Your invisible professionals

So here’s a typical situation: I’m assigning an article for one of our CBA publications on a law firm practice topic — say, business development, or extranet use, or associate retention efforts, or what have you. And I want to find interviewees with knowledge and expertise to speak with our writers for said article. So one of the first places I’m inclined to look is within law firms themselves, to speak with the professionals in charge of these areas.

Except I can’t. Because with few exceptions, law firm websites do not list biographical or contact information for their non-lawyer professional staff. According to most law firms’ websites, even some of the largest and most challenging to operate, their offices contain lawyers and nobody else — all the day-to-day operations that sustain the firm, from accounting to marketing to IT to knowledge management, apparently happen independently, as if by magic.

Here’s a partial list of the key professionals within law firms who are rarely mentioned on firm websites:

  • Chief Administrative Officer
  • Director of Associate Retention
  • Director of Business Development
  • Director of Finance
  • Director of Human Resources
  • Director of Information Technology
  • Director of Knowledge Management
  • Director of Marketing
  • Director of Student Recruitment
  • Head Law Librarian
  • Webmaster

In fact, almost the only non-lawyer professional you’re likely to find on a law firm website is the Director of Media & Communications, if only because that person’s name shows up at the bottom of press releases. Then again, it’s just as likely the director’s name won’t show up — it’ll be the more junior media liaison who’s supposed to get all the calls from the press.

If this were just an inconvenience for media types like me, then you could almost forgive this oversight, despite all the lost opportunities to promote the firm’s name in the legal and business press. But the real damage, I think, is to the morale and status of these staff members, who work just as hard and take just as much pride in their craft as any lawyer, but who receive no public recognition from their employers.

In fact, it’s worse than just being overlooked — in many cases, it’s a callous exclusion. Numerous sites (I won’t embarrass any one firm by singling it out with a link) have an entire section grandly called “Our Professionals” — but when you scan its contents, you see lawyers and only lawyers therein (save for a few lucky patent and trademark agents). The clear message? There’s only one kind of professional at this firm, and it has an LL.B. or a J.D. after its name. Marketers, technologists, librarians, recruiters? They’re just staff.

It gets worse. At some firms, that same listing of lawyers is actually called “Our People.” It’s well-known that lawyers consider themselves a cut above and a breed apart from those who haven’t been called to the bar, but the unique exclusionary semantics of these websites sends a clear message about who matters and who doesn’t. Unless you’ve been on the receiving end of that sort of attitude — and few lawyers ever have — you don’t appreciate just how much it rankles and demeans.

So here’s my modest suggestion: web pages aren’t what you call expensive. Draw one up for each of your non-lawyer professional directors (at least — and strongly consider one for everyone who contributes in any substantial way to the life of the firm). Give these people the same quality of photograph, length of biography, list of qualifications, and range of interests as the lawyers get, along with phone, fax, e-mail and other contact information. (Stikeman Elliott, for one, gets it right, though I’d much prefer “Other Professionals” to “Administration”).

It’s a small, almost effortless way to express your recognition that these people are just as much professionals as your lawyers, and their contributions are just as integral to the success of your firm. The payoffs in improved morale, loyalty and productivity will follow swiftly — and your lawyers might just come to appreciate a little more that they’re not the only professionals in the office.

Oh, and I almost forgot — everything I just said above goes double for your secretaries.


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