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Q&A with Rita Alli, Legal Administration




CriminalJusticePrograms.com recently spoke with Rita Alli, President of the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA) and Director of Business and Professional Development for Stoel Rives, LLP, an 11-office firm based in Seattle, Washington.

Below she shares her thoughts on legal administration and what aspiring administrators/managers should keep in mind as they get started.

Q: How did you get started in legal administration?

After college-it was really kind of situational. There happened to be an opening in a law firm. I was a fast typist, and it was a good entry level job. Within a few years, I was supervisor of the word processing department, and it kind of evolved from there. I found the [legal] environment very stimulating. I really enjoy working with lawyers and in a fast-paced environment.

Q: What is the legal administrator's function in a law firm?

As administrators in law firms, we're not necessarily the decision-makers. A law firm structure is a partnership, and the partners own the business. They are the key stakeholders and decision-makers, though administrators can have a strong influence and can help in the decision-making process. As administrators, we manage the operations or the business side of the firm.

Q: What kind of training/background do you think is helpful for the career?

When I started, legal management was a fairly new field, and it was very common for people to find themselves evolving into the role. That's not so much the case today. Today, most law firms recognize the [manager position] as an important role in the firm. Now, you're often hired into that position because of your education or experience. Familiarity with professional services is important. A [law office] is different from other corporate structures. As an undergraduate, earning just a general liberal arts degree is helpful. An advanced degree in business, either an MBA or degree in business administration is a strong plus as well.

Q: In general, are there any specific traits that work well in this career?

You need to be a good communicator and a good writer: emails, memos, etc. Communication and organization are the key skills needed. Lawyers tend to be very bright and opinionated people. Be a good listener. Be able to persuade in a way that's not too overbearing.

Q: What can someone expect as they start out in legal administration?

As an administrator, particularly in a small firm, which is probably where you would start out, you "wear a lot of hats." In a small firm, you might not have a lot of resources under you to handle the finance, human resource, and technology [issues that come up]. You need to understand the needs of the firm and what your resources are. For smaller firms, those resources include the ALA programs, members and conferences. At an ALA conference, [legal administrators] can learn how to implement the latest trends in technology, manage a budget, motivate employees and more. Our conferences range from those who are starting out to those looking for higher-level training.

Q: How can someone keep his/her responsibilities balanced?

The best way to keep things balanced is with a very good time management system and good organization skills. Whatever your job is, we all need to know how to prioritize. Someone may come to you with something they think is urgent and needs a significant chunk of your time that second, but you may understand that, in the big picture, there are other things that are higher priority. That's why an administrator needs really good communication and negotiation skills. Lawyers can be very demanding because their clients can be very demanding. We must respond to the needs of our clients. The best advice is to just have a very good time management system, and make sure you let others know that you will meet their needs as well.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in the field?

One of the biggest challenges is that the legal industry is changing. The business model is changing, and that's our challenge as well as our opportunity. As administrators we have tremendous opportunities to advise our firms and have an influence. For example, one of the hot topics right now is social networking and introducing social networking to lawyers. We are learning that social networking can be a tremendous tool for marketing and visibility. We need to find a way to get those tools in front of the lawyers and make sure they understand how to use them effectively.

Q: What other changes have there been in the legal field recently?

The focus right now is figuring out how to deliver more value to our clients. They're asking for alternative fee arrangements. Clients want to package our services, rather than pay a traditional hourly rate. That's a big challenge for law firms and a huge shift from the model that's been in place for several decades.

Q: What do you see for the future of the legal administration career?

I think legal administration is a wonderful opportunity for young people that want a highly professional, respected and well-compensated career. It's not going away. I see the trend going toward giving more responsibility and, maybe ultimately, authority to the administrators who are paid full-time to manage the firm. The lawyers will take back that time to practice law. The role of the administrator is only increasing in its professionalism and stature.

Q: As the president of the ALA is there anything in particular you think aspiring legal administrators should be aware of as they begin their careers?

I think networking is something that would really benefit someone starting out. The ALA has local chapters, which can become local resources for any questions.