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The Business of Law

ImageOrdering office supplies, processing vacation requests and even organizing outings to Camp Randall Stadium are some of the tedious administrative responsibilities law firms in Wisconsin handle.

As the business of law has evolved, many small and mid-size outfits in the state have turned to law firm administrators or office managers to execute complex and routine tasks.

“I would definitely say we do see more small to medium-sized firms hiring administrators,” said Robert A. Miller, president of the Wisconsin Association of Legal Administrators (WALA).

Miller estimated that about 75 percent of WALA’s 90 members are employed by firms with 30 or fewer attorneys.

But while some managing partners cited legal administrators as invaluable members of the firm, others said they are able to conduct business as usual without one.

Sizing up the Situation

With five attorneys and two paralegals, Stephen W. Hayes, managing partner at Grady, Hayes & Neary, LLC, in Waukesha, said the firm survives without an administrator.

“Twenty years ago, firms would have to be around 12 to 15 attorneys before you would even consider hiring a legal administrator,” said Hayes. “That’s not the case anymore, but we manage.”

Hayes said the absence of an administrator has created a little extra work for attorneys, but it has not hindered their ability to effectively practice law. The firm employs personnel to handle aspects of accounting, but attorneys are involved in health care management, Web site design and 401K planning.

“We’re still getting all our work done and just spending a little extra time on the weekends for administrative tasks,” said Hayes. “We just haven’t hit the critical mass yet where an administrator is necessary.”

Time to Practice

Several partners at smaller firms said size does not really matter when it comes to hiring an administrator and that lawyers should be doing what they do best.

“From my perspective, it’s always better to have a lawyer out there lawyering and billing,” said Robert H. Friebert, president of Friebert, Finerty & St. John, SC, in Milwaukee.

“Lawyers are not really trained to be business managers.”

Gerald M. O’Brien, managing partner at Anderson, O’Brien, Bertz, Skrenes & Golla, in Stevens Point, said when the firm was established, five attorneys was plenty to handle the administrative load. But as the firm grew to its current roster of 15 attorneys and business became more complex, O’Brien said it was only practical to hire an administrator.

“How many attorneys know how or want to train anybody on how to use WordPerfect?” said O’Brien. “Our office manager has ongoing training and can keep up-to-date on what’s going on.”

Some firms simply prefer to keep their attorneys in the administrative loop.

At Herrling, Clark, Hartzheim & Siddall, Ltd., in Appleton, three attorney-driven committees help develop personnel, marketing and technology strategies.

While the 15-attorney firm employs a bookkeeper and an Internet technician to handle day-to-day operations, President Michael S. Siddall said the committees make administrative recommendations and budgetary decisions.

“I think there are definitely benefits because attorneys are in touch cost-wise and time- wise with a lot of aspects they would not otherwise take the time to learn,” said Siddall.

Money Conscious

O’Brien acknowledged that if there was one potential disadvantage, it would be the cost of keeping a full-time administrator at a smaller firm. But he maintains that the price of not having one would be far greater.

“If you’ve got an attorney working at $200 an hour doing the job of someone making $25 an hour, that doesn’t make sense,” said O’Brien.

Friebert said in some cases an administrator can save a firm not only money, but aggravation.

“Our office manager (Sandi Wakefield) not only manages the accounting side, but the (14) lawyers, which is not always easy,” said Friebert.

For smaller firms, it is more a matter of economic analysis, according to Miller. Firms should look at how many hours senior attorneys spend on administrative tasks and compare that to their billing rate.

“In most cases, I think you are going to find the cost of having an administrator is justified,” said Miller.

Hayes said his firm might explore adding an administrator in the future, but the person would have to be qualified to handle a variety of tasks.

“If a person became available who could serve as an administrator and perform other functions that we have our attorneys performing now, we would consider it,” said Hayes.

The same is true for Siddall, who said the firm employed an administrator 10 years ago.

“It would be nice to get somebody for the right price to do everything, but we tried that once and it was a flop,” said Siddall.

Good Help

Whether firms transition to an administrator or employ one from the beginning, those using administrators said they are getting the most for their money.

Andrew S. McConnell, managing partner at Boyle Fredrickson in Milwaukee, said the firm has had an administrator since it began in 1999. In addition to tripling in size since its inception, the 20-attorney Intellectual Property firm recently relocated its downtown office.

“John (Berres) is responsible for oversight involved with the new building in addition to accounting, human resource and internet technology,” said McConnell. “We might be lucky to have one person who has all those capabilities, because my guess is a lot of firms outsource some of those duties.”

O’Brien said their original administrator, Carole Martin, retired last year after 50 years on the job and they unsuccessfully hired her replacement from outside of the firm. After three months, the firm turned to Deanna Mossak who had been with the firm for 25 years.

At the same time, Miller said the evolution of the business side of law is requiring managers to be skilled in more than just one or two administrative fields.

“More skilled people with management and masters degrees are moving into these positions because there is an increase in what is being demanded and provided in law firms,” said Miller.

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