Moving from corporate, in-house life to a large law firm was tedious at first. For about six months, I drove home wondering if I had sold my soul to the devil.
Thankfully, the challenges I experienced were quickly met and exceeded with an abundance of rewards — from deeply satisfying relationships with smart, top performers in their legal practices to industry exposure and acumen that I would not have achieved anywhere else. However, as I reflect on my 20 years advising lawyers on business development, operations and recruiting, it still surprises me that partners are reticent to adopt more commercial, innovative approaches to their individual and firmwide practices.
Why is this? There are endless articles, consultants and AMLAW 50 chief administrators that confidently tackle this topic with authority. However, where I continue to see the most stagnation is in Texas where very few of these thought leaders reside or work.
Now, I appreciate that Texas moves to the beat of its own drum. We prefer to pick up the phone and have a chat rather than firing off emails, we don’t mind the occasional boondoggle, and we gladly will attend any lunch that involves the latest barbeque fusion that has us salivating. We talk slow(er), and we prefer to work on mandates with friends rather than foes. Texans have never met an enemy.
The Texas firm legacy was well forged more than 100 years ago, by the likes of Captain James Baker (and later his grandson Secretary James Baker), Judge James Elkins Sr., Thad Hutcheson, Fentress Bracewell and R.C. Fulbright. Which leads me to this question, “Where has the spitfire, innovation and entrepreneurial drive of our forefathers gone?” I contend its alive and well, however it lives on in a much more complicated environment. Lawyers today face endless liabilities — both financial and reputational. Throw in the continuous industry-wide challenge of diversity and inclusion, a decline in associate writing skills and a truly mixed bag of social skills, and it is no wonder law firms find themselves stagnant and struggling to make big moves.
Despite all the challenges, law firms are accustomed to having the wind at their backs because everyone needs a good lawyer to conduct smart business – professional or personal. Which leads me to outline the three key issues I believe make it difficult for law firms to better utilize administrative resources and forge more strategic pathways.
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
Since you need a lawyer to conduct your business, there is very little incentive for firms to change. Whether the firm is considering the adoption of better technology, more diverse hiring practices or new key performance indicators beyond billable hours, the reality is law firms continue to be very profitable measuring everyone by the billable hour. Does that mean partners are disinterested in being efficient or developing budget certainty for clients? Absolutely not. However, I do contend that oftentimes these efforts end up in a shallow grave of lip service due to client demands and to constraints on partners’ time.
Enter stage left, the capable and much less expensive law firm administrator. Be they finance, accounting, marketing or recruiting professionals, they are lawyers and non-lawyers who all discovered the rewards of working behind the scenes in professional services. Being around smart people on the daily is rather addictive. And in 2008, after my initial six months of self-pity, I was hooked.
My advice to law firm leaders is this. Say what you mean and do what you say. Otherwise, everything else just drives up overhead, and your clients foot the bill. Furthermore, it’s rare to find a firm administrator with an ulterior motive. Nine times out of ten, the biggest challenges come down to basic communication, setting expectations, defining measurable objectives and holding people accountable — lawyers and administrators.
You’re Only as Good as Your Last Deal
Imagine: You are a top attorney at your firm, maybe even the head of your practice. How do you prioritize the time you spend with colleagues? You probably focus first and foremost on co-workers who service your clients’ most pressing matters. In second place are several peers involved in the endless cycle of partner and practice meetings created to hash through firm updates and peer over the occasional numbers. Thirdly, you are likely also tasked with mentoring an associate and building rapport with a midlevel you prefer not to lose. At the end of the month, how many times have you spoken directly with a firm administrator besides your assistant or billing coordinator? There is simply not enough time in the day.
In big law, it’s sink or swim. If you can’t produce the quality required, the hours demanded or be uber responsive, it may not be the right place for you. Expectations are the same for firm administrators. The business of running a law firm is 24/7. Key executives have hundreds of partners to connect with and cheerlead. Throw in more than 250 bosses (aka shareholders), the managing partner, executive committee, hiring committees, compensation committee and endless cross-practice/departmental initiatives, it’s any wonder why administrators can feel overwhelmed. The demand to be on top of your game is high. Imagine my reaction when, after nailing a series of projects and then miss stepping on something less significant, a partner sympathetically whispered to me in a group meeting, “You’re only as good as your last deal.”
This situation made me appreciate that lawyers and administrators are often not on the same page or even the same team, simply because we are governed by a different set of rules — written and unwritten — and rewards. When a group of partners say they want to grow their practice, each person will give you a distinctly different vision for what that looks like. Navigating big law firm life can be frustrating, but most administrators enjoy and take pride in mastering these challenges.
What do I tell aspiring staffers on what they can expect working in a law firm environment? My top advice includes, “Pause and figure out the game that is being played, then decide if you want to play it.” Right, wrong or indifferent everyone is incentivized differently and has different needs. In short, the juice isn’t always worth the squeeze. In exchange, an administrator can learn a lot, and his or her patience muscles will turn into a six pack — guaranteed.
Don’t Mess with Texas
Lesson number three came fast and furious after my business partner and I started our consultancy in 2019. This was pre-Covid, of course, and firms from across the country (and pond) were dive bombing Texas offices to staff an ever-expanding Houston presence and open new Austin outlets. What started as a difficult task turned into a field day as Covid shut down offices, and everyone discovered the benefits of a truly hybrid schedule. Before Covid, no one cared if you worked at 12 a.m. on a Tuesday, and that remained the same during Covid. However, as soon as senior partners started making their way back into the office, many were surprised at the reticence and disinterest to do the same by associates and younger partners.
Texas firms and their pursuers have entered the next wave of recruiting challenges. While East Coast and Magic Circle firms boast flexible, more hybrid work schedules, many fail to recognize that Texas lawyers do business a little bit different, and Texans aren’t easily persuaded otherwise. Let’s face it, the last couple of lateral waves have not been terribly productive for law firms regardless of location. Rosters are filled to the brim with attorneys who have little interest in developing a book of business, succession planning or, even worse, practicing law.
Gratefully, our favorite law firm clients are going back to the basics: Do good work, act efficiently in the interests of clients and adopt more commercial hiring practices. As the old adage goes, “Hire slow and fire fast.” And whatever you do, don’t mess with Texas law firms. There are a couple sleeping giants the market continues to write off, and naysayers should pay attention. A real awakening is in the works.
At the heart of every thriving law firm, there are countless law firm administrators who streamline operations with precision. One of the most rewarding aspects of this role is the opportunity to create an environment where attorneys can focus on their legal expertise without being bogged down by administrative complexities. From optimizing workflows to implementing advanced case management systems, the administrator becomes the architect of efficiency.
Furthermore, firm administrators play a pivotal role in shaping the firm’s culture. By fostering an atmosphere of collaboration, respect and professional growth, they contribute to the retention of talented attorneys and staff. This nurturing environment not only enhances the firm’s reputation but also generates a sense of pride amongst lawyers and staff alike.
Amid the rewards and challenges, a skilled law firm administrator becomes a maestro who orchestrates harmony within the firm. This balance can be achieved through a combination of qualities, including effective communication, adaptability, diplomacy and strategic vision.
In conclusion, the role of a law firm administrator is a dynamic journey laden with rewards and challenges. It requires an individual with a passion for orchestrating efficiency, nurturing growth and steering a firm through uncharted waters. While the obstacles might be daunting, they are equally matched by the satisfaction of witnessing a well-oiled firm thriving under their guidance.
Jennifer Petree is the managing partner of Petree Partners LLC. The firm focuses on management consulting, business development and PR advice for professional service firms, private equity and their portfolio companies. After several years inhouse with a Shell and Halliburton-backed entity, Jen jumped into big law life relishing in the endless assortment of personalities and the industrywide support of paid parental leave. Prior to co-founding Petree Partners, she acted as the head of business development for Vinson & Elkins and led the business development and marketing support for Baker Botts’ firmwide transactional practices.