Holding the Firm Together: Business Managers on the Rise
by Ursula Furi-Perry
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''As firms become more businesslike, they realize they should hire a capable person to handle their business management matters,'' said Cheryl Leone, who worked in law office management for more than 40 years before she started her own management contract firm, Catalyst, Inc., serving law firms nationwide. ''Attorneys realize that they are running a business and must be professional,'' said Ms. Leone.
And business managers can turn out to be quite smart investments. ''A well-run, well-managed firm will save money,'' Ms. Leone believes. ''When I first began as a law office administrator, I had reduced the firm's overhead by one-third.'' Larger and medium-sized firms are more likely to have a whole hierarchy of law office administrators, but firms of all sizes and practice levels may benefit from a good business manager. Law office managers can institute much-needed organization and allow firms to be more businesslike.
Confusion still surrounds the profession, though, largely because no two firms seem to give their business managers the same duties-or even the same title. ''There are different levels and titles for law office managers,'' Ms. Leone explained, ''for example, a business manager may handle the firm's day-to-day operations, while a firm administrator may actually create budgets, supervise departments, and even be accountable for overseeing the firm's profit projections.''
Typically, business managers may handle a bundle of responsibilities, including the firm's finances, employee matters, and records management. ''My specialty is in human resources, so I'm responsible for the hiring and firing, working with recruiters, training staff, and employee attendance,'' said Mariel Piilola, Human Resources Director at Larkin, Hoffman, Daly & Lindgren, LTD, who's actively involved with the Minnesota Legal Administrators Association. ''However, I'm also in charge of records management, overseeing other managers, and even maintaining the firm library,'' Ms. Piilola said. ''My responsibilities are not pigeon-holed.''
And all that responsibility requires just the right training, experience, and skills. ''Business managers must have some business education or background, like bookkeeping and projections,'' Ms. Leone said. ''They must also know and understand the law behind their jobs. For example, they must be familiar with employment regulations.'' And while business training is extremely helpful, some legal background may be a job-saver. ''We've placed a gentleman with great business experience but no understanding of law firms,'' Ms. Leone recounted. ''He didn't think running a firm would be different from running any other business-and he only lasted a few months.'' Knowing how law firms work and understanding the legal environment is essential for would-be business managers.
Besides experience and education, people skills and resilience should be at the top of a business manager's list of qualifications. ''Business managers must be able to talk to people and relate to them on all levels, from attorneys to secretaries,'' said Ms. Leone. ''It's important to be detail-oriented and flexible,'' Ms. Piilola said. ''They should be able to present new ideas, yet withstand scrutiny and retain a positive attitude in the face of criticism.'' Ms. Leone agreed, ''Law office administrators should be able to go with the flow and keep all their balls in the air. It's important to be multi-faceted; business managers never have the same day twice.''
Of course, some typically smaller firms may continue to promote a capable legal assistant or paralegal to the position of law office manager or administrator. If that's the case, it's important that the employee enroll in continuing education and training. ''Take some business classes, enroll in seminars, and take advantage of educational opportunities offered by organizations like the Association of Legal Administrators,'' said Ms. Piilola. ''It's essential to get the best training possible directly in this arena.'' Other classes of importance may include technology seminars and employment law courses.
For able business managers, the profession offers plenty. ''The position can pay very well-even six figures for higher-level administrators,'' said Ms. Leone. ''It's also such an exciting position. It's fun to be on the cutting edge of such a new field.''
And there's no doubt that law office administration will continue to offer good things to business managers and law firms alike. ''The profession is definitely moving forward,'' said Ms. Piilola. ''In fact, some schools have even begun to teach classes in law office administration.'' With continued education and training, law office managers are sure to become even hotter commodities in the future.
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