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The economy may have improved, but don’t tell that to Anne Burcell. Listening to Burcell, an administrative manager at San Francisco’s Morrison & Foerster, you’d think business was slow. “Things might be looking good, but I’m cautious,” she says. It’s hard to blame her. After three years of anemic business and reduced profits, executive directors, managing partners and other leaders of Bay Area firms are doing what they can to keep down costs. That has put pressure on law firm administrators � who do everything from overseeing non-attorney staff to researching and selecting firmwide health plans � to aggressively cut expenses. In turn, that’s meant watching expenses for everything from pencils and legal pads to insurance premiums and fringe benefits. Now that economy is showing some signs of picking up � corporate M&A work, along with an uptick in IPOs, is bringing new smiles to some attorneys’ faces � many law firms are inclined to think there is light at the end of what has been a pretty long tunnel. But does that mean the firms will go back to spending money the way they did in those flush days of the late 1990s? Don’t count on it, say law firm administrators. “What I’ve learned during this time is that I need to be more reflective about what we really need to have,” says Burcell. The MoFo administrator isn’t the only one who sounds like a Buddhist when talking about expenses. Law firm administrators and executive directors at firms of varying sizes emphasize that caution is the watchword when it comes to firm expenses. Back in the heady closing years of the last century, when corporate law firms seemed to be minting money thanks to the boom in IPO, M&A and related transactional work, it was easy for law firm administrators to sign off on expensive parties, extravagant client-building activities and lavish office quarters. After all the booming stopped, administrators had to start cutting costs. In the case of health insurance, law firms had previously been willing to pay the complete cost of premiums for their employees � and in some cases for spouses or domestic partners as well. But with profits down, firms are having a harder time justifying extensive health plans, and many have made adjustments. Another cost area that has taken a hit is support staff. Lower caseloads and reduced profits have made it harder for firms to maintain non-attorney staffing levels. Economic cutbacks have also continued to coincide with the trend for newer attorneys to be more comfortable with technology, further reducing the need for secretarial and other support staff. Legal secretaries, in particular, often find themselves on the list of staffing categories that are getting squeezed. It used to be that legal secretaries handled a wide range of duties at law firms, ranging from clerical tasks to casework administration. But with new associates coming out of law school equipped with technical and research skills, all-purpose secretaries are in less demand. Burcell says her firm is piloting some new programs for secretaries, though nothing is permanent yet. “We’re not ready to say the legal secretary is going away,” says Burcell, who is also currently serving as president of the local Golden Gate chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators. “I have a lot of very engaged legal secretaries. But then I have some lawyers who don’t want that.” If nothing else, the subject of secretaries is one that seems to be prompting a lot of discussion among law firm officials. “We’ve talked about this and talked about it some more. We’ve probably talked about it to death. Most of the time we just throw up our hands and keep doing what we’re doing,” says Burcell. “After carefully surveying our clientele, the attorneys, we have found that a lot of what they need, since they are technologically advanced, is either basic clerical help or someone to work on their cases with them.” Real estate is another expense category that administrators are taking a tougher look at these days. With some firms adjusting the size of their staffs and refocusing their practice areas, administrators and others are also looking at different strategies when it comes to the bricks-and-mortar aspects of operating a law firm. Juanita Luna, executive director at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, says that swanky offices had become the standard, particularly in the late 1990s when times were flush. “Some of these law firms that built up in Silicon Valley had very extravagant buildouts,” says Luna. “Law firms have always been nice work environments. But they’re not these extravagant Taj Mahals, which it felt like we were getting to a little bit. We were in this market of having to attract new lawyers out of law school and it was their market, not ours.” As the economy shifted downward, so did the physical surroundings. Or, as Luna puts it, “nice, but not extravagant.” The lifestyle at many law firms has also seemed to reflect that motto. No more lavish parties and big extraneous expenses. Instead, managing partners and legal administrators are now encouraging a more measured approach to business-related social activities. “A funny thing happened in the downturn of the economy,” says Luna. “You found that events like that were about getting people together, not about what kind of wine you’re drinking or food you’re eating or the venue you’re in. Now you don’t see as much extravagance. I think that’s a good thing. I would say a change from the down economy is that we’re having those again, but having them more frugally.” Another change has been the role of law firm administrators themselves. Where administrators once focused mostly on matters involving their firms’ facilities, they now are immersed in everything from recruiting new lawyers to analyzing partner compensation. “You have to know a lot of things,” says Gina Maciula (pronounced Ma-QUE-la), executive director at Wendel Rosen Black & Dean in Oakland. “You have to know how to do a lease. You have to know how to deal with computers. I’m involved with attorney recruiting. I deal with headhunters. I help decide if an attorney will fit into the firm. I’m involved in deciding partner compensation.” Adds Luna: “A decade ago this job was a jack of all trades. I think it’s evolved to a master of all trades.” One thing is certain. Law firm administrators have stressful jobs. With employees at all levels of the firm coming to them with problems, it’s important for law firm administrators to have good communications skills, says Maciula. That, and a “thick skin,” she adds. A sense of humor doesn’t hurt either. She jokes about keeping a jar of Maalox � “a big jar” � on her desk. There are times when the broad role played by administrators at some firms fuels certain levels of tension between them and managing partners. An administrator at a midsized Bay Area firm, who asked not to be named, says power struggles between administrators and managing partners are not uncommon. “When you have a new managing partner, you’re always re-earning your level of authority,” says the administrator. “It’s a trust level for them. You have to trust your staff to be able to handle things. You have to depend on your staff to give you good advice.” Burcell, at MoFo, agrees that trust is a crucial factor. “In depends on the law firm,” she says. “It depends how much [law firm partners] are willing to trust the professionals they’ve hired.” Andrew Simons is a freelance writer in Southern California and a regular contributor to California Legal Pro.

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