YOUR LEGAL WRITES: Mastering law firm administration

By The West Virginia Record | Apr 1, 2008

CHARLESTON -- Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, was known for many things, one of which was his unique ability to summarize a situation in a simple yet loaded sentence.

CHARLESTON -- Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, was known for many things, one of which was his unique ability to summarize a situation in a simple yet loaded sentence.

His Missouri folksiness brought fame to an inventory of one-liners, such as "... being a president is a lot like riding a tiger -– you have to keep riding or be swallowed."

Law firm administrators often feel this way, especially now that the field has become increasingly complex and more demanding. Once a position dedicated to personnel and billing issues, law firm administrators today find themselves as a director with multiple professional personalities –- financial manager, information systems manager, human resource manager, and facilities manager, to name a few.

Unlike Give Em' Hell Harry -- a "fellow" lacking a college degree -- legal administrators now have the luxury of receiving a formal education in law firm management.

The George Washington University has created industry-specific graduate programs that respond to the need for highly skilled leadership in law firms.

Co-sponsored by the GW College of Professional Studies and The Hildebrandt Institute, these flexible training programs provide legal professionals with the business and management expertise they need to succeed in a firm of any size – while helping the lawyers succeed in practice, as well.

A "master's degree of professional studies in law firm management" is a 30-credit program that can be completed in approximately two years and is designed for people working full-time. The program is split into two 12-credit segments, law firm management and law firm leadership, and ends with a six-credit research project. Each of the two 12-credit tracks involves a nine-day residency, a four-month distant learning exchange, and a final four-day residency. All residencies are held at the GW Alexandria Graduate Education Center in Virginia.

Over the past two years, professional administrators from 25-lawyer firms to 400-lawyer mega-firms have attended the program, which, like law school recruitment, was created with a particular applicant in mind.

"The ideal candidate for the program is an individual who desires to obtain a strategic understanding of the modern law firm in order to provide the change leadership required to insure the continued success of their firm in today's highly competitive and global marketplace," began program director, Stephen R. Chitwood, Ph.D., J.D.

"As a graduate program, the candidate is assumed to already possess a working understanding of law firms from such roles as attorneys, professional administrator or consultants. While several partners from large and small firms have found the program valuable, professional administrators and other professionals working with firms have been the primary beneficiaries of the program," he said.

Chitwood went on to explain that by acquiring a strategic perspective on the modern firm, executive directors, operations managers, HR directors, financial officers, IT directors and other professionals have been able to contribute higher levels of value-added from their specialized functions. As a result, upon leaving the program graduates have uniformly advanced to positions of greater and more significant responsibility.

Program faculty consists of professors from the GW School of Business, the School of Public Policy and Public Administration, adjunct professors from The Hildebrandt Institute, the Citigroup Private Bank Law Firm Group, and executive directors of higher-profile law firms. Curriculum modules are categorized into coursework and lectures on firm profitability, market research, client relations, compensation, organizational structure, and strategic planning. While total tuition and fees are adjusted depending on the courses taken and the rate at which a student completes the program, the average investment from start to finish is $30,000.

Aside from the personal benefits of achieving a master's degree, particularly one that certifies a legal administrator's complete comprehension of law firm management, program coordinators believe that other outcomes are guaranteed. Advanced training of key personnel is said to improve a firm's competitiveness and market sophistication, assists in the hiring of other highly sought-after professionals within the legal world, and provides invaluable insight into fresh problem solving and long-term planning.

As a law firm administrator's job description stretches into even greater areas of accountability, he or she may be able to edit the document down to a straightforward phrase understood by all….the buck stops here.

Brown is the managing member of The Write Word LLC, a professional writing and editing agency based in Charleston. She has authored nearly one hundred articles on marketing and corporate communications. For more information, contact the agency's Web site: www.thewritewordllc.com.

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