Debra Elsbury discusses the importance of utilizing the skills of a legal administrator to boost the success of your law firm.
The Florida Bar Podcast
Debra Elsbury is the firm administrator for Threlkeld Stevenson in Indianapolis, Indiana. She has been actively working in the...
Christine Bilbrey is a Senior Practice Management Advisor at The Florida Bar’s Practice Resource Center. She holds a master’s...
Karla Eckardt, a Miami native, moved to Tallahassee to pursue a bachelor’s degree in international affairs and criminology from...
Is your practice in need of a firm administrator? You may be reticent to pass the baton, but it could help your firm become significantly more efficient and profitable. Florida Bar podcast hosts Christine Bilbrey and Karla Eckardt sit down with Debra Elsbury, president-elect of the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA), to discuss what lawyers need to know about the successful management of their law firms. They talk about how legal administrators save attorneys time and money and describe what the relationship between an administrator and managing partner should look like. Debra shares many of her personal experiences and offers insight into how administrative roles may differ from firm to firm.
Debra Elsbury is the firm administrator for Threlkeld Stevenson in Indianapolis, Indiana.
This podcast has been approved by The Florida Bar Continuing Legal Education Department for 1 hour of General CLE Credit. Course #3672
The Florida Bar Podcast
Law Firm Management Essentials
Intro: Welcome to The Florida Bar Podcast, where we highlight the latest trends in law office and legal practice management to help you run your firm, brought to you by The Florida Bar’s Practice Resource Center. You are listening to Legal Talk Network.
Christine Bilbrey: Welcome to The Florida Bar Podcast, brought to you by LegalFuel: The Practice Resource Center of The Florida Bar on Legal Talk Network. We are so glad you are joining us. This is Christine Bilbrey. I am a Senior Practice Management Advisor at the Bar and one of the hosts for today’s show, which is being recorded from our offices in Tallahassee, Florida.
Karla Eckardt: Hello, I am Karla Eckardt. I am a Practice Management Advisor at The Florida Bar and a co-host of today’s podcast.
Our goal at The Practice Resource Center is to assist Florida attorneys with running the business side of their law practices. We focus on a different topic each month and carry the theme through our website with related tips, videos and articles.
Christine Bilbrey: So our target audience at The Practice Resource Center at the Florida Bar is solo and small firm attorneys. They typically have the most questions for us about how to run the business side of their firms, because they don’t have the same infrastructure as an attorney who has joined a big law firm.
But as their practice grows there will come a moment when the attorney or attorneys no longer have the time to run the administrative side of their firms and at that point some decide they need to hire a professional firm administrator or they will promote a trusted assistant to office manager.
The problem is that the attorney may not know what they don’t know about running a law firm. They may not be aware that there is a very helpful organization that is a powerful resource to help with all of these issues. That group is the Association of Legal Administrators also known as ALA.
And joining us today to discuss Law Firm Management Essentials and the ALA is Debra Elsbury. Debbie is the Principal Firm Administrator for Threlkeld Stevenson in Indianapolis, Indiana. She has been actively working in the legal field since 1995.
She attended Marian College in Indianapolis and earned her Certified Legal Manager designation in 2009. Debbie is an active member of the Association of Legal Administrators, which has over 9,000 members and is the premier professional association connecting law firm leaders and managers. They provide extensive professional development, collaborative peer communities, strategic operational solutions and business partner connections empowering their members to lead the business of law.
Debbie served her local ALA Chapter in many leadership roles and is now the President-Elect for the Association of Legal Administrators. Welcome to the show Debbie.
Debra Elsbury: Thank you. I am glad to be here.
Christine Bilbrey: So for full disclosure, I do want to note that Karla and I are members of ALA as well and we are board members of our local Florida Capital Chapter here in Tallahassee.
So Debbie, please tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your evolution from law firm employee to now being the President-Elect of the International Professional Association for Law Firm Administrators.
Debra Elsbury: Yeah, it’s kind of actually quite a journey. I started out in a midsized firm, considering in Indianapolis it was about a 20 attorney firm, here as the assistant to the legal administrator at that point. That firm after a few years imploded, and when that firm imploded, the managing member came to me and said hey, we are going to split off and we are going to open our own firm, will you go with us? I am like sure. I didn’t even ask what the job title was, I didn’t ask what the pay was, I was like yes. In fact, I even had that conversation with my husband. He is like how much does it pay? I am like I didn’t even ask. It’s like I just wanted to do it.
Well, what I found when I got into legal management is that I didn’t have any resources, I had no peers, it was just me and the attorneys and the people who reported to me, and so that’s when I started with ALA, because I needed peers, I needed someone I can bounce ideas off of. I can find out what they are doing in their firms and I can bring it back to mine.
And so at that point in 2003, I started in 1995, in 2003 I joined ALA, and I have not looked back since. I think that that’s an organization that has made me a better person, a better manager and has funneled into my firm. And so I have been able to bring resources to my firm that as a small firm now of five attorneys we wouldn’t necessarily have access to.
And as someone who when they jump in, jump in with both feet, I found myself working my way up the leadership ranks and next thing you know here I am President-Elect and happy, very happy to be so.
Karla Eckardt: Very interesting. I mean you had what seems to be somewhat of a gradual education in becoming a law firm administrator, so you didn’t just go from working or college straight to becoming a law firm administrator, but for someone who is new to the position, who has in fact never been a law firm administrator or been in the legal field, period, what are the most vital areas of knowledge or skill sets that a new administrator must know or possess?
Debra Elsbury: I think one of the biggest things as a new administrator is that you do have to have these leadership skills and these communication skills, many of the other things can be taught. You need to be able to communicate with staff, you need to be able to communicate well with the partners in the firm or the management committee or the managing partner or the managing member, whatever format you have in the firm in which you are employed is you have to be able to communicate well and concisely. So I would think that’s one of the big things.
You also need to be able to understand finance. Many times small firms, they do not have a CFO, you are the first line of defense and then they have outside accountants who actually then prepare tax returns, but you have to understand the balance sheets, because you can’t advise a partner in a firm what they need to do financially if you don’t understand the balance sheets and the profits and losses yourself.
So those are the two biggies, and I think all the other softer skills can be taught and can be learned and you can absorb that from people around you.
Christine Bilbrey: What would you say to the firm owner who believes that they can continue to handle all of those day-to-day administrative tasks required to run a firm?
Debra Elsbury: I would ask them to spend about, I don’t know, 60 days writing down how many hours they spend doing non-billable work and then put a dollar amount to that, and pretty soon you get to the point where you realize you shouldn’t be doing it anymore. Not only that you can’t do it as effectively, but you shouldn’t be doing it, because money is going out the door that shouldn’t be.
And so I have had people ask me, so how big of a firm do you need to have to be able to have an administrator, and I don’t think that there is any set numbers, it’s not like well, when you get to four, that’s when you need or you get to six, that’s when you need. I think it’s much vaguer than that, so that creates a little bit of a gray area for everyone, but I think it depends on your practice.
And then it depends on who is doing what, and if you are spending a lot of time doing non-billable work managing your firm, when you could be doing billable work that’s going to bring money in the door, that’s when you need to go, wait a minute, what am I doing and why am I doing this.
I think also the other thing you have to keep in mind if you are an attorney looking to hire an administrator, not only look at what you are doing today or tomorrow, but what you are going to do in six months, what you are going to do in a year, what you are going to do in two years.
So if your intention, if your business plan is such that you expect to grow or bring in different practice groups, these kinds of things, you are trying to bring in other attorneys, you also need to keep that in mind, because many times what happens is the managing partner goes, I can do all of this, I can do it, I have got it, but then two years from now when things have grown or things have gotten really busy, then you need an administrator, now you are behind the rock and a hard spot, because you are trying to bring someone in and you don’t even have time to interview them.
So you need to kind of plan, where do you want to go, where do you want to be, do you want to be doing these administrative tasks that you are doing now six months from now, a year from now, two years from now.
So I think it’s very difficult to convince an attorney sometimes that they need an administrator, but I think if you can put dollars to those hours, that speaks volumes, because that’s money out of their pocket.
Karla Eckardt: I think it’s also important to note that if you are in a position where — or if you are an attorney and you are in a position where you haven’t put together that financial analysis on how much revenue you are losing or you do comparables year after year, then maybe that’s also a sign you need a firm administrator, because that’s part of their job, understanding the financial information and providing the analysis for the firm in order to become more profitable.
Christine Bilbrey: And they don’t teach a whole lot of that in law schools.
Karla Eckardt: Right, right, exactly, so if you have never heard of — if you have never performed any kind of financial analysis for your firm, that’s a red flag in and of itself.
So you mentioned that you went from a bigger firm to a smaller firm now, tell us about the differences in your role when you were running the big firm of, I think you said 20 attorneys versus this small firm of five?
Debra Elsbury: With the 20 attorney firm so many of the tasks that fall under my umbrella today were done by other people. So like for instance, the billing, so all of the billing corrections, all of making sure that the attorneys were getting their time in, that was something that was always covered by someone else. I didn’t have to do that, that person just reported to me.
Then you had your accounts payable people and you had your accounts receivable people and they handled that. We had a paralegal in the office who handled any kind of collection work that we did.
Well, what happens when you get smaller and smaller, you no longer have those individual people and many times when you are in a small firm your administrator is the only person in the back office that’s not producing what it takes to practice law. So I don’t do what the paralegals do, I don’t do what the legal secretaries do, I don’t do — I have a receptionist and that’s it and so everything else falls under my umbrella. So if it involves anything other than the practice of law, for the most part it’s mine.
And so you talked about the financial part of that, even at my small firm I have taken what I did when the firm was larger and I still provide those same kind of financial reporting every month. And so I forecast where we are going, I forecast what it’s going to look like, how we are versus a budget. So I bring a budget in. I highlight anything of note that’s off from one month to the next or from last year to this year. So those are kind of financial analysis that the attorneys get now rather than just coming in and going, so how much money is in the checking account, can I have some please?
Karla Eckardt: It happens all the time.
Debra Elsbury: Yes, yes. Is there enough there that maybe I could have something. So that’s no longer a thing because we have it very forecasted and I stay on top of that and so I always let them know when the variance is coming.
Another thing that I do now that we didn’t have before is I handle all of the contracts. So I have taken that work off of our managing partner. I will get all of the copy or contracts and I don’t make the final decision, I pass it through him, but generally he looks at me and goes well, what do you think, and he usually defers to me.
I will tell you, if you are an attorney thinking about hiring an administrator, I would strongly encourage you to be able to pass that baton of some of those things to your administrator. You will have a much happier administrator and you will be getting more bang for your buck.
For instance, my firm is moving November 1. So we are moving from our current space to another —
Karla Eckardt: Fun.
Debra Elsbury: Oh yeah. Actually, I enjoy this part of it. So this is kind of fun, picking out colors and all of that, but we had — me and the managing partner sat down and had a conversation about, so what do you expect to be involved in? What do you want to have input in? And finally he just looks at me, because I said, do you want to know what colors, do you want to pick out the lampshades, and finally he goes, no, I don’t want to do any of that. So just keep me in the loop, and unless you do something that I am like, oh, I don’t care for that, he says I am not going to say anything. Just keep me in the loop and let me know.
To have that kind of rapport and trust and confidence of your managing member is invaluable to me. I mean that’s probably what motivates me more than anything else is feeling like I am a part of a team. So if you are an attorney looking to hire an administrator, ask yourself, are you willing and able to pass the baton on some of these things and let someone else handle them for you.
Christine Bilbrey: So you made a couple of points that really made me think, when you are a firm administrator and say you have two attorneys and five support staff, you always think that the administrator that has the 100 attorneys and a huge support staff, you are kind of in awe of them and you think that they know so much more than you do.
And you make a good point, the smaller your firm, the more hats that administrator is wearing and may even have a larger skill set than someone who has the luxury of having an HR department and an accounting department. And you and I when we have talked before, we talked about how we ran payroll manually and I love doing all of that, so giving that up, because then you have a payroll service or you have that department.
But it’s interesting, it kind of gives me a different outlook when I am meeting other administrators to remember that those administrators at the small firms are doing so many things.
Debra Elsbury: Right, they can influence the decision making process much more than in the large firm.
Christine Bilbrey: Absolutely. They really have their hands on everything.
But you also touched on a good point about, I think so many attorneys, partly because of the trust accounting, that’s a big deal; I know in Florida it is and probably in every state, the attorney is afraid to turn over those things to the administrator so they still are trying to hold on to a lot of that, which means the administrator can’t really do their whole job.
What would you say to those attorneys that are having trouble letting go of — or gradually what do you tell an administrator, how would you talk to that attorney?
Debra Elsbury: Well, I think part of it flies back to what position is the managing member and managing partner in when he is hiring that administrator. So if he is behind the 8-ball and he has just taken the first person to fill up a chair, like oh, yeah, we hit our requirements, good. Now, you don’t necessarily have that relationship right off the bat.
And so I really do believe that it’s just letting them — you are going to have to start giving them little things. It’s kind of like our children. I hate to compare my job with a parent-child relationship, but it is somewhat that way until you know that you can trust that person with all of your information. The managing partner in my firm has jokingly said — well, he said it jokingly, but it’s really very honest, is that, in many respects I know more things about him than his wife knows about him, because I do know all of it. I mean I know all the financial aspects of it. I know exactly how much he gets paid and I spend eight hours a day with him.
So you have to have somebody in that role that you trust and you can’t just automatically go, well, I hired you so I bequeath you that I trust you, that’s not very realistic and not going to happen.
So generally what happens is, and I have encouraged a friend of mine who is coming to legal management, to ask for little jobs and show that you are trustworthy, and a lot of it is being able to keep a confidence. I mean that’s huge, and it’s very difficult for someone who suddenly was working with their peers who is now their supervisor, and you realize that your relationships have to change and your managing partner has to see that change in you if you are a hire within.
It does make it difficult, because all these people who worked with you, who are your friends now come to you and go, so what about, and you are like, I can’t talk to you about that, and you have to be okay with that.
So there is a lot of trust issues and just like anything else you have to build up to that a little bit, but as a managing partner, you have to let go and allow that to happen. It’s a slippery slope.
Karla Eckardt: To Christine’s point, I think sort of handing over the baton and giving the administrator power to actually manage the finances trickles down to all of the other areas of a legal administrator’s role, it trickles down to HR and her ability to properly recruit and select employees and operations management, you are moving or you are purchasing things for your new space. I mean the budget goes into effect. So I think giving over the baton in that aspect is like key almost because it trickles down into every other category.
Christine Bilbrey: And I also, I make the point when I talk to attorneys, if you are terrified of this step, so guess what, the trust account is still your responsibility. So let the person — they are cutting the checks, if you are doing personal injury and they are cutting all these checks to doctor’s offices and whatever they are doing, let that person manage it, let them print everything out, retain signing, so that at least you are touching when that money is going out. You are seeing something.
Debra Elsbury: Yeah, I mean the attorneys and the partners should maintain oversight like in any organization.
Christine Bilbrey: The flip side of that is in my experience the attorneys that — like what you said, someone walks in the door and they are like here, you know how to do this, right, and they are right back to their cases. They just want to go practice law. That’s terrifying. Please keep your hand in it.
Debra Elsbury: Definitely, definitely. And a good law firm administrator will make sure that the attorneys are always aware of what’s going on. You force them to look at the information, because I know I had to do that and say, no, you have to look at this.
Christine Bilbrey: You have to look at the reconciliation every month. Please look at the bank statements, those kinds of things, and so you will get there, but people come at it from completely different directions.
Karla Eckardt: And I mean empowering employees in general is important, but your firm administrator sort of sets the tone for everyone.
Debra Elsbury: Well, most people who go into this position, when they are going into a new firm, they are going to understand that it’s going to take a little bit of time, and so most administrators are going to say let’s put some policies in place where you feel comfortable and have the oversight that you want to feel good and I have the ability to do my job.
And so every month I give the managing member written reports that show all kinds of things. I will run off the check register. I give him a copy of the bank statements, because there are no other people in my firm to be my check and balance other than him. So he has to be the check and balance, because I would be giving people in my firm information that they shouldn’t have. So he is my check and I am his check.
But as far as like the trust accounting, in the State of Indiana, I am not able to sign a trust check. So I can write them, he has to sign those. When I first started, I had a check assigning authority up to $250, for example, and so anything over $250 he needed to sign. However, now that has been waived and he is like just take care of it.
But he also has access to our electronic programs. So at any point he can go into the accounts payable program and he can look through the invoices that are sitting there or the ones that have been paid. He can go into the general ledger and he can see what the bank account balances are, he can see all of that stuff. And I have given him the passwords to all the checking accounts, so he has the ability. I don’t know that he ever looks at it, I don’t know that I ever ask him; he never comes to me and says hey, what is this, but I always make sure he has the ability to do that, should he ever be uncomfortable or have a question, or if I am not here, he does that.
And then talking about if I am not here, I have a book in my office, it’s a three-ring binder, I call it If Debbie gets hit by a bus, and it literally does say that, and I have a copy of it electronically on my local drive that only he has access to in the office. So he has access to this particular drive, and sitting on it is instructions, literally step-by-step how to do payroll. So I literally wrote it, and I had my grandson, who is 10, sit here and I saw if he could do payroll following my instructions, and that’s how I knew when I had something missing because he didn’t know what to do next.
How taxes need to be paid, how the drawers are done and all of this information that we can’t share with the general staff, but if something should happen to me, it wouldn’t come to a complete standstill. And I think that’s kind of a concern that an attorney has well, what if she goes on vacation, who is going to write a check? So you have these other workaround ways to get things accomplished.
But I think every administrator should have a hit by a bus or a train or a car or fell off the side of the earth or whatever booklet or a file somewhere so that somebody can pick up their job and at least do the main thing.
Christine Bilbrey: I love that and you should have one of those for your spouse at home if you are also running things.
Karla Eckardt: You should have one of those for everyone in your staff. It would be awesome to just cut down on training time if you can just hand staff a policies and procedures manual specific to their position. But it’s even more critical obviously for the firm administrator, because they are the all-knowing in the firm.
Christine Bilbrey: Well, the firm that I joined that was much larger and had a more diversified practice area, I along with someone that I had selected from each of those areas I said hey, we need an instruction manual, we are growing, we are going to bring in new people, we are not going to have as much time. We would like these things to be very much a system, and so it helped me learn what everybody else’s job was.
Debra Elsbury: Right, right.
Christine Bilbrey: And I don’t think people had looked into that before. And so we had these beautiful binders so I really —
Karla Eckardt: I mean that’s also part of the administrator’s job, finding efficiencies or inefficiencies in particular positions across the organization. So I mean in doing that, it’s an exercise and exactly that and learning what your firm needs to do better at every level.
Christine Bilbrey: Yeah, and I think one of the things the administrators should always do is get input from the support staff, because you don’t know what’s going on in every area of the firm, I think that’s valuable.
Karla Eckardt: Right, the attorney shouldn’t be telling the secretary how she should do her processes if it’s ineffective and that’s not how she does it.
So yeah, if Debbie gets hit by a bus, I like that one.
Christine Bilbrey: Yeah, everyone should call it that even if they are not Debbie. That’s the new industry standard. Well, you touched on —
Debra Elsbury: But that is one thing that the administrator brings to the table though is the ability to take that step back and see what’s happening in the firm and see what can move easier and what can be more time effective, because lost time is money out of the attorney’s pocket.
Karla Eckardt: And that’s how you have to frame it.
Debra Elsbury: So get an administrator who looks at that money as her money, which I am — I look at that, my job is to make this firm as profitable as I possibly can, because that makes the pie bigger, and it makes it bigger for everybody. But I know that every penny that I spend, because I am not responsible for bringing the money in the door, so every penny that I spend is wisely spent.
I look at everything. I drive some people nuts because I am like, what is this charge for, what is that charge, why are we doing this, why are we paying that much. But I do treat it like it is my personal money and they are taking it out of my pocket and now I don’t have lunch money.
Karla Eckardt: Right. Well, that’s part of empowering your firm administrator, you have skin in the game. I mean you can’t have someone come in who doesn’t care and is just there for the paycheck, because it will never work.
Debra Elsbury: Right, and if you do then you need to replace them and find someone else.
Christine Bilbrey: Right, yes. You said that the partners really set the tone. So how does the philosophy of the partners, how does that affect the firm administrator, can you give us some examples?
Debra Elsbury: One of the biggest examples, if there is an HR issue for example in my firm and someone goes to the managing partner and shuts his door and says, hey, I want to talk to you, he immediately stops the conversation and calls me or he says you need to go talk to Debbie.
He doesn’t seem to insert himself in those conversations. He takes — he lets the staff know that my opinion is valuable and that he will defer to me in certain situations. All the time, I know at any point he can sit there and say this is how I feel and this is what I want and I will do whatever that is as long as it’s not immoral or illegal, but he does defer to me, and so that sets the tone for the rest of the staff.
If you’re going to have an administrator you have to support her and so you can’t allow these side conversations that undermine authority. You have to let staff know, hey, this is the administrator and we’re going to call her into this conversation or you need to go have this conversation with her because I’m going to defer to her or him, whichever it is.
Christine Bilbrey: So demonstrating that respect to you is goes a long way with the staff how the staff will respond to you?
Debra Elsbury: Oh absolutely. I mean, it truly sets the tone because if you have a management committee who is undercutting the administrator on every step. Number one, can have a very unhappy administrator and you’re going to have a very empowered staff that feel like they don’t need to listen to the administrator.
So, for instance, my staff when they ask for PPO, they don’t go to their attorney and say I’d like to take off next Monday, they come to me and then, I say whether it’s approved or not, and then I send an email saying so-and-so is asked for Monday, do you have an issue with that? Is there anything that would preclude them not being able to have Monday off? That kind of thing.
So they just know that I handle that. They don’t go to their attorneys and go, hey, I’d like to do this, would you take care of this for me? So it’s not just the managing partner that has to have that. He has to set the tone for every other attorney in the office so that you don’t have all of these little side alliances which undercut the ability for the administrator to do her job effectively.
Karla Eckardt: So while we’re on the topic of HR, what are some tips — well it’s important because again if you don’t have an HR department, it is one of those functions that should be delegated to the legal administrator.
Debra Elsbury: Absolutely.
Karla Eckardt: Because I mean there is no way that an attorney is going to handle it effectively and be able to focus on their case work, so.
Christine Bilbrey: And it’s one of the — I think the most —
Karla Eckardt: Problematic.
Christine Bilbrey: Well, I was going to say the most important assets of the firm is a —
Karla Eckardt: Oh definitely it’s human resources.
Christine Bilbrey: — very competent, trustworthy, well-trained, good attitude staff like it is — that’s so valuable when you’re practicing law. If you have a team that you can rely on you know that you can count on them.
Karla Eckardt: Right, so what are some tips you can share about hiring support staff that you’ve learned over the years? So an attorney maybe perhaps shouldn’t just put a secretary needed sign up on their window, there’s a lot more to it than just saying, I need a secretary or I need a paralegal.
Debra Elsbury: Right. Well, I’ve always kind of looked at it as I hire the person, I can teach them the skills. So when I’m interviewing someone, I’m looking for someone for their attitude for how they interact with people for their teamwork ethic. Those are the kinds of things because I’m like I can teach them the skills that they need.
It’s great if they come with that that even makes them more valuable but I’ve always hired the person first, and so, I ask a lot of questions along problem-solving and how do you interact with people and those kinds of things. I don’t ask have you typed a pleading, do you know what a certificate — I don’t ask those kinds of questions because I guess I can teach you that.
But I’m looking for a particular kind of person and not to pat myself on the back or anything but I have two legal secretaries now both have 20-plus years. I have four paralegals, the shortest one’s been here five years, the oldest one’s been here 15. So we have a lot of continuity, I’m going to knock on wood as I say this because you know what happens when you start to brag on yourself, humility comes with knocking on your door. I think that’s because we’ve tried to fill with the correct people not necessarily only skill. So that personally has been my philosophy on hiring the support staff.
Christine Bilbrey: And I think that’s amazing because if you’ve been a legal administrator, you know that there can be a huge turnover with the paralegals that move firm to firm, and if you’re in a small town that becomes problematic, because of the cases that are being handled between the firms.
So getting them to stay is a big deal but I want you to talk about — and this was, when we talked before I mentioned this. There’s this very delicate balance as the firm administrator that you — the type rope that you walk because you are the supervisor and the advocate and kind of the warden of the staff, but at the same time you’ve got to implement the directions of the shareholder.
Debra Elsbury: Right.
Christine Bilbrey: Talk about that relationship that when you’re in the middle.
Debra Elsbury: Well, it can be a push and pull sometimes, because sometimes what you would like to do for your staff is in direct conflict with what maybe you’ve been directed or maybe the course in which you need to take. And so that becomes very difficult and so there’s been a few times I’ve had to shut my door and take a few deep breaths because what I’m about to tell one of the staff people I know it’s not what they want to hear, because in the long run I am here representing the firm. I have to make sure that the decisions that are made are in the best interest of the firm not any one particular person.
So at the end of the day that’s the filter I have to run it through, but it is something that you are in conflict with because the staff reports to me and they look to me to be their advocate. And there’s been times when being their advocate is not in the best interest of what I’m trying to do especially, also let me just give you an example of that. I would say that that would be come review time. Come review time, I have maybe a few staff members who are high flyers, more so than others, and so I want to reward them for that.
But then I go into review conversations with management committee or the managing partner and he’s like, well, I just want to do 3% across the board and you’re like, no, I don’t want to do that. And so you better have your ducks in a row when you go into the meeting and be prepared to have a conversation about why doing across the board increases, I don’t believe are good for morale. And everybody thinks, oh, we all got the same raise, well, it didn’t really matter that I went above and beyond.
So this is — that’s one of the most recent times that I felt that I was in conflict between what I wanted to do for the employees and kind of the directive that I was trying to work around and we managed to iron it out because I said, okay, so if you’re given the best person this much money then let’s say that’s the top, and I said, let’s figure out what 3% is, I’m going to divide that money out. And we got there and it worked and it was fine, but you do have times when you’re going to be in conflict but I have to at the very end of the day, have to realize I am here, I was hired not to be an advocate for the staff necessarily but to do what was best for the firm.
And sometimes that even puts me having difficult conversations with a managing partner because then I go in and say, now we have a problem.
Christine Bilbrey: Well, how demoralizing it.
Karla Eckardt: Right.
Christine Bilbrey: Is it for the high performers that are bringing so much effort to the firm and billing more hours to be told. There’s nothing more demoralizing as across the board everybody gets pats on the heads and says, good job, good job, good job, no specifics. They don’t mention what it is you did that was a good job. That is enraging to the people that are really killing it.
Debra Elsbury: But it’s easier.
Karla Eckardt: Right.
Christine Bilbrey: Yes.
Karla Eckardt: But that’s why you have a firm administrator because you are better equipped to do sort of performance management and to bring forward a good argument as to why on across the board isn’t the case and you provide solutions.
Debra Elsbury: Right.
Christine Bilbrey: It sounds fair, but it’s not fair.
Karla Eckardt: Right, right, so again, back to the sort of why we’re speaking today, that’s why you need a firm administrator.
Christine Bilbrey: Yes, yes. Well, you need a firm administrator for so many reasons which brings me to my next question for you, Debbie. Okay, so the day that I started at my bigger firm I walked in and I had my best suit on and there had been a little meet-and-greet breakfast and I was setting up my office and then the ladies restroom by that was for our clients — the toilet overflowed, all the paralegals were out in the hall, everybody was looking at each other, we had clients in the waiting room and I thought, okay, I don’t know if they have a plumber on call, I don’t know what’s happening.
So I just went straight in the bathroom and I located a plunger from the kitchen and went in there. I locked myself in the toilet and I plunged that toilet. I plunged that toilet and I thought, oh, this is going to make everyone think like I just was very concerned. I came out and all the partners were standing outside the bathroom and their mouths were open and they were so thrilled that I had plunged the stupid toilet, I thought it was going to go badly, but I thought, okay, now don’t put this on my job description. I didn’t know one of my official roles.
Debra Elsbury: I don’t want to do this everyday.
Christine Bilbrey: Exactly. In that moment I was a hero and I just never went to do it again, but tell us what are some of the unexpected tasks or roles you’ve had to take on inside the firms you’ve worked at?
Debra Elsbury: Well, I would tell you I am the official best 00:35:24 of jams in the large printer. I am the first stop before they call — used to they just call when I’d go back there and I’d get it down and go cancel the call, I got it out.
So yes, I can take the jams out. Nine times out of ten I can get it going again without support. I’ve made coffee. I do that often. I wash dishes. I’ve sent out a message and said you have an hour to get your stuff out of the refrigerator and marked otherwise everything’s going in the trash. I’ve cleaned out the refrigerator. I too have plunged toilets. I had a paralegal walk in my office with this shocked look in her face and she goes I just flushed the toilet paper holder thing down the toilet, what do I do? Can I go, ah? Well, it’s bye-bye, we just got to hope it doesn’t clog, I don’t — there’s nothing we can do. I had to go out and buy a new toilet paper roll holder.
So, yeah, I mean, it’s whatever needs to be done and I don’t respond just like you and we’re small, that’s not my job, it needs to be done, we’re going to get it done. And I think that that also — that plays well with the staff when they realize you’re not going to walk around you go, oh, well, that’s not my job, because if you’re setting that tone then you’re going to have paralegals telling secretaries, that’s not my job and secretaries telling paralegals that’s not my job, and that’s not the tone you want in your office at all.
So, yeah, I mean, I think any legal administrator has a few horror stories of something that had happened bad, they’re like, well, I didn’t plan on that today or I would’ve warned what I had on.
Christine Bilbrey: Yeah, yeah and then in Florida we’ve had the situation where unexpectedly a hurricane is in the Gulf and everyone has evacuated to different areas of the country and suddenly your job is to after the storm find out did our office make it, are our files all over the parking lot, and it’s also in those moments that you do earn the respect to your staff because you’re the one that reached out to say are you okay, is your family okay, is your home still there, what do you need from us, and so I think your relationship grows and your duties grow and the lawyers can go back to practicing law if you’ve made a plan in place to get everybody into the cloud, or you’ve set up the right technology or the satellite offices you’re about to go through this move. So it’s always something new.
Have you had to train attorneys and technology, because you — when you’re talking about making sure they have access to the finances and everything, are you selecting the technology at the firms?
Debra Elsbury: Yes, I do. In fact I went through a managing partner change earlier this year, so I went from an older managing partner to a much younger managing partner, and so his first addict to me was I would like to go and be 100% in the cloud by the end of next year.
So that has kind of — that was on the front burner until we realized, oh, we’re moving, so that got kind of shoved back and rearranged, because there’s only so much change I can throw at people at one time. We don’t do a lot, we’re not one of fancy firms, I mean, we’re kind of high-speed low-drag kind of — we do insurance defense work so we need to be able to pop out documents quickly and in a very timely manner, because it is truly six-minute increment for us.
But we have — I mean, I am responsible for making sure that the attorneys are using the technology that we do have properly and I also trained the attorneys on how to enter their billable time, because our attorneys enter their own time, that’s something I started way back in the day long before people started in us.
So my attorneys enter at their own time because I’m like I don’t want to pay somebody to type something you already printed or typed, so just type it and so now no one knows different here.
Karla Eckardt: Right.
Debra Elsbury: They’re like, oh, I enter my own time, but consequently comes with that is and I had to train them on how best to avoid their entries because I don’t want them to get marked down, because they’re like, well, don’t know why he was doing that.
So I do a lot of that kind of training with the attorneys. I typically do not hire the attorneys. I said in on the interviews for the attorneys but I do not hire them. That decision lays with the managing partner. He does look to me and go, well, what do you think, what did you see, what did you hear, but he typically handles the interview, I just sit in and then I talk about benefits. But the remainder of the staff I do hire and I do train them on all the technology that we use.
So I don’t have a trainer, so it’s me.
Debra Elsbury: I don’t have a trainer so it’s me, and thank goodness for YouTube videos.
Karla Eckardt: Presumably you also take part and maybe encourage some of corrective action if necessary or you know, like what’s the scenario.
Debra Elsbury: I do all of that.
Karla Eckardt: Termination.
Christine Bilbrey: Yeah, at the difficult conversations attorneys typically are — they’re very happy for you to handle that.
Karla Eckardt: Right, right, right.
Debra Elsbury: Right, well, and I know when I walk into the office and I shut the door and he’ll roll as the highs and go, well, this isn’t good. So yeah.
Karla Eckardt: Yeah, but again, they’re the difficult conversations that firm administrators not only have to have but are better trained and better equipped to have without making it personal.
Debra Elsbury: Well, I would rather do that because I understand things a little bit better. I’ll now give you an example. I had a managing partner that sent an email to one of the male staff about wearing flip-flops in the office. We have a dress code, it is literally that you wear some, we don’t have a real strict dress code in our office because we do not have contact with the general public.
So I didn’t get too worried, he rode his bike in, he had a suit hanging on the back of his door, he is sitting at his desk get flip-flops on, I don’t care. But apparently this kind of got under the managing partner’s skin a little bit and he sent an email copied me on and it said, “Please don’t wear flip-flops in the office.”
And I read this and I’m like, oh, he comes in my office, he’s so proud of himself because he’d handled a HR situation for me. He said, did you see my email? I am like, oh yeah, I did. He said, what’s wrong? And I said did you take a lout to the office before you sent the email, he was looking at me and he said, there’s not a woman in this office who doesn’t have flip-flops on, and he goes, well, that’s different.
Christine Bilbrey: No.
Karla Eckardt: No.
Debra Elsbury: No, it’s not.
Karla Eckardt: Again, some administrators are familiar with employment loss, very important.
Debra Elsbury: No, it’s not, I can’t put a ball on it or glitter on and make it different, it’s still the same thing. So then he walks back to his office and he fires off another email, I was mistaken. I shouldn’t have said anything, wear whatever you want.
Christine Bilbrey: Well, don’t go that far.
Debra Elsbury: Well, it’s a classic example of he thought he was being helpful.
Karla Eckardt: Right.
Christine Bilbrey: Yeah.
Debra Elsbury: And I loved the fact he was trying to — he’s seen something he wanted to deal with it, but it was something that would have been better had he talked to me before he sent an email.
Christine Bilbrey: Right.
Karla Eckardt: Right.
Debra Elsbury: Because I could have told him you can’t do that.
Karla Eckardt: Right, again.
Debra Elsbury: Unless you are going to do that for everybody.
Karla Eckardt: It seems like something obvious but at the same time, it may be in complete contradiction with discrimination laws and all kinds of things, so again back to the why we’re talking, this is why firm administrators are so critical because they have familiarized themselves with all of this beyond sort of the cursory, oh yes, you know, this is the Civil Rights Act of whatever this or other. I mean we know what we’re talking about and at least — and we’re equipped to research it before taking action as opposed to just shooting out an angry email.
So that leads me to my next question. In order to sort of give the stamp of approval, ALA offers this certified legal manager designation. So can you — CLM, for short, can you tell us a little bit about what it is to become a CLM, what it represents and if it should be — how you consider different candidates with the CLM designation?
Debra Elsbury: The CLM designation started I would say probably in the mid 90s when we started having a certification program, and so, what is required to even set for the test is there’s certain educational requirements, much like any other certification program and depending on whether you are a functional specialist which is an HR director, an IT director, a finance director, there’s additional hour requirements for those individuals. But if you’re the overall legal administrator then there’s an education requirement and then you can set for the test. If you pass the test the thought is that you could step into a 50 attorney firm and hit the ground running because you have enough of a knowledge base to do that.
And so, I will tell you that I took the test in 2009. At that point, I thought, well, if I don’t pass, I’m okay with that. I wasn’t even going to tell my firm I was doing it, finally I did. I said, oh, by the way, if you walk into my office, I’ve books all over the table in my office and I look like I’m studying that’s because I am and I told him what I was doing.
He goes, well then I will pay for that because that’s going to make you a better administrator for me if you’re studying and taking that. So he said, by all means let me fund whatever the out-of-pocket costs are. So I was very, very pleased and I pledged that.
But I had decided I didn’t care whether I passed because I had learned a lot. I learned things I didn’t know, I didn’t know and until you get the envelope in the mail, you think I don’t care whether I passed.
Suddenly at that point, it was an envelope now it’s an email, but at that point when I took this you got an envelope and you have that envelope in your hand, suddenly whether you passed or not it becomes a whole lot more important. So I just held it, my husband is like, well, are you going to open the envelope? I’m like, I don’t know whether I want to or not.
But, yeah, so it’s a designation that typically people that have been or currently are ALA members. It hasn’t quite taken on what we’d hoped it would be for people to understand that when you have that CLM after your name, it means that you have a wide breadth of knowledge, everything from HR, it tests you on HR, finance, IT, general operations, all of these different core knowledge groups are covered in this test, and that in theory, you should be able to walk into a 50 attorney firm and hit the ground running.
So we would like to see more people think, hey, this CLM is important, and so, since this person has a CLM, I know they have the knowledge base that I need.
Karla Eckardt: Just to give a rundown for our listeners of the topics that are covered and what a CLM should know and does because they’ve passed the exam; finance management, which includes general accounting, financial information and analysis; human resource management which covers employee selection, promotion, performance management, compensation, organization development; legal industry and business management which covers the legal industry business management kind of self-explanatory.
Operations management which includes technology, automation, operations management which back to your particular situation, you’re moving. You design space all of that that goes into the resources that the firm needs to operate that most people don’t even think about. The desks you use every day, the chairs you’re sitting on every day, all of that is part of what a CLM or firm administrator handles.
So there you go. So what are the reasons firm owners should encourage their administrator to join ALA?
Debra Elsbury: Well, I can speak very personally to this and that I would not be as good at my job if I was not a member of ALA. Having the ability to pick up the phone and talk to someone and say so I have this issue and knowing that I’m in a cone of silence that I can have this conversation with someone and they’re going to give me direct feedback is invaluable, and I cannot tell you how many times and it’s even gotten to the point now they walk in my office.
And they go so what your ALA buddies doing about X because I give ALA, I let them know I got this answer from ALA. So I give ALA credit whenever in fact, I think sometimes ALA gets credit for stuff I’m not sure it’d theirs but I give it to him anyway, oh my gosh, so like where did you find it out I’m not sure with ALA.
But it’s just having that, I’ll give you a terrific example of how this pays off. I was sitting at a table with a bunch of ALA members shortly after the new tax laws came into effect and I am not a CPA, we have an outside accounting service that the firm that does our tax returns and I just provide them with all the information and am a resource if they have a question. So I funnel all that off.
Well, we’re sitting around the table, having this conversation about the new tax laws going into effect and they’re talking about what are you going to do about your parking? And, I’m listening to this and I’m realizing, they’re talking about their employees’ parking.
Well, we provide as our benefit in our firm paid parking which certainly under the new tax laws which I did not know, but certainly not taxed — was not a tax write-off, it’s not a business expense any longer. And that’s a significant chunk of change for us. So I started asking questions in which I would not have even known had I not been surrounded by ALA members and we’re having a conversation.
So we had to change the way we handled our parking expense, which I didn’t hear that from my accountant. I didn’t hear it in the news. I heard it from ALA and have saved consequently my firm several thousand dollars because we had to change the way we handled our parking expense and it was purely to ALA.
Christine Bilbrey: That’s a perfect example, I love that. It looks like we’ve reached the end of our program and I have to say it’s been a delight. Thank you Debra Elsbury for joining us today.
Debra Elsbury: It has been my pleasure.
Christine Bilbrey: So where can our listeners go if they have questions or they’d like more information about the Association of Legal Administrators?
Debra Elsbury: Well, I’d start with the website. It’s www.alanet.org, so it’s alanet.org and you can find all of the information on there. If you look about, you can find the board of directors, you can find me and if nothing else, shoot me an email. I will be happy to answer any question someone has.
Karla Eckardt: And for our listeners I just want to interject here one moment since most of our membership are solo and small firms, you can as an attorney join ALA if you are the administrator in your firm. If you are a solo and you want to take advantage of these incredible resources get on that website, look at what they have to offer, and determine if you want to become a member, if you want to be one of us.
Christine Bilbrey: Excellent point, Karla.
Debra Elsbury: Any attorney, any attorney can join ALA, any attorney. So we will gladly have you as a member, welcome you.
Christine Bilbrey: Thank you. If you like what you heard today please rate us in Apple Podcasts. Join us next time for another episode of the Florida Bar Podcast brought to you by LegalFuel, the Practice Resource Center of the Florida Bar on Legal Talk Network.
I am Christine Bilbrey.
Karla Eckardt: And I’m Karla Eckardt. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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