Business support staff: a case of karma

To paraphrase US politician Adlai Stevenson: “Law firms get the business support professionals they deserve.”

In the case of Stevenson’s comments, in which he was referring to government, the remark was not meant as a complimentary one, but was rather an attack on the stupidity of the US voting public.

Equally, my comment is not necessarily meant as a compliment.

Ask any lawyer how they would define a law firm and chances are they would think it was essentially the sum of its parts (ie lawyers). In fact, a law firm is defined as much by its business support professionals as its lawyers.

Think about it. Law firms are proud – adamant even – that losing a single lawyer, or even a team, will not affect their service to clients; so if that is the case, the idea that a law firm is simply the sum of its (lawyer) parts is questionable.

What can radically affect a law firm’s performance in the market is its HR director. Or finance director. Or marketing director.

Which makes sense when you think about it. While a law firm may have 20 corporate partners, it will only ever have one HR director at a time. Or marketing director… You get the idea.

A good HR director can mean the difference between seeing your recruiter’s best CVs or being perceived as a waste of a candidate’s time.

A successful marketing director might be the architect of a rebrand that underpins a change in the fortunes of a firm.

Clever law firms understand this. In the best large law firms, director-level business support professionals can become partners (or equivalent). In a few cases they are remunerated like equity partners. And why not? In virtually all companies the HR director, sales director and marketing director are on the main board. Often, the head of legal (if there is one) is not.

Stevenson, himself a lawyer, also said: “The law is not a profession. It’s a business service and repair station.”

Again, the best law firms understand this. The best service and repair stations are ones where every employee, from the person who changes the oil to the managing director, know their functions and carry them out.

But all too often law firms do not manage to achieve this. Lawyers, it is often said, do not make good managers. Yet many firms insist on micro-managing business support people and inevitably end up taking on people who are susceptible to this kind of management ‘technique’ (ie doormats).

I could name some names, some paragons of law firm business support and the firms they work at, but will spare your blushes.

To those lawyers reading this, however, who think your HR director is a bit hopeless, your marketing director a dullard, your IT professional impossibly pernickety and your finance director borderline incompetent, hold up a mirror: you recruited them, after all.

You do, I am sad to say, get exactly the business support professionals you deserve.