How paralegal managers
help run some of the nation’s largest law firms.
By Rachel Campbell
September/October 2004 Issue
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
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
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
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
Although job duties for paralegal
managers will differ for each firm, generally the job involves the
Recruiting, hiring and orienting new
Monitoring daily operations of the
Project planning and staffing
Coordinating seminars and training
Preparing and giving annual performance
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
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,”
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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.