Law Firm Management Roles

Management Skills That an Owner, Managing Partner, or Administrator Needs to Have

By John W. Olmstead, MBA Ph.D CMC

 Mention management 101 and I think of the five functions of management. Each of these roles must be performed by someone in every law firm and business if it is to be successful. In a small firm the owner must perform each of these functions and be reasonably good at all of them. In a larger firm these functions are typically performed by the managing partner, management committee, administrator, and other members of the management team.

Here are the five functions:

1. Planning

Deciding in advance what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and who is to do it. Planning bridges the gap from where you are to where you want to go. It makes it possible for things to occur which would not otherwise happen. Planning is often referred to as business, long range, or strategic planning.

2. Organizing

Creating an intentional structure of roles, duties and responsibilities, and accountabilities. Defining what is to be done, by who, and how? Sometimes this involves establishing departments or practice groups.

3. Staffing

Manning the jobs which involves hiring, performance management, training, mentoring, and development of people to fill the organizational roles.

4. Directing

Directing employees involves motivation, communications and leadership.

5. Controlling

Measurement of accomplishments of events against the standard of plans and the correction of deviations to insure attainment of objectives according to plans. In essence this involves reviewing your business, long range or strategic plan or budget against actual performance using metrics and dashboards/reports to determine how well you are making progress. If you are falling short of firm goals – determine problem areas and take corrective action to get performance back on course.

Use the above functions as a report card. Ask your self – how good are you at performing each of these roles? Are you performing them at all?

In addition to these roles you need to have a working knowledge of accounting and finance and be able to manage the financial affairs of the firm “work the books” as well as being good at getting the right people on the bus (hiring right) and keeping them there.

As you continue to grow you will eventually need to hire management talent to delegate some of these functions to perform.

Invest In Your People – Your Staff – Your Intellectual Capital

I am amazed at the minimal investment that law firms make in their staff. Law firms are in the knowledge business and their product is their intellectual knowledge. While law firms do invest in their attorneys, such is not the case with the staff. Although staff members are often on the front lines in dealing with clients, very few law firms are providing them with skill training in areas such as communication, marketing, client service, conflict management, effective writing and speaking, time management, computer applications, client complaint management, etc. By the way, attorneys need training in these areas as well. Why do law firms hire the cheapest talent they can find to fill the receptionist position when it is the receptionist who often has the initial contact with a new client. I find it amazing that firms spend huge amounts of money on advertising and marketing and they fail to invest in the other tools needed for effective new client intake. Small firms should consider assigning their receptionist the role of marketing coordinator with responsibility for assisting in the management of client relationships and the firm’s marketing program.

Communicate Your Expectations And Hold Your Employees Accountable

Managing people is one of the toughest challenges that law firms face. Challenges often involve   people not following firm policy and doing what they should not be doing. It drives owners, managing partners, and administrators crazy. 

My advice to frustrated owners, managing partners, and administrators  – tell them to stop. Seriously. As the owner, managing partner, or administrator of your firm you can’t beat around the bush and be sheepish concerning your expectations concerning desired performance and behavior in the office. Confront the performance or behavioral problem immediately. Manage such problems in real time. Don’t wait for the annual performance review and don’t treat serious problem as a “self-improvement” effort. Tell them how you feel about the performance or behavioral issue, the consequences for failure to resolve the issue, your timeline for resolving the issue, and the follow-up schedule that you will be using to follow-up and monitor the issue. If they must resolve the performance or behavioral issue in order to keep their job tell them so. They may need this level of confrontation they need in order to give them the strength to be able to deal with their issues.

Being a wimp does not help you or them. Tell them like it is and conduct a heart-to-heart discussion. You will be glad you did.

Controlling Cost and Managing Overhead

The first step in an expense control program is to identify those areas where potential savings exist. Review your profit and loss statement. Resist the temptation to arbitrarily cutting costs which could cut the muscle with the fat and result in revenue loss as well. You have to spend money to make money – so if cost cutting is the appropriate strategy – cut the right costs. Think strategically about cost reduction.

After you have identified areas where savings can be made prioritize and develop specific strategies and implement action plans to achieve the savings.

Here are a few ideas:

STRATEGY #1: Reduce Headcount

This is the largest area for potential savings. Downsizing is a strategy that has been used by many firms this past year. However, it can have long term negative consequences for revenue and talent management. Consider all levels – non-productive partners, associates, paralegals, and staff. Be prudent and sensitive in implementation.

STRATEGY #2: Reduce Compensation

Obviously one way is to cut salaries – a strategy to be used as a last resort. A better approach is to reduce fixed salary (paying people for showing up) and add a variable pay component which will allow employees to earn additional compensation in the form of bonus for results achieved. Another approach is to freeze salary increases.

STRATEGY #3: Benefits

A major area for cost savings – especially health insurance. Determine which programs are most important to employees. Do your best to protect those and reduce or eliminate programs that are less important. Consider offering more than one health insurance plan. Pay the premium for the lowest cost plan and provide options for employees to “opt up” to the better plans by paying the additional premiums. Consider increasing deductibles and requiring employees to pay a portion of the base premiums.

STRATEGY #4: Outsource

Examine potential for outsourcing – from copy services – IT management – to your legal team.

STRATEGY #5: Occupancy

Review your lease invoices and question increases and escalators for which you have been charged. Consider renegotiating your lease and ask for a lower rate. Reduce excess space either through a renegotiated lease or through sub-leasing.

If you find yourself struggling with management challenges in the new year try to develop some of the skills identified in this article and apply some of the ideas. You may be glad you did.

Good Luck!

 John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D., CMC, is a Certified Management Consultant and the president of Olmstead & Associates, Legal Management Consultants, based in St. Louis, Missouri. The firm helps law and other professional service firms improve the operations and management of their practices and the lives of their practitioners. The firm, founded in 1984 serves clients across the Globe assisting them with implementing change and improving operational and financial performance, management, leadership, client development and marketing.

Dr. Olmstead’s assignments have covered the spectrum of management issues. However, in recent years most of his time is focused on engagements helping firms with:

Dr. Olmstead is the Editor-in-Chief of “The Lawyers Competitive Edge: The Journal of Law Office Economics and Management,” published by Thomson West. He is currently serving as Past Chair, Illinois State Bar Association Standing Committee on Law Office Management and Economics and as a member of the Legal Marketing Association (LMA) Research Committee. Dr. Olmstead may be contacted via e-mail at Additional articles and information is available at the firm’s web site:

© Olmstead & Associates, 2014. All rights reserved.

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