In the first part of this series, I explained how I grew my law firm to annual gross revenues of $1 million – and beyond. I told you about the three marketing strategies I used to grow the practice over 18-24 months.
What I didn’t really focus on in that first installment was what else had to change in the law firm – and in myself as the owner – for us to start achieving seven figure years.
The truth is that while it was marketing that grew the firm, nothing would have happened in the first place without my hiring a law firm administrator.
In 1995 I decided to get serious about building a growing and successful law practice. I knew what I wanted to do about the marketing, and I knew how to handle and win cases, but I didn’t know about building a million-dollar business.
Introducing Cheryl Leone
I’d known Cheryl Leone for a while. Cheryl had already helped build four multi-million dollar businesses. So I asked her for advice.
I wasn’t expecting her response.
“What is it that you really want to do, Ken? What do you want out of life?”
Up until this point, I really hadn’t thought seriously about it. Like most people, I was focused on working to pay the bills and provide for my family. Making monthly payroll was a regular goal.
Never mind dreaming big, I wasn’t really dreaming at all.
“When I know what your personal plan is, Ken,” said Cheryl, “then we can plan how to build a business around your personal plan.”
So I sat, and I thought about it for a long while. Cheryl says it took “forever” for me to come up with my answer:
“I want a law firm I can exit out of, so that I can sit on the beach and play golf.”
Suddenly, I was going to work for a dream instead of a job – even a job of my own making. I never looked back.
That’s really the first step that everybody has to take, if they want to succeed. Nobody can help you build what you want if you don’t know yourself what it is you want.
Cheryl helped me understand what I now preach to others: “A goal without a plan is just a dream.”
The next step was to plan how to achieve my dream. The first milestone would be that $1 million in gross revenues.
Marketing has always been my strength, rather than management. I preach to lawyers, don’t improve your weakness; instead hire your weaknesses. That means if you’re weak in a particular area like management, you hire somebody who is a strong manager, to make up for your weakness.
The role of a law firm administrator is to build a high-performance team that has a strong teamwork environment. If that’s not your strength then you need a law firm administrator who is tasked with making it happen.
I knew Cheryl could help me plan and deliver my dream, so I hired her as the law firm’s administrator.
First Step – Strategic Plan
I worked with Cheryl to create a strategic plan of how we were going to grow and manage the law practice to my goal of $1 million in gross revenues.
We planned how to build a firm with great client service that would manage cases and handle clients in a way that would ultimately generate referrals.
We built our processes, procedures and systems around that plan. I wanted clients to receive regular communication from us, so we planned out exactly how that should happen, step-by-step.
But that wasn’t all Cheryl was looking at.
“Don’t just look at the gross revenues, Ken,” she said. “Look at your costs too.”
There’s little point in generating a million in revenue if you don’t get to keep any of it. So we also looked at ways of increasing efficiency.
That meant holding people accountable, checking that they were following the processes correctly, and that remedies were in place when they weren’t.
The Importance of a Law Firm Administrator
Once we started putting the plan into action, the value of having an administrator for the law firm was evident.
I was a lawyer who wanted to focus on marketing the law practice.
Marilyn, the office manager was focused on ensuring the office ran smoothly.
Cheryl, as the law firm administrator, was focused on us running as a growing, profitable and successful business. I repeat, as a business.
Effectively, Cheryl was wearing her CEO hat for my law firm.
For her to be effective in that role, I had to grant her the necessary authority and empower her to use it.
Cheryl was given blanket authority. She could hire or fire anybody she wanted. She had the authority to spend up to $25,000. She took control of our trust accounts, our operating accounts, the P&L and all of our reports.
In short, I trusted Cheryl to run the firm as a business. Of course I kept an eye on what she was doing. Always trust but verify.
Cheryl’s job, as the administrator, was to tell objective truths – to speak bluntly – when the issue required it.
In order for Cheryl to succeed as the administrator, first she needed to understand what my expectations were of her, of the firm, and of the employees. Only then could she get to work and be held accountable.
As the administrator, she could do the things I was reluctant to do, but which were in the best interests of the law practice.
I might care about an employee’s feelings or they might care about mine, and that can sometimes prevent an issue being raised or the full truth being told. This was particularly true for employees I’d had a long and valuable relationship with. I might not want to upset them by telling him or her exactly what my expectations were, and how they weren’t meeting them.
As the administrator, those feelings didn’t matter to Cheryl if they were getting in the way of the growth and success of the firm. She would say whatever needed to be said to whoever needed to hear it. Including me.
And sometimes I would get drawn into things that I didn’t need to be in the middle of. Lawyers would come to me about issues I didn’t need to be involved with, but I somehow got stuck in the middle of.
We change all that by directing the lawyers to go and see Cheryl.
By implementing the systems we had built, as the law practice administrator, Cheryl could ensure that our staff were held accountable.
If you’ve got a system that requires court filings within 30 days of opening the client’s case, then when that’s not being met, Cheryl would find out who wasn’t pulling their weight. Whatever was needed to solve the issue, Cheryl would make sure it happened.
That could have been a simple conversation, it could be a reprimand or it could be more training. Cheryl has only ever fired five people in her entire career.
Like I said earlier, Cheryl held me accountable too.
She was working to build my dream for me, so she would tell me what she needed from me. If I wasn’t delivering it on time, she would have no problem telling me. I was holding up my own dream, and being held to account for it.
Every single one of us needs that kind of accountability if we’re determined to succeed. Our PILMMA Mastermind Groups offer lawyers that accountability in a slightly different way.
The law firm administrator has to be knowledgeable enough to implement best business practices and understand human resource parameters.
In order to succeed, a law firm administrator has to be strong. They’ve got to be prepared to tell the boss what they’re doing wrong. They have to be unfazed by the prospect of facing down the biggest office gossip or “mother hen”.
The law firm administrator is there to be the ruthless executioner, implementing your plan for success and building your dream.
Of course, it’s also important that they never lose sight of why you started your law firm in the first place.
You don’t ever want to care more about the money than taking care of clients.
When you forget about the welfare of your clients and only care about making more money, your law firm turns into a mill, grinding out quick settlements and disappointing clients.
Your law firm administrator should never forget that, but neither should you as the law firm owner. Integrity has a price. Don’t lose your integrity.
A Good Law Firm Administrator Will Pay For Themselves
You might not want to pay the market rate for a strong and capable law firm administrator, but let me ask you this:
Are you working 60 or 70 hours a week and still not really making any money? Do you find that despite making six figures, your costs are so high that you’re not being adequately rewarded financially?
Thinking about those questions can help figure out whether you need a law firm administrator. If this is the situation you find yourself in, and you want to grow and increase profitability, then maybe you’re ready to hire a law practice administrator.
Hiring an administrator is a serious step to take for your firm. You’ll have to offer a good financial package, competitive in your local market, for an excellent administrator. You’ll need to trust them, empower and authorize them to make changes for the better.
If you do it right, you’ll be hiring somebody to wear the CEO hat in your law practice. They’ll work with you to plan how you’re going to grow, increase efficiency and cut costs.
The only way a law firm administrator won’t pay for themselves is if you’re not doing it right.
Hiring A Great Law Practice Administrator
Until I hired Cheryl, I really hadn’t thought clearly about what my dream was. She helped me understand what I really wanted and how to build it. Then Cheryl helped me make it happen.
I was able to back away from handling cases. Eventually I sold the firm to my partner, Ben Cochran, and retired to the beach to play golf.
I couldn’t have built a million dollar practice without a great law practice administrator.
I couldn’t have sold the firm and retired without a great law practice administrator.
I couldn’t have achieved my dream without a great law practice administrator.
I don’t really talk enough about how vital a strong and capable administrator is for the growth and success of a great law practice. So I’m going to change that.
Cheryl and I are hosting an exclusive two-day event, Management Mastery, designed to help you put in place the infrastructure your law firm needs for success.
We’ll teach you what systems, procedures and training you need to implement in your law practice. If you already have a COO or law firm administrator, we’ll help you whip them into shape, so that they drive the growth and improvement in your law firm. But if you don’t yet have a COO or administrator, we’ll help you understand how to hire the perfect candidate for the role.