators can help shape. The issue is not more billable hours by associates, it's what kind of billable work and what it contributes to the firm. The firm must be able to measure the growth of associates by specific standards of billable time, training and client development effort, against near-term targets that are realistic. Administrators have substantial incentive to help associates reach those targets because they know that today's associates will be tomorrow's partners. Associates who have learned how to survive and thrive in the law firm environment with the help of committed administrative professionals should make it a point in the future to value and respect the contribution that such administrators have made to the firm's success - and their own.

For a fuller discussion of this topic, see Ed Poll's article prepared for the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA) at this link. A consideration of related issues, "Owner or Employee? Financial Literacy and Openness Build a Partner's Perspective," can be found here. For more ideas see also the LawBiz Legal Pad video, "Marketing Plan 101".

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