Non-attorneys lend business acumen to local law firms

Administrators bring skill sets to service-oriented sector

The past few years have seen various changes to the Nashville legal community, with, for example, mergers, rebrandings and office moves.

Many out-of-state high-profile attorneys have relocated to local law office. Business is healthy. Lawyers are happy.

And on a very specific note, the legal sector continues to see non-lawyers being added to its ranks.

For example, Gullett Sanford Robinson & Martin recently announced it has hired Maureen E. Wylie as its first chief operating officer.

Wylie previously served as chief operating officer at Nashville-based Anesthesia Medical Group, a peri-operative services company serving six hospitals and five surgery centers in Middle Tennessee. To highlight her non-legal background even more so, Wylie holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in both film and sociology

Scott Derrick, Gullett Sanford Robinson & Martin managing partner, said Wylie’s hiring was a strategic move. For the previous four years, the firm had relied on the dependable Judi Martin to handle its day-to-day business dealings. When Martin gave notice of her retirement, after a 30-year run, Gullett pondered its options.

“In bringing [Wylie] on, we recognized she brings a great deal of expertise and a skill set to use,” said Derrick (pictured).

Indeed, times have changed regarding how Nashville firms operate their offices.

Derrick said when he attended law school, there was no training for running a law firm.

“We didn’t even talk about it,” he said.

Years ago, Derrick said firms sometimes found somebody already on board and that had a skill set needed to run those firms as businesses. “At some point, they very likely were a managing partner’s secretary,” he said.   

But during the past 10 years or so, firms began to transition.

“Judi was instrumental in thinking about that transition,” Derrick said. “It has been an evolutionary process [for area firms],” he added. “That’s how it should happen.”

Derrick said it’s difficult to say if the hiring of non-attorneys to help run law firms as businesses is a local trend per se.

“But it is happening,” he said. “What lawyers deliver is, in many ways, different than [what is delivered by other service businesses]. But some of the same considerations that are present in others businesses are present with law firms.”

As such, law firm need people with business acumen as much as the lawyers themselves.

Jim Roberts, who will have served as legal administrator for Waddey & Patterson 10 years in June, considers himself a general manager of sorts.

For example, Roberts oversees all Waddey & Patterson accounting, billing, human resources, advertising, staff hires, annual reviews, salary adjustments, technology and health insurance efforts and initiatives.

“I’m not going to buy a $100,000 piece of equipment unless someone blesses that decision, but I have lots of flexibility,” Roberts said. “Whatever the non-practice side of the business, I have my hand in it. And I like to be a part of all of it.”

Roberts said the local legal community’s hiring of non-lawyers has “grown over the years.” He added that the Association of Legal Administrators, which was founded in 1971 and is based in Illinois, has shed light on how non-lawyers can contribute to firms.

“We’ve been able to bring some business acumen to the industry,” said Roberts, who work with Cummings Signs for 17 years, most recently as GM for operations, prior to joining Waddey & Patterson. “[For example], one of the big changes I’ve seen in the legal industry is with marketing.”

Stan Pyrdum, office administrator with the Nashville office of Stites & Harbison, has an educational background that involves political science and information systems. He worked at what was then Blackburn & McCune from 1996 to 2003 and at Frost Brown Todd from 2003 to 2009.

“I started working at Blackburn to get some experience,” he recalled. “I thought I would go to law school. But I got into managing a department for Blackburn & McCune and then moved up to legal administrator for the firm. And it went from there.”

Pyrdum said he anticipates more firms hiring non-lawyers. But even more so, he sees another dynamic eventually to play out. Firm administrators tend to be 45 and older.

“The legal administrators at most of the local law firms have been in the positions for a number of years,” Pyrdum said. “Some of those folks will soon retire, and there will be an increasing demand to fill those positions. The firms will have to look outside the legal industry to fill those positions.