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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 slow growth, executive directors, managing partners, and other firm leaders are doing what they can to keep down costs. That has put pressure on law firm administrators — who do everything from overseeing nonattorney 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 the economy is showing some signs of picking up, 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 nonattorney 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. “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,” says Burcell. Real estate is another expense category that administrators are taking a tougher look at these days. With some firms adjusting the size of their staff 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. 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 Gina Maciula, executive director at Wendel Rosen Black & Dean in Oakland, Calif. 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. Andrew Simons is a free-lance writer in Southern California. A version of this article previously appeared in the American Lawyer Media newspaper The Recorder.

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