By Dr. Alison Becker
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Public University
and Ms. Chantel Lee
The career path of legal administration has been relatively unknown to the general public. However, this field has been steadily growing as the legal world has grown more complex.
Recently, I interviewed Ms. Chantel Lee, who has spent 10 years as a military legal administrator, seven years as a paralegal and five years as a military police officer. In her interview, she shared her considerable experience on pathways to a legal administrator career.
Dr. Becker: What are legal administrators? What do they do?
Ms. Lee: Legal administrators specialize in law office management. They typically assist the managing partners with all of the things that don’t involve the practice, but they have to know law and how the different divisions of a law office work together.
On any given day, these professionals strategize human resource management, accounting and marketing for some of the busiest law practices. These professionals assist the managing partners in forecasting, recruiting, interviewing, and training attorney and non-attorney staff members.
Skilled legal administrators also oversee the legal offices’ accounting process and are required to have a general knowledge of the recordkeeping and billing procedures, as well as taxation laws for the jurisdiction in which they are employed. Legal administrators also coordinate marketing and maintain data on their law offices’ most profitable services and clients.
In addition to these things, legal administrators also oversee information technology, facility management and other contracting needs for law offices. Depending upon the size and profitability of the law office, a legal administrator could supervise a staff of roughly one to 20 personnel. Some law offices have multiple branches around the world, and they also have subordinate legal administrators who answer to a senior legal administrator at the headquarters office.
While there are similarities between this career and general office managers, there are a few key differences. For example, and as implied in the position’s title, legal administrators understand how the various legal professionals work together as a team. That helps law offices to maximize its capabilities to better serve their legal, ethical and business goals.
Next, legal administrators typically have law office or court administration experience. That kind of knowledge helps the legal administrators in appreciating exactly what is happening at the day-to-day duty level and the overall strategic level of work. Essentially, that means that they play an essential role by leveraging teamwork in stressful work environments in which the business is to solve someone else’s legal problem, typically on short notice before a statutory deadline expires.
Teamwork is important because it allows the lawyers to focus on solving the clients’ actual legal problems, which is the law office’s primary purpose and means of revenue. The rest of the legal team takes care of the other kinds of supporting work, like IT, security, scheduling or travel preparation.
Dr. Becker: Why did you become a legal administrator?
Ms. Lee: I became a legal administrator because I wanted an opportunity to improve funding and training for all staff members. In essence, when I was a paralegal, I saw that the attorneys and support staff did not receive equitable training. I thought that by fixing that, I could improve the law office’s overall performance.
I wanted to improve the performance of law office operations and training Army-wide. Becoming a legal administrator gave me a voice into how the U.S. Army provided legal services, managed its law offices and trained legal professionals.
Dr. Becker: Did you have any favorite duties?
Ms. Lee: One of the most rewarding duties of my job was ensuring the staff received timely monetary awards and recognition for superior work. Based on my experience, the hardest- working employees are surprised when their work and achievements are recognized outside of a scheduled evaluation cycle.
Dr. Becker: What kind of background is best for this career path?
Ms. Lee: Although I learned how to be a legal administrator through the military, these same concepts certainly apply to the civilian counterpart jobs. Legal administrators (or law office managers, as they are also known) must have a basic understanding of both the practice of law and the business principles required to support the law office.
They must know what attorneys and support staff require to complete their respective jobs, which should complement each other to form an efficient law office. Understanding profitability and how to attract clientele are also essential skills.
Dr. Becker: How did you educationally qualify to become a legal administrator?
Ms. Lee: I gained knowledge through a combination of on the job experience and by earning degrees in public administration and general administration. The knowledge that I gained through these programs of study reinforced business management, organizational leadership, human resource management, and accounting skills.
Dr. Becker: Do you think that a legal studies degree might be able to help?
Ms. Lee: Students interested in a career as a non-lawyer legal professional have an alternative to law school. A degree in legal studies offers tremendous benefits.
At the associate and bachelor degree level, students build upon the functional skills needed to conduct legal research, complete legal documents and gain the organizational skills required to manage a law firm. None of that requires going to law school or taking a bar exam. Individuals with a master’s degree in legal studies coupled with job experience are well equipped to assume director roles in human resources, compliance, contracting, analysis and court administration.
Dr. Becker: Do you have any words of wisdom or tricks of the trade for those who want to become a legal administrator?
Ms. Lee: Gain vital skills through employment at a small law office and work your way up. If that’s not possible, seek out volunteer opportunities with agencies offering free legal services. You will quickly get an idea of what attorneys need to do to provide legal services and, just as importantly, what they don’t have in such an environment.
I also think that it’s helpful to join professional associations, such as the Association of Legal Administrators. It offers students the same membership benefits that full members receive, but at a lower cost. Professional associations offer networking and mentoring opportunities, along with access to cutting-edge training and information.
Law firms also advertise job vacancies on professional association platforms. Associations also offer discounts to services and events, where you can meet other professionals. Overall, professional associations can provide a jump-start to a career.
Dr. Becker: Was there anything that you learned the hard way about this kind of job that you wish that someone had told you up front?
Ms. Lee: I really don’t have any hard-earned lessons to share. Most of my success lies in the fact that I was not afraid to pick up the phone and ask a more seasoned legal administrator for advice or help.
If I found myself in a tough situation, I’d do a little research, formulate a plan and phone a friend (mentor). I wasn’t a know-it-all. Instead, I just knew who to call.
Finally, trust your instinct, and don’t second-guess yourself! Own your recommendations and their outcomes. Remember, you are there to support the lawyers.
It’s not your show, but your reputation is on the line with the quality work that you perform. If you truly want to be a legal administrator, then be willing to take responsibility for the non-lawyer functions of a law practice.
About the Authors
Ms. Chantel Lee served the nation as a military police officer, paralegal and a legal administrator. A consummate non-lawyer legal professional, she earned a B.S. in Public Administration from Upper Iowa University and a M.S. in Public Administration from Central Michigan University.
Dr. Alison Becker has practiced governmental law for more than 25 years as well as provided various kinds of legal instruction and training. She earned a B.A. and a J.D. from Northern Kentucky University prior to earning an Ed. D. from Northcentral University, with special emphasis on legal e-learning.
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