People I Met Practicing Law

Law Firm Primer For Articling Students and New Associates – Part Three: The Chief Operating Officer

In Parts One and Two, I set out some questions that articling students and young lawyers should ask about their firm’s Managing Partner and Practice Group Leader.

Today I will tackle the much trickier issue of the Chief Operating Officer (the “COO”).

The first challenge is to figure out whether your firm has a COO. You cannot be fooled by titles. Someone is running the place and unless your firm is teensy-weensy, or in the dark ages, that person is not a lawyer.

Now, the person who I refer to as the COO may be called anything from the Office Manager to the Chief Executive Officer.  The title is important because it indicates two things: (i) what the partners think about the importance of their role, and by extension, whether they have any intention of following their advice; and (ii) how much they are being paid, and by extension, whether their advice is likely worth listening to.

Partners are famous for thinking that: (i) only lawyers should make decisions in law firms; and (ii) ‘business stuff’ is easy and there is no need to pay a lot of money to someone to do it. The larger the firm, the less frequently you will encounter this type of idiotic thinking, but to some extent this stupidity echoes across the entire profession.

After you have identified the COO, here are some questions to delve into:

  1. Is the COO a respected professional with a substantial business background who earns a significant salary because they are worth it?
  2. Does the COO have the authority to manage the firm in accordance with a budget?
  3. Does the COO manage or have significant input into: (i) the budgeting process; (ii) implementing new technology; (iii) disaster preparedness; and (iv) marketing initiatives?
  4. Does the COO have the political clout to insist that every new Associate and Partner must be interviewed by someone with a background in human resources to try to sniff out the crazy?
  5. Is the authority of the Partners properly limited to: (i) practicing law; (ii) mentoring and training Associates; (iii) developing new business; (iv) setting broad strategic goals; and (v) approving the budget?
  6. Do the lawyers know that trying to go over the head of the COO to their Practice Group Leader or the Managing Partner will be frowned upon by the Partners?
  7. Alternatively, is the COO simply a legal assistant or accounting clerk who has been promoted to “office manager” or “general manager” or some other title designed to suggest that they are sort of in charge of the staff and office, but that the lawyers do not really have to listen to them?
  8. Has the COO been given authority over everything other than the practice of law?
  9. Can the Partners restrain themselves from questioning, second-guessing, and criticizing what the COO does?
  10. Has the COO won the confidence of the Associates, Law Clerks, and other Staff such that all of them feel secure in coming to the COO with problems, confident that their identities will not be revealed to the Partners?

If the COO does not impress you much (or worse, if there is no COO), working in that firm may not be for you.

If they do, the firm may still not be for you.  There are many more interesting folks to meet at your firm before you can really tell whether you will soon be wanting to make a lateral transfer in the typically futile attempt to find a better place.

Next time: The Chief Technology Officer

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