Law Firm Articles

Best Practices in Law Firm
Administration and Administrators:
Who Should Conduct the Search for
Your Next Principal Administrator?

Employers everywhere, including law firms, are in the midst of losing key employees to Baby Boomer retirements. During the past three years, nearly half of the requests to Altman Weil to assist with executive searches for principal administrators (executive directors, chief operating officers, etc.) have arisen from the retirement of incumbents. In retirement scenarios (and occasionally in other situations), we see firms put the departing incumbent in charge of searching for his or her replacement.

This raises the question: who in a law firm is the right person to lead hiring projects for new principal administrators? Based on more than 25 years conducting executive searches for law firm administrators on more than 200 occasions, the answer certainly should not be the incumbent principal administrator (or, as discussed further below, the firm’s human resources director).

Our experience tells us that when incumbent executive directors or COOs lead searches for their replacements, ego too often gets in the way (albeit not consciously). Who among us has the clarity of self-inspection to admit that we might have significant shortcomings that need to be avoided in the candidate who might replace us? Which of us has the ability to avoid the subconscious phenomenon that leads human beings to want to associate with people most like themselves?

The point is obvious – putting your incumbent administrator in charge of the executive search, no matter how good or effective the person has been for the firm, is too likely to be limiting. It is likely to undermine one of the primary goals in replacing employees – avoiding the weaknesses and duplicating the strengths of the incumbent being replaced.

There also are good – even better – reasons why the director of human resources should not lead the search for a new principal administrator. For one thing, the human resources officer will be a subordinate of the person being hired and shouldn’t be privy to the most personal details of the candidate’s life. For another thing, it doesn’t make sense for anyone to hire his or her own boss. It would never happen in business, and so it shouldn’t happen in the business affairs of a law firm.

A firm is best served by having the search led by the managing partner, chair, or even a member of the executive committee or board. Ultimately, the successful candidate will report to such a person and it makes sense to have the search handled by the person who will be the executive director’s or COO’s supervisor. Additionally, this has the benefit of giving the supervisor a stake in the success of the principal administrator being hired.

Nothing in this article is meant to suggest that there is no appropriate role in the hiring process for the incumbent or for the firm’s top human resources officer. They should be asked to oversee things such as the collection of resumes, correspondence with candidates, scheduling of interviews, and the like. Additionally, the firm’s current principal administrator or human resources director ought to be one of the people interviewing candidates and having input into the decision. But neither one should be the decision-maker regarding any of the important questions that will be faced: Whose resume deserves a second look? Who should be interviewed? Who should be considered a finalist for the position? Who should be hired?

Jim Wilber has placed hundreds of law firm executives and business managers over two decades. He advises law firms on administrative structure, management and leadership and is a former practicing lawyer and law office manager.

Read more in Altman Weil’s Special Report Law Firm Business Executives: Hiring the Best.

Visit the Altman Weil Job Bank