Taking an Administrator's Job? Approach It Like a Client!

Reprinted from:
Published on 8/06

The rules of professional conduct require that lawyers must have a signed letter of agreement when they take on a new client. The letter sets forth the responsibilities of each party to make the engagement a success. Senior law firm administrators, such as executive directors and chief operating officers who are responsible for accounting, human resources and similar functions, can learn from this example when accepting their positions from their law firm employer. They should require that a senior lawyer in the firm - such as the CEO or the managing partner - provide them with a written statement of the firm's responsibilities to the administrator. These responsibilities should foster the communication and accountability necessary for the administrator to be successful.

Such a statement of responsibilities could include the following:

  • The senior lawyer will respond to an inquiry from the administrator within 24 hours;
  • The senior lawyer will be available to meet with the administrator for no less than two hours once a week;
  • The senior lawyer should provide clear and direct communication in requests and directives to the administrator;
  • The senior lawyer, in addition to such specific requirements, should observe the same professional and ethical obligations due to a client.
  • The idea of a written statement of responsibilities is definitely a two-way street. An engagement letter spells out both the lawyer's obligations to the client, and the client's obligations to the lawyer - to be truthful, to provide all necessary and requested documents, to pay invoices on time. So too must the administrator's engagement document spell out the specifics of what the lawyer/employer must do, and what the administrator must do in order to reach the necessary measurements for success in his or her position.

Measurements for success must be clearly defined in the agreement so that the administrator understands the criteria by which the firm will make its evaluation. The following elements can shape the understanding:

  • If there are certain organizational criteria for success - profits per partner, revenue growth, number of clients - it must be clear which ones are considered to be within the administrator's control, and which ones are not.
  • The administrator must be told specifically what he or she must do, how performance of those responsibilities will be evaluated.
  • There should be precise definition of the administrator's base level of compensation, and precise definition of bonuses or other additional compensation if the measures success for the administrator are met or exceeded.
  • Most lawyers/law firms as employers act on the premise that all non-lawyer administrators, including such senior managers as the executive director or COO, are servants to the law. Traditionally, servants are terrorized in the master-servant relationship when the master changes course or doesn't honor the perceived agreement governing the relationship. It is the responsibility of the senior administrator to change this dynamic, using a written agreement so that the lawyer/employer recognizes that the administrator plays a different role - that of colleague and not servant.

That is not to say that the roles of the administrator/employee and the lawyer/employer are the same. True success comes when each party understands and focuses on their real areas of responsibility. The senior administrator is responsible for profits, organization and efficiency. Senior lawyers - individually as managing partner or CEO, or collectively as an executive or management committee - are responsible for the strategy and future growth of the firm.

These are two separate and equally important roles. Spelling them out clearly in a letter or memorandum of engagement is the best way to ensure that both sides in the law firm dynamic will fulfill them successfully.

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