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Paralegals at the Top
How paralegal managers help run some of the nation’s largest law firms.
(Originally appeared in print as "High Risers")
Bridging the gap between paralegals and management in the country’s largest and most profitable law firms are paralegal managers. These individuals play vital roles in their high-powered law offices by representing the voice of legal assistants, while also meeting the needs and goals of management and the firm as a whole. With firms that include hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of employees in offices throughout the country and around the world, the paralegal manager role requires a special individual who can juggle the many job responsibilities and personalities that comprise such grand environments.
Laying the Foundation
Paralegal managers in some of the nation’s largest law firms hail from an array of backgrounds, but have one thing in common: years of experience working in a law office. Knowing how the law office is structured is an invaluable tool when managing paralegals in any firm.
Many paralegal managers start in entry-level positions, such as Joanne Chandonait, paralegal manager for Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, a firm with 450 attorneys in six cities nationwide and one office abroad. Chandonait, who works in the Washington, D.C., office, has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Plymouth State University and a paralegal certificate from Northeastern University. She started as a legal secretary for a solo attorney in 1993. “I did a lot of secretarial work, but I also got to do some paralegal work,” she said.
After working for nearly two years for her solo attorney, Chandonait transferred to Broderick and Dean, a small firm in New Hampshire, and began working as a paralegal. “It was an interesting place to work. I got exposure to a lot of different things. The last year I was there, I worked on eight trials. It was a great learning experience.”
Chandonait then started working for a mid-sized firm before a former colleague told her about a paralegal manager opportunity at Mintz Levin in October 2000. “The opportunity [as paralegal manager] really piqued my interest,” she said.
Not all paralegal managers start out as legal assistants. Barbara Lundholm, director of legal assistant administration at Vinson and Elkins, a firm with 863 attorneys in offices worldwide, has almost always held an administrative or management position during her almost 30 years in the legal industry.
Lundholm, who works out of Vinson and Elkins’ New York City office, worked in three firms holding various positions such as managing clerk, legal department administrator, paralegal coordinator and director of legal assistant administration. After 17 years as a legal administrator, Lundholm became a legal assistant for Vinson and Elkins in 2002.
“Some people would think I had taken a step back. I came to Vinson with a partner. We worked together for 25 years,” she said. “The first year I was here, I was doing real legal assistant work. I was working on cases and helping to develop the team. I put together policies and procedures and hired two legal assistants. After a year, the position of director opened up and I was asked to take over.” Lundholm accepted the position as director in the spring of 2003.
Brad Baber, legal assistant manager at Troutman Sanders, a 500 plus-attorney firm, was representing actors and actresses as a talent agent in North and South Carolina before switching careers to become a paralegal in 1986.
Baber completed an American Bar Association-approved paralegal certification program and started as a paralegal for Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarborough in Columbia, S.C. Baber moved up the firm’s tier system and eventually took on the position of legal assistant recruiting and training coordinator.
In the fall of 2001, he accepted a legal assistant manager position in Troutman Sanders’ Atlanta office. “I am responsible for more than 90 people, which includes mostly paralegals, a few project assistants, a few specialists and the litigation technology department,” he said.
Annette Schlaf, legal assistant manager at Baker Botts, a 677-attorney firm based in Houston, also started in a professional field unrelated to the legal industry. She worked for eight years teaching hearing-impaired students before starting as a paralegal at Baker Botts in 1985.
After a brief stint in law school in 1987, Schlaf returned to Baker Botts after realizing law school was not something she enjoyed. Instead, Schlaf moved up the ranks at Baker Botts from senior legal assistant to assistant manager of legal assistants to her current position as manager of legal assistants.
“I consider myself fortunate to have been associated with Baker Botts for so many years,” she said. “I have human resources responsibility for all nonlawyer timekeepers, a group that includes professionals such as patent agents, certified public accountants and Ph.Ds, in addition to the legal assistant program.”
Crossing the Bridge: Job Responsibilities
The role of a paralegal manager is different at every firm. Some managers work in the human resources department of a firm, while others have a more hands-on role managing cases. Preparing to move into a managerial role in a firm requires understanding what the firm wants and needs.
Although job duties for paralegal managers will differ for each firm, generally the job involves the following responsibilities:
As director of legal assistant administration at Vinson and Elkins, Lundholm manages the paralegal program for all of the firm’s national offices. “I oversee the whole program including policy, procedures, new hires and any personnel issues,” she said. “I am charged with the responsibility of profitability and overseeing the budget. The only thing I don’t do is daily assignments in the other offices.”
Each Vinson and Elkins office has a manager responsible for daily assignments and interacting with the legal assistants in that office. Lundholm oversees all the paralegals in the stateside offices of the firm, which includes 90 individuals. She is responsible for the administration of the entire paralegal program from hiring to training to performance reviews.
Lundholm directly reports to the firm’s national director of administration and the legal assistant committee, comprised of partners at the firm, as well as the national director of administration.
At Troutman Sanders, Baber boils down his job to a simple concept. “I am responsible for operating a profitable program and making it a good place for paralegals to work,” he said.
Baber said he doesn’t handle the day-to-day legal work, but oversees the administration of the paralegal program including recruiting and hiring, training and professional development, and evaluations and supervision.
He reports to the director of human resources and the executive director of the firm. As legal assistant manager, Baber attends director meetings. “I report on the paralegal department and I promote the role of paralegals within the firm,” he said.
For managers, such as Schlaf, responsibilities often fall into both the human resources and management categories. Her primary duties at Baker Botts include recruiting and hiring; monitoring daily operations and productivity; advocating for legal assistant program needs; consulting with attorneys and legal assistants regarding appropriate staffing and more.
“One of the most important qualities someone in my job needs is flexibility in adjusting to the changing needs and demands from our internal and external clients,” Schlaf said. “A staffing solution for one situation might not be the appropriate staffing solution for the next situation.”
Chandonait took on the role of paralegal manager at Mintz Levin because she wanted to stay in the legal field, but try something new. At her firm, she works as the human resources manager for the Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia offices, and also manages the entire paralegal program for all offices. At Mintz Levin, there are a few paralegals who manage workflow within their particular workgroups, while Chandonait oversees the entire program. Her duties include employee relations, hiring, orientation, compensation, evaluations and all administrative duties involving paralegals.
“I work on recruiting to ensure that we hire candidates with the appropriate skills to do the job and do it well,” she said.
Because she is overseeing the entire paralegal program, Chandonait doesn’t get involved in daily paralegal duties. Her responsibilities with Mintz Levin are strictly administrative and human resources related.
Although the job duties of a paralegal manager vary among firms, the general job duties always include administrative management responsibilities and a focus on human resources issues. Most of the time, the job is greatly different than that of a legal assistant, Baber said. “You really are changing professions and while you draw upon paralegal experience, your job is really management … it’s more than just being a good paralegal,” he said.
Steps to Becoming a Large-firm Manager
No matter where paralegal managers in these top money-making firms start, the experiences and lessons learned in the early years set the stage for moving up the ranks and building a positive reputation among colleagues and upper-level management.
Expressing interest in learning more and being proactive about doing more than what is assigned by supervising attorneys is a key to moving into managerial roles. “You have to be motivated, ready to work hard, do the best you can, set high standards for yourself and let people know you want to move up into a management position,” Lundholm said.
Schlaf agreed and said paralegals must take on additional responsibilities. “I am very appreciative of an individual who comes forward with a suggestion or an idea that makes us more productive or who brings to my attention a new product that can increase our efficiency,” she said. “You have to be willing to take on additional responsibilities when asked. Saying, ‘That’s not my job’ is not going to move you or the organization forward.”
Lundholm said being visible is an absolute necessity. “Volunteer for assignments outside your own practice group, do pro bono work, attend firm functions. It helps make you visible. Having people who know you as a person and as a professional and continuing to develop those relationships is important,” she said. “Relationships and how you build them is most important.”
Developing relationships and having strong interpersonal skills within the firm is a vital step, Chandonait agreed.
Along with building relationships, Barbar recommended you take more of a leadership role within your peer group. “Demonstrate the ability to communicate with and get along with everybody. A skill for a good paralegal manager is the ability to gain cooperation. That goes into leading instead of managing people. You should lead by example,” he said.
“I believe that becoming involved in a professional association is one of the most beneficial things you can do to enhance your career,” Schlaf said. “Again, this is going to require extra work and additional responsibilities on your part. However, the contacts you make and the new skills you acquire are going to benefit you in the long run.” Schlaf has been involved in the Legal Assistant Division of the State Bar of Texas and the Legal Assistant Management Association, including serving on the board of directors for the past five years along with a stint as president in 2003.
Chandonait said a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work is the winning combination to become a legal assistant manager. “It’s also a bit of luck in being at the right place at the right time because there are not a lot of paralegal management positions out there,” she said.
Use Your Background
Chandonait said her background as a paralegal helps her bridge the gap between legal assistants and management. “It has helped me in my job to have been a paralegal,” she said. “When a paralegal comes to me with an issue, it helps because I understand where they are coming from.”
Baber also said his background as a paralegal has enhanced his performance as legal assistant manager at Troutman Sanders. “I have to say that in the large number of duties I perform, it has been very helpful for me to have been a paralegal. I understand what it entails. I have been there and I have done it. I can relate to them in many respects as a peer. It’s a real bonus,” he said.
Baber uses his background as a legal assistant in particular when he is training new employees on time and billing, for example. “I can come up with so many examples because I know exactly what concerns they have because I have been there,” he said.
The hierarchical structure of the law firm culture brings with it its own set of difficulties when in an upper-level position. Lundholm said dealing with people is different when you are in a managerial position. “You face a myriad of issues that you must deal with when moving from a paralegal position to a management position,” she said. “You can get caught between representing and being an advocate for your staff and at the same time representing management of the firm.”
Another asset for paralegal managers to have is flexibility and an open mind because not everyone takes the same approach when working. As the manager, you should be open to new ideas and even new approaches to your work.
It’s also extremely important to understand the nature of the law firm, particularly the structure of one’s own firm or office environment, Lundholm said. “Understand what the firm’s needs are and how to help,” she said.
The Large Firm Edge
Large firms differ from small firms because a paralegal manager in smaller firms will typically have to handle day-to-day paralegal duties along with managerial responsibilities, while larger-firm managers will use all their time for administrative management duties, Baber said.
“My experience has been in large law firms, but my guess is that paralegals are used differently in small firms. Large law firms manage paralegals with more emphasis on productivity and billable hours. In small firms, I suspect that paralegal manager duties are more diverse,” Baber said.
Lundholm said she believes large firms offer more variation in the types of work available. “The practice varies a little more [in large firms]. You get exposure to different types of experiences,” she said.
It’s important to also utilize the things large firms have to offer paralegals, such as secretarial and word processing support systems, a technology department and other resources typically not available in many smaller law office environments.
Being part of a large firm is extremely helpful because it can provide more room for advancement, Schlaf said. “Being part of a large firm has afforded me more opportunities. I think working as a legal assistant provides excellent training for an individual who has an interest in moving into areas of management,” she said.
Along with understanding the firm structure and job duties, paralegals should look for a firm that matches their own style.
Once in a paralegal manager position, maintaining composure and confidence when faced with problematic situations can be difficult, but there are a number of resources that can be tapped.
LAMA is a valuable organization for managers, said Lundholm, who has been a member of that association for 20 years.
“Support of colleagues is what helps make you successful. We all share the same issues and consulting with others is helpful. It’s personal and professional support,” she said.
Baber, who is a member of his local paralegal association and an active member of LAMA, agreed. “LAMA is a tremendous resource for paralegal managers. Aside from being a network of people and having a helpful Web site, the Annual Education Conference has useful and valuable seminars,” Baber said.
Chandonait has been to LAMA conferences in Washington, D.C., and found them very helpful. “It was a great opportunity to meet other people who are doing what I do across the city. It’s a great networking group,” she said.
Consulting with other paralegal managers is invaluable, Lundholm said. “There are no textbook answers. It’s based on your experiences. There are always decisions you have to make and those you wish you didn’t have to make, but it’s part of the job. That is where your colleagues at LAMA are helpful,” she said.
The more experiences you have, the more confidence you have in the choices you make as a manager.
The Path to Management
The steps toward moving into a paralegal manager position at one of the nation’s largest firms are not cut and dry, and can be extremely competitive. Each firm has different goals, but taking the time to research the position and the firm, and working hard toward building relationships, will result in rewards and promotions.
Essential Skills of a Paralegal Manager
Becoming a successful paralegal manager at a large firm takes more than just simply time and experience. The job requires a certain set of skills and qualities.
Experts agree the most important qualities in a good manager include good leadership skills, superior organizational abilities, interpersonal skills, communication skills, good judgment and the ability to work well under pressure.
“Being a manager, your time is not your own,” Lundholm said. “Everyone is demanding your time. Being flexible and knowing how to prioritize is important. Experience helps you figure out what really needs to be done today, and if it does need to be done today, something might be able to be delegated. Knowing when and how to delegate is essential.”
Being able to recognize what can be delegated to others is a key quality for paralegal managers to possess. Part of being able to delegate is being organized, being able to see what needs to be done and how to manage those duties.
“You have to have excellent organizational skills because there is a lot that managers handle on a day-to-day basis. A lot of the time we are reactionary,” Chandonait said. “Being able to stay organized and focused helps you through emergencies.”
Another essential part of being able to work with others is having strong interpersonal skills. As a paralegal manager, you should give feedback to those you manage. If it’s praise, point out exactly what they have done to deserve praise. If it’s something that needs to be corrected, give feedback quickly, not six months later in a review.
Communication skills are key, Baber said. “I am working with attorneys who are among the most professionally aggressive and articulate individuals. You need strong communication skills to [both] communicate and be persuasive at that level,” he said.
According to Schlaf, “one of the most difficult yet rewarding parts of the job has to do with managing the ebb and flow of client work. By that, I mean, having the staff available to handle the work when demand is high and also able to keep everyone busy when demand lessens. A key component to achieving this balance is having a staff that is willing to step up when the demand is high and also willing to be flexible with work assignments.”
Additionally, being able to work as a team and knowing the resources available within and outside of the firm helps keep a law office running smoothly. “I personally enjoy working collaboratively with other people,” Lundholm said.
Rachel Campbell is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, and is a former associate editor of LAT and Law Office Computing. Campbell graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in print journalism.
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