By now, we can all recite the sobering statistics. More than 5,500 attorney jobs lost in the last year. Major firms like Wolf Block, Thelen and Heller shuttered. The first-year associate class of 2009 essentially vaporized. This string of bad news, along with the reality that the legal industry will have to make permanent changes in the way it recruits, trains and pays attorneys, has many thinking it might be time for a change of career. While some have decided to follow their life's dream to write a novel, open a restaurant or become a stay-at-home parent, others aren't quite ready to abandon the industry they entered after enduring years of schooling and incurring six-figure debt.
Today, there is no need to leave the legal profession just because you no longer wish to practice law. There are a number of different administrative roles within a law firm setting for which attorneys are particularly well-suited. They include:
• Marketing: Most midsize and large law firms these days have in-house marketing professionals on staff to assist with business development, public relations, promotional material design, writing and management of their Web sites.
• Recruiting: In-house recruiters handle everything from high-level lateral recruiting of individuals and groups, to on-campus recruiting of entry-level attorneys and coordination of summer associate programs.
• Professional development: All attorneys must participate in continuing legal education programs each year, however, clients also expect their attorneys to possess various business skills like project management and budget development. Many firms that are focused on client service teach their attorneys these disciplines to help achieve greater client satisfaction.
• Pro bono and diversity: Many firms have professionals dedicated to establishing relationships with charitable organizations, managing pro bono workloads, keeping track of hours, nominating their firms for relevant awards and working with recruiting to bring in attorneys with diverse backgrounds.
• Client relations: These professionals meet with current clients to evaluate how happy they are with their relationship partner and others doing work for them. They discover opportunities for cross-selling the firm's services and gather competitive intelligence on other firms doing work for the same client.
• Human resources: These roles are a natural fit for former labor and employment attorneys who, after years of crafting policies and procedures for their clients, decide to use their knowledge in-house.
LAW FIRM ADMINISTRATORS
It takes a special set of skills to be a successful law firm administrator. Shellee Buchanan practiced law for several years before transitioning to a career in law firm event planning. Now serving as Ballard Spahr's national events manager, she said, "Organizational, technical, analytical and time management skills are all necessary, but diplomacy, communication skills and a healthy dose of emotional intelligence rank up there too!"
Obviously, the legal education helps. Attorneys appreciate dealing with someone who understands not only the lingo, but also the pressures of dealing with clients and deadlines. Having the background as an attorney gives you an edge over other staffers because you are seen as a peer. Undergraduate education is key too, as many attorneys find their concentration in college helps gauge interest in particular law firm disciplines like finance, analytics or communications.
Patience is also an important trait. Administrators must realize that the attorneys are most concerned with handling their legal work; a marketing, pro bono or recruiting project may fall lower on their list of priorities. They may not be able to follow through on a "hot" project or return messages immediately and administrators cannot take that personally.
Finally, creativity plays a big role in all of these positions. Attorneys tend to think in terms of black and white or they have a linear approach to a project. Administrators need to be able to come up with creative ideas and explain them in a way they can understand.
THE PROS AND CONS OF ADMINISTRATIVE ROLES
Transitioning from attorney to administrator is not always easy. First, the re-classification as a member of the "staff" can be a blow to the ego. After all, you've completed the same training as the lawyers and have the same, if not more, legal experience, yet you are now thought of as overhead rather than a fee-generating asset. You may no longer have an office with a window (or even a door), and you probably won't have a secretary or an expense account.
Kimberly Gattuso, director of professional development at Potter Anderson & Corroon, admits that this aspect of stepping out of practice was her biggest concern. "I enjoyed the respect I received as a practicing attorney and there was a possibility that my years of practice may be overlooked."
Along with the loss of status may come a reduction in income. You will no longer be in a lockstep program with guaranteed bonuses (of course, neither are some attorneys anymore). You may be the only person at your firm doing your job, so you may not have an obvious path for growth. Whereas new business can be directly tied to an attorney who brings it in, you may have more trouble proving your value to your firm to justify a raise or bonus.
Some attorneys, particularly litigators, may also miss the excitement that comes with handling legal work. "The adrenaline that comes with the time crunch of preparing for a trial, getting through the trial and any post-trial briefing" can't be matched, Gattuso said.
But despite these sometimes significant cons, there are many, many pros to taking on an administrative role. Most former attorneys bid a very fond farewell to billable hour requirements. Although it is a good practice to keep track of the time you spend on projects, it is incredibly freeing no longer having to account for your day in six-minute increments. You may even afford yourself a better chance to experience the work/life balance that was elusive to you as an attorney. While many of these roles are not nine-to-five jobs, it is rare that administrators find themselves in the office well into the evening or on consecutive Saturdays.
These roles allow attorneys to use their legal knowledge, utilize business-world contacts and remain active in the legal profession and community without the stress of bringing in business, having a deal go south or going to court. Your primary clients are now the firm's lawyers, and it can be incredibly fulfilling to help them reach their full potential.
As Buchanan said, "It allows me to work with partners and staff in all departments and offices across the country. There are so many terrific people employed by Ballard Spahr and I derive a great amount of satisfaction building relationships and helping others achieve their goals and objectives."
Change is inevitable, and often the legal industry is perceived as a rigid industry, for good reason. There are bar associations that uphold rules and standards. There are ethics rules that maintain a code and enforce commitment and behavior. There are even built-in "checks and balances" within law firms called partners or shareholders who keep attorneys accountable and loyal.
With all of these forces in place to maintain consistency and progression, it is an interesting time to witness lawyers jumping to the other side of the business. It is a gift to have lawyer perspective to help steer the above-named administrative areas toward greater success. Collaboration affords any project a dimension that makes the end result more valuable. As we define the future of our law firms, let's not overlook the important contribution lawyers can make to the firm's management team. •
Jennifer Smuts is the director of marketing at Connolly Bove Lodge & Hutz. She is a past-president of the Legal Marketing Association-Metro Philadelphia Chapter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 302-888-6214.