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As the legal assistant profession has grown over the past 30 years, the management role has taken on an increasingly important function in law firms. As many larger offices have found, a manager can increase the productivity and profitability of the legal assistant program and help to improve the quality, performance, and retention rate of legal assistants. A legal assistant manager is not only a supervisor, but also a leader, mentor, advocate, trainer, financial watchdog, evaluator, problem-solver, and resource manager, in the words of the Legal Assistant Management Association (LAMA). Yet some firms have delegated these important responsibilities to a busy attorney or an already overburdened administrator or human resources manager. Firms that already have a legal assistant manager may want to take advantage of the manager’s skills and knowledge for special projects or in other departments. Administrators who have never worked with a legal assistant manager may wonder whether they really need a dedicated manager in this position and how to find the right person for the job. Any office with 10 or more legal assistants can benefit from designating a qualified person to supervise them. If the person currently filling this role is an attorney, the firm is squandering valuable billable hours by using an expensive timekeeper for a job that more appropriately should be handled by someone within the legal assistant ranks. Pushing those management responsibilities down to someone with a lower billing rate creates more revenue for the firm — and a career advancement opportunity for the legal assistants. PROMOTE FROM WITHIN If your firm does not already have a legal assistant manager, it isn’t necessary to invent a comprehensive management position that you drop into the lap of an unproven employee. The person with the right experience and qualities may already be on your staff and looking for new challenges. Experienced legal assistants already possess many important attributes of a manager. They are accustomed to organizing volumes of information and diplomatically balancing the needs of clients, attorneys, staff, and outside vendors. They are good at gathering data and assembling reports. But the best manager may not be your most senior legal assistant. Many senior legal assistants are satisfied with the job they have. They want to have increasing responsibilities in their projects without the stress of additional administrative duties. Select the person who has the right combination of technical expertise, interpersonal skills, and management potential to thrive in the role. Be sure that you have created a job description that incorporates the most important functions of the job, to give the new manager a road map of the firm’s expectations. DEVELOP THE POSITION Once someone is installed in this position, grow the management function slowly to give the new manager and the firm time to adjust to the new structure and responsibilities. The most obvious starting point is to make the manager responsible for coordinating assignments with attorneys and monitoring billable and nonbillable hours. Then add responsibilities for recruiting, interviewing, and training. Later, the manager may help conduct evaluations and disciplinary sessions and assist in setting salary rates and staff levels. The last step could be involving the manager in budgeting and policy directives that affect the legal assistants. Each of these tasks takes a significant amount of time, especially for someone who is not already familiar with the unique role of legal assistants. As a legal assistant starts along the path to becoming a manager, he or she can take on the supervisory role gradually and continue doing billable work, at a reduced level. Many legal assistant managers never completely give up their billable projects since it keeps their skills sharp, exposes them to the latest technologies, and keeps them in closer contact with the staff they supervise. Though balancing the billable and nonbillable roles of a “working manager” is a challenging goal, it can be accomplished in both large and small firms. WHAT A MANAGER CAN DOWork Flow. Any office with more than five or six legal assistants needs someone to focus on keeping work flowing steadily, so that no one is overloaded or idle. One common complaint of legal assistants who do not have a manager is that their workload is erratic. They often do not get a new primary assignment when a major project is completed, which can lead to a “feast or famine” situation. The attorneys should be able to concentrate on practicing law, not attending to the administrative aspects of work assignments. A legal assistant manager functions as an intermediary, and can help anticipate the needs of attorneys. The manager also understands that it makes more sense to channel higher-level work to senior paralegals, with a higher billing rate, and more routine assignments to entry-level people. • Resources. A legal assistant manager can help stretch personnel resources by setting up a system of cross-training between departments. This approach equips legal assistants with the tools to contribute to short-term projects throughout the office, rather than being underemployed in their own practice area, which may have slow periods. Balancing workloads also offers the firm tremendous savings by not having to hire additional staff or temporaries. • Retention and Recruitment. A problem at many firms is that the legal assistants fall into a gap between attorneys and staff. Although they work closely with attorneys and bill time, at some firms their pay, benefits, and status are more in line with what is accorded to nonlegal staff. The problem is that during the policy-making processes at some firms, the unique status of legal assistants is not adequately addressed. A strong leader and advocate within the legal assistant group helps to address this gap, and also can call attention to more complex problems that might otherwise not be noticed or addressed. Legal assistants who feel that they have a voice that is heard by management are more likely to remain with their firm. • Training and Feedback. A legal assistant manager not only makes sure the legal assistants are equipped to handle attorney requests and follow the firm’s procedures, but also trains new associates in the proper utilization of legal assistants. And a manager puts greater emphasis on feedback, which helps improve performance and morale. SPREAD THE TALENT AROUND If your office currently has a legal assistant manager, it may be possible to combine his or her primary management duties with other functions. Think about what type of special projects would benefit from this person’s contributions. Someone with great computer skills could also be the supervisor of litigation databases or document scanning. A good public speaker could be useful in the orientation and training of new staff and associates. A talented writer may be able to help with marketing, personnel manuals, or drafting disaster-recovery plans. Take a look at the functions that the manager is already using in supervising legal assistants and apply that experience to projects in other departments. Your legal assistant manager undoubtedly has some specialized knowledge that would be useful in training junior attorneys, such as research resources, useful Internet sites, and court or agency filing requirements. And every firm could use someone to teach a refresher course on Bluebooking skills. These are just a few examples of projects that a legal assistant manager can accomplish, instead of disrupting a partner’s workday to plan and conduct the training. Encourage professional development and educational opportunities that offer your legal assistant manager new skills. LAMA offers a wide variety of programs for both new and experienced managers. Check into local graduate programs for management and budgeting courses. Give your legal assistant manager the tools to become a more valuable resource to the firm. In difficult economic times, every firm must do more with less. Creating or redefining the legal assistant manager’s position may be an excellent way to reduce administrative time charged by attorneys, raise the morale and quality of your legal assistant staff, create new opportunities for valued employees, and accomplish special projects that benefit the firm and its clients. Gary Melhuish is the legal assistant coordinator in the Washington, D.C., office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson.

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