Most people hear the phrase “chief of staff” and immediately think military or politics. A rare few recognize the role as a growing one in the business world.
In the legal world, the role is still a relatively new one, but it deserves close attention. An effective chief of staff will act as an executive’s right hand, helping to execute on identified priorities and day-to-day efficiencies, as well as handling a variety of administrative tasks, thus allowing a law firm’s top leadership to be more strategically focused.
The Day to Day
Let’s say you’re in management at a law firm, and already have an incredible legal assistant, and maybe even an executive assistant. Isn’t that enough? A quick look at your to-do list should reveal that answer pretty quickly: No.
Enter the chief of staff. A law firm chief of staff works very closely with the firm CEO, COO, and other top management. They must possess a litany of interpersonal, tactical, and organizational skills, be adaptable to change (often on a moment’s notice), and be relentless in their pursuit of getting things done.
They must also possess poise and grace under pressure, keen judgment, problem-solving skills, and a willingness to work behind the scenes. A CoS shifts gears multiple times a day, donning new hats as the hour warrants it.
While not entirely exhaustive, these roles include:
- The Strategist: The CoS is a trusted adviser to the executives, acting as a sounding board on anything and everything, often playing an integral role in crafting firm initiatives and setting strategic direction.
- The Executor: Once those initiatives and strategies are set, the CoS may be the one keeping the trains running. This may well be the most important role a CoS plays, because all too often, law firm leaders will spend hours on plans and goals, but once they’re set, the leaders are pulled right back in to client work and other administrative demands. It is up to the CoS to prioritize the various initiatives, keep them top of mind, and keep the balls moving.
- The Communicator: A CoS often helps craft various communications for their executives, collaborating with any internal communications staff in the process. This includes writing draft copy and planning communication strategy for specific initiatives. Just as important as knowing what to communicate, however, is what not to communicate: A CoS often must keep much of what they know and learn confidential. They must also be able to discern when someone is seeking favor from them or their executives or when someone is fishing for information, and be able to deflect or redirect questioning that can’t—or shouldn’t—be answered at that time.
- The Goalkeeper and Proxy: Law firm executives are inundated with email and requests for meetings. The CoS will often triage an executive’s communications, answering when practicable, scanning for what’s most important to prioritize for the executive’s review, and ensuring specific lines of outreach or requests aren’t dropped. The CoS should participate in all management meetings, and can help facilitate decision-making in follow-up meetings when necessary.
- The Specialist: Does something need to get done, and the project doesn’t really belong anywhere? Chances are good that your CoS will take it on and see it across the line.
- The Administrator: Like everyone in law firms, a CoS is charged with doing more with less—which means they don’t have assistants. On top of everything else, a CoS routinely manages both their own and their executives’ calendars. They are the one setting meetings, participating in calls, and following up on action items, pulling data, and analyzing/reporting on it, and so on.
A successful chief of staff is one who is able to substantially contribute to the forward movement of their firm while offering their executives relief from the day-to-day stresses that distract from top priorities.
An effective CoS will help to maintain their executives’ forward momentum on tactical and strategic initiatives, clearing paths for them and other constituencies in pursuit of the firm’s greater good.
Finding Your Chief of Staff
You’re sold on the role, but now you need to know where to find this person.
In the best of worlds, you’ll find them right inside your firm, where they’ve spent years honing their craft. They might be the executive assistants ready for the next step, the superstar in one of the administrative departments that everyone always raves about, or perhaps it’s someone in a management position already.
They definitely know how most, if not all, of the firm’s departments work, and have consistently set themselves apart in their current role by going the extra mile, setting and completing projects, and being well-known and respected by their peers.
And if an internal search doesn’t reveal the right kind of candidate, never fear—the talent is out there. A quick look on LinkedIn reveals nearly 19,000 people with the title, and there are dozens more just waiting for their chance.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Valerie Nelan is chief of staff at Baker Donelson in Birmingham, Ala. Before her chief of staff role, Nelan worked for more than 14 years in the firm’s Marketing & Business Development Department.