What is a Certified Legal Manager, and Does Your Law Firm Need One?


August 09, 2021

Written by Dawn Donham, CLM – Legal Administrator

Earlier this year, my firm acknowledged on social media that I had recently passed my Certified Legal Manager (CLM) exam. Since that time, I’ve received a number of questions from people wondering what it means to have a CLM, and how it might benefit a law firm. So, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the CLM credential, I want to provide some background on the certification, exam, and reasons why someone may want to consider taking the exam. I also want to provide some reasons why some law firms consider these credentials when recruiting and hiring a legal administrator for their law firm.

Legal Administrators are tasked with a variety of duties in various management skill categories that include Operations Management, Legal Industry/Business Management, Finance Management, and Human Resources Management.

As some joke, legal administrators wear many hats and herd lots of cats. For that reason, there aren’t too many degrees that prepare an administrator for law office leadership. While a Master’s in Business Administration is often required by firms who are recruiting a legal administrator, this degree isn’t specific to the legal industry, so often times a recruiter will require an MBA including years of experience in the field.

A legal administrator’s duties can vary depending on the size of the law firm, the location of the firm, or the firm’s business structure.

For instance, some firms that are larger may have multiple administrators devoted to one management area like human resources, or different administrators serving in each of the management skill categories. A firm may have an administrator who manages all of the firm’s human resources, and a different administrator who specifically handles Finance or Operations. A lot of times administrators may also hold the titles of CFO or COO.

With exception to only a handful, Montana law firms are generally much smaller than firms in more populated states, making it impossible (financially or logistically) to hire an administrator to manage each area. Consequently, a law firm administrator working in a Montana firm is required to be knowledgeable in all areas in order to successfully lead the firm.

Often the firms are so small that an administrator isn’t even staffed. Solo practitioners will often hire a legal assistant who is also charged with the firm’s operational or billing duties. A small boutique firm may have a receptionist or bookkeeper, but will divide up other managerial tasks among other owner-attorneys. This means that attorneys are responsible for running a business and practicing law. In some cases one attorney may naturally gravitate toward doing all the administrative duties, leaving less time for them to serve clients. This can put added stress on the attorney who may also be responsible for contributing to firm revenue.

Removing the burden of administrative tasks to help attorneys realign their practices to improve client service is one reason a firm may want to consider hiring a firm administrator with the CLM credential.

The CLM credential validates an administrator’s knowledge, skills and abilities, ensuring that if hired, that individual has mastered the 65 core competencies identified by the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA) as “critical” in managing a law firm. According to the ALA, that individual “has the management skills and the depth and breadth of knowledge that would enable them to visit any 30-50-attorney law office, review practices and procedures, and be conversant about, and offer advice, in all areas of legal administration without relying on others.” Law firms can be assured that individuals with a CLM are going to be leaders in the legal industry, and can help move the law firm forward in their strategic plan. Or, if the firm doesn’t have a strategic plan, the administrator can help develop one.

How does one master the competencies identified as “critical” in managing a law firm? ALA provides its members with over 100 resources that the CLM Certification Committee uses to generate questions for the exam. In addition, they publish the CLM Study Guide that includes concepts, key terms, and practice questions specifically addressing the competencies essential to the position. Several local ALA Chapters have their own structured study groups for test preparation. And, some members choose to become involved in the ALA Cyber Chapter if they are located in a remote area with limited local resources. All of these avenues have led to success for a number of certified legal management professionals both nationally and internationally.

While the materials are extensive and the exam is difficult, the end result is rewarding for the professional and for the law firm looking for a qualified individual to manage and lead their firm.

Through my experience, I have built on my professional knowledge and can confidently say that a law firm will benefit in the short term and long term if they choose to recruit a professional who holds the Certified Legal Manager credential.

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