Baton in hand exaggerates the way chief operating executives actually manage their firms. But many Atlanta law firm leaders, without prompting on the analogy, described their roles as conductors of complex symphonies of partners, associates and support staff.

And these orchestras often must perform simultaneously in different offices and on different continents.

James Hale, chief operating officer for Arnall Golden Gregory, describes the dynamic this way: “A lot of times, I’m just holding the baton. Somebody else is playing the instruments.”

S. Dan Anderson, chief operating officer for McKenna Long & Aldridge, says he first thought about the music analogy more than a dozen years ago.

“I described my job then as an orchestra leader. I don’t play an instrument. I help direct the orchestra well,” he says.

And this particular group of law firm executives shares more than the musical outlook. None went to law school. Rather, they come from financial backgrounds.

James Hale, chief operating officer, Arnall Golden Gregory

James Hale, chief operating officer for Arnold Golden Gregory, uses words like “nimble,” “collegial” and “consensus-driven” to describe his firm’s culture and why he enjoys working with the partners, associates and staff there.

Hale’s background was public accounting at Arthur Young (later Ernst & Young). “I was really interested in developing people and what motivates people.”

He sees his job as reducing the non-legal pressures on the firms’ lawyers.

“They’re jumping through hoops all day long,” Hale says. “Lawyers are not naturally financial people. So they value someone who they can trust to manage the finances and have internal controls.”

In particular, Hale and the professional staff offer help to lawyers in their bill collection efforts.

“We’ve developed that kind of trust where the lawyers will let us do that,” he says. “That avoids the lawyer having to get on the phone and talk to the client about those matters. They’re not always good at it or don’t always want to do it.”

But billing is just one of many areas where professional and non-legal staff make the partners’ jobs easier.

“A law firm is a business — a fairly sizable business — and the infrastructure and how it runs is becoming more and more important. Technology is getting more complex,” Hale says.

Like other law firm executives, Hale says understanding and respecting a firm’s unique culture is key to success.

Before he joined, Arnall Golden Gregory wanted to make sure Hale would be a good fit. He remembers one particular question on a psychological profile.

If your wife could change one thing about you, what would it be? At that point, he had been happily married for 20 years.

His response: “We’re not in the business of changing each other.”

Hale, in turn, never got in the business of trying to change his firm’s culture either.

“I’ve worked at a CPA firm, accounting firm and law firm. This is the culture that fits what I do really well. The collegiality and the interpersonal nature of it. The lawyers (here) really like working together,” he says.

Now, one of Hale’s major challenges involves moving about 250 people to new offices.

“It’s almost like a Rubik’s cube. One thing we’re trying to do strategically is to get the practice groups lined up in the same place, then figure out where the growth is going to be,” he says.

“We’re a fast-moving firm,” he adds. “We have to deliver to our lawyers like that.”

The answer to tough questions at Arnall, Hales says, is “usually not ‘no’. It’s usually, ‘well, that’s going to be tough but we’ll figure out a way to get it done.’”

James Gillespie, executive administrator, Constangy Brooks & Smith

James Gillespie, a CPA by training, had worked as a consultant for Constangy, Brooks & Smith when the firm asked him to step in temporarily as an administrator more than a decade ago.

“I thought, yeah, I’m a consultant. I can do that, not knowing what a law firm administrator really did,” he says.

Twelve years later, he’s still there and has a much deeper understanding of the job he accepted.

Gillespie also sees his job in musical terms, but uses a slightly different metaphor to describe the dynamic.

“Our firm is more like a piano playing a concerto. Each note is one of the partners, and they play the music and it really does make a beautiful sound and make beautiful music,” he says.

Gillespie says one of his key tasks at the firm is attracting new attorneys who mesh with the firm’s cultural concerto: “If we bring another note into the piano, it needs to fit into that piece of music.”

He describes the firm’s culture as “humble and trustworthy.”

“The challenge is to know your culture, and with each additional attorney you bring into the firm with their book of business, ensure that you protect the culture,” he says.

Gillespie devotes his time to the business side of the firm.

“I know that law firms follow the corporate model on a delayed basis. I know the fragility of law firms has dramatically increased, which is bringing law firms to seek models that look more like corporate models,” he says.

Specifically for Gillespie, that means keeping a sharp focus on numbers and best practices.

“We are in the era of specialization. I spend my entire day and any training I receive on benchmarking, best practices. Where law firms might be vulnerable from the financial side makes me acutely attuned to those topics, to what firms are doing in those areas and it allows me to provide that kind of leadership to the firm,” he says.

Gillespie views his highest priority as growing the firm, most often through the hiring process. He tries to get deep inside the numbers “so we can glean out and find those candidates that are a good match and then get all the data upfront and get the best matches.”

His other areas of focus: “Supporting the other directors on information they may need and also working in the accounting area, which is my natural strong suit, and insuring that bills are going out timely.”

But key for Gillespie is being there for partners. “If they have a situation they need some business advice on, they can always call me and I tell them exactly what I think.”

Beyond basic business advice, far more important to Gillespie is ensuring the firm thinks creatively.

“If I can take my academic experience, my training and my experience in the financial area and combine that with what lawyers do naturally through their training, which is to gather all the data and capture all the information, and then add on top of that a creative, ‘Let’s just think about some other way of doing this,’ then I have what I consider the ultimate combination of skills,” he says.

Clark Davis, executive director, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan

Clark Davis studied accounting at Georgia State University and passed his CPA test, yet he never wanted to be an accountant or an auditor.

He wanted to work in the legal world.

“I liked working around smart people,” says Davis. “I liked that they were doing important things. I liked the environment.”

He began at Sutherland in 1992 as chief financial officer.

“I sort of looked in my crystal ball and thought it would be interesting to have a position with a little bit of management, a little bit of finance, a little bit of marketing and technology,” he says.

His crystal ball also foresaw “that law would get bigger and these jobs would be interesting. It worked out,” he adds.

Davis’s focus now is on tasks that include project management, process management, cost accounting and profitability.

In the current financial environment, clients demand increasing efficiencies in the ways firms handle those areas.

Sometimes that leads to changes in the organization — changes that play to Davis’ nuts-and-bolts cost accounting strengths.

“Which of these processes do you really need a lawyer to do? I think a business background better lends itself to analyzing the processes — the cost associated with these processes and managing the implementation and the change management that comes with those issues.”

All of this means deeply delving into numbers in ways law firms didn’t often do years ago.

“It used to be that firms had one sort of general business model. You had your revenues and your expenses and everybody thought that had the same sort of profit margin and it was the firm’s profit margin,” he says.

Today, firms employ more sophisticated analytical tools and know “they have multiple business models and you need to understand those profit models.”

“Now we understand you can have two $4 million practices. One may be very profitable and the other may not be so profitable. It changes the way we manage and the advice you give on how to staff those matters to have results everyone is happy with: The client happy with the pricing and the firm happy with the results,” he says.

Dan Anderson, chief operating officer, McKenna Long & Aldridge

“It seems like I’m constantly thinking about space,” says Dan Anderson, the chief operating officer for McKenna Long & Aldridge.

By that he means nearly every day delving into real estate, lease negotiations and movement of new partners and staff into existing office space.

Anderson began his career as an internal auditor at Genesco, a large apparel conglomerate. He then worked as controller of a construction company and in real estate syndication before becoming a law firm administrator in 1985. His move coincided with a general trend among larger law firms to “think more like a business and try to apply general business principles to a law firm.”

Now at McKenna, he focuses on a wide range of those business principles.

“I work closely with our general counsel in thinking about risk management. I work closely with the human resources chief, with the chief financial officer. We’re constantly looking at metrics from a staffing perspective, whether they are staffing ratios or cost per attorney,” he says.

Keeping up with the legal issues that affect business support remains a challenge. “The technology changes, the demands by clients. They’re trying to make sure we’re doing things financially as we should,” Anderson said. Internally, that means “that our capital is at the right level, that our banking relationships are good, that our marketing folks are doing the right things, that we’re doing what we need to do in a business support model to support the strategic objectives that we set out.”

For Anderson, it increasingly means trying to imagine what a law firm will look like 10 years from now.

That includes looking at new uses of space and new support models.

And for law firm executives like Anderson who studied finance and business, it means a sharp focus on fees.

“One of the topics you hear about a lot are alternative fee arrangements,” he says. “The client pressures to change. I think that will change our professional staffing model. I think it will change our direct support model. I think it will change our billing model. I think it will change the level of transparency that our clients have.”

One possibility for Anderson: Perhaps instead of sending bills at the end of each month, clients will be able to look into the firms’ billing system and examine costs during the month.

He says it’s also possible clients will decide they don’t really want that option. That’s the difficulty of trying to be a futurist. It’s really just a best guess.

Communications issues pose challenges as well.

“Will Twitter ever be a business tool? It’s already a marketing tool, but will it be a business communication tool?” he wonders.

NOTHING NEW

The ability and desire to focus on the non-legal business issues, financial metrics and strategic objectives has led more and more law firms to seek out a different kind of executive leadership.

Davis of Sutherland says it’s no surprise, and it’s nothing new.

“I think most folks have gone for professional management a long time and see the wisdom of it,” he says.

McKenna’s Anderson says some challenges remain, though. “Partners are partners. It’s their business. They own part of it. They want to help make the decisions. It’s always a struggle even in large firms for partners to say, ‘I want to practice law and let the business people run the business.’”

AGG’s Hale says that years ago he got over any sense there might be a disadvantage for a COO who doesn’t have a legal background.

“I asked our former managing partner, Bill Kitchens, ‘Maybe I should get a law degree so I can really understand how a lawyer thinks?’ He didn’t miss a beat. He said, ‘We don’t want to mess you up. We like you just the way you are.’”