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Patrick O’Leary may work as many hours as some of the attorneys at San Francisco’s Pillsbury Winthrop. But he considers himself better off as Pillsbury’s director of firmwide operations, at least as far as time is concerned. “One of the hardest things about being a lawyer is that you’re constantly looking at time,” says O’Leary. “It’s always there. You have to be achieving good results. You need to make certain you’re productive.” O’Leary, of course, has his own productivity demands, particularly in the current economic climate in which law firms are watching their expenses as closely as their profits per partner. Instead of worrying about racking up billable hours, O’Leary spends his time trying to figure out how the firm can run more efficiently. That means dealing with Pillsbury’s 700 or so attorneys and making sure they have the resources to service their clients. While the lawyers will spend their hours working for clients, O’Leary will put in his time figuring out how to pull together all the elements to launch a new branch office such as the one that Pillsbury just opened in Houston. Such is the life for law firm administrators. Generally speaking, O’Leary and his counterparts at other firms handle everything from oversight of non-attorney staff to researching and selecting employee health plans. At some firms, the position falls under the title of executive director. At other firms, its functions might be farmed out to related departments such as human resources. But one thing is certain: Law firm administrators play a pivotal role when it comes to trimming costs. Or, as Leary put its, “We are conscious of the numbers.” Sometimes that means having to make tough calls on specific kinds of cuts. During the recent boom times, for example, many law firms were paying 100 percent of employees’ health insurance premiums � and in some cases were also paying for spouses and partners. But with profits down, firms are cutting back on those levels of benefits. Employees at San Francisco’s Hancock Rothert & Bunshoft are now, for the first time, footing the bill for part of their health insurance premiums. “This firm has been very generous for so long,” says Edie Anderies, director of human resources at Hancock Rothert and president of the Bay Area chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators. She says the decision was not an easy one to make, with plenty of hand wringing to go along with the cost cutting. Law firm administrators are also finding themselves under pressure these days to review non-attorney staffing levels. During the heady days of the late 1990s, firms had an easier time when it came to hiring support staff. Today, legal administrators are finding that reduced caseloads and lower profits make it harder to justify comparable staffing levels. In addition, young attorneys tend to be more technologically adept than ever, further reducing the need for secretarial and other support staff. “The new attorneys coming in know how to use a computer,” says Anderies. “They were raised on them.” While firms of all sizes are keeping a careful watch on their bottom lines, administrators at midsized firms face their own challenges in an era of new fiscal realities. Because smaller firms sometimes offer a few extras to attract employees, administrators there faced added pressures when it comes to keeping various benefits in place, according to Anderies. Aside from health insurance payments, many of Hancock Rothert’s benefits have stayed intact. “We still have holiday parties,” says Anderies. “We still have retreats.” She also points out that Hancock Rothert, with slightly more than 100 lawyers, has not laid anyone off. “Larger firms will follow the corporate practice,” says Anderies says. “They want to do what the Joneses are doing. They want to stay in the market.” O’Leary, however, says there are now hard and fast rules for how and where to trim costs. “We try not to be ideological about how many employees we have, but at the same time we need to serve our clients,” he says. “The ratios of employees to attorneys are all over the map.” Administrators at smaller firms tend to wear more hats than those at larger firms. Judy Todd, executive director at Farella Braun & Martel, does everything from finance work and human resource issues to firmwide logistics. Lately, Todd has been busy preparing the firm’s new quarters in San Francisco’s Russ Building. Each week, Todd meets with the contractor to discuss progress on the construction and make decisions on everything from different kinds of signs to carpeting. Todd used to be known as the chief operating officer at her firm. “We hadn’t had an executive director here for a while,” she says. “We didn’t want our partners managing a lot of the administrative challenges. I’ve been here 13 years. I have the trust of the partners.” Back at Pillsbury, O’Leary spends much of his time addressing specific problems that crop up. “A lot of what I do is bring together people from throughout the organization” to bring about a desired result. That could be anything from delivery of office supplies to a far-flung branch office to resolving a conflict between employees. At the moment, O’Leary is working on a firmwide plan to farm out copying, mail and fax functions to an outside provider. Some law firm administrators, meanwhile, rely on technology to make their own jobs more efficient. Todd, for example, handles many of the problems that arise in the course of her day via e-mail. “It’s the way people are communicating,” she says. “I spend a lot of my day reading. Next thing you know, the week is gone.” Andrew Simons is a freelance writer in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to California Legal Pro .

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