Law Firm Primer For Articling Students and New Associates – Part Three: The Chief Operating Officer

Photo by August de Richelieu at Pexels

By Murray Gottheil | November 7, 2023

In Parts One and Two, I set out some questions that articling students and young lawyers should ask about their firm’s managing partners and practice group leaders.

Today I will tackle the much trickier issue of the chief operating officer (COO).

The first challenge is to figure out whether your firm has a COO. Don’t let titles fool you: someone is running the place and unless your firm is teensy-weensy, or in the dark ages, that person is not a lawyer.

Now, the firm may call the person whom I refer to as the COO as anything from the office manager to the chief executive officer. The title is significant because it indicates two things: (i) what the partners think about the importance of the role and whether they have any intention of following the advice given by the individual in the role; and (ii) how much the firm is paying the individual in the position, and by extension, whether their advice is likely worth listening to.

Partners are famous for thinking that: (i) only lawyers should make decisions in law firms; and (ii) ‘business stuff’ is easy and there is no need to pay a lot of money to someone to do it. The larger the firm, the less frequently you will encounter this type of idiotic thinking, but to some extent this stupidity echoes across the profession.

After you have identified the COO, here are some questions to delve into:

  1. Is the COO a respected professional with a substantial business background who earns a significant salary because they are worth it?;
  2. Does the COO have the authority to manage the firm in accordance with a budget?;
  3. Does the COO manage or have significant input into: (i) the budgeting process; (ii) implementing new technology; (iii) disaster preparedness; and (iv) marketing initiatives?;
  4. Does the COO have the political clout to insist that every new associate and partner must be interviewed by someone with a background in human resources to try to sniff out the crazies?;
  5. Is the authority of the partners properly limited to: (i) practicing law; (ii) mentoring and training associates; (iii) developing new business; (iv) setting broad strategic goals; and (v) approving the budget?;
  6. Do the lawyers know that the partners will frown upon any attempts to go over the COO’s head to a practice group leader or a managing partner?;
  7. Alternatively, is the COO simply a legal assistant or accounting clerk who has been promoted to “office manager” or “general manager” or some other title designed to suggest that they are sort of in charge of the staff and office but the lawyers do not really have to listen to them?;
  8. Has the COO been given authority over everything other than the practice of law?;
  9. Can the Partners restrain themselves from questioning, second-guessing, and criticizing what the COO does?; and
  10. Has the COO won the trust of associates, law clerks, and other staff that he or she will deal with problems confidentially?

If the COO does not impress you much (or worse, if there is no COO), working in that firm may not be for you.

If they do, the firm may still not be for you. There are many more interesting folks to meet at your firm before you can really tell whether you will soon be wanting a lateral transfer in the typically futile attempt to find a better place.

Next time: The Chief Technology Officer

Murray is a happily retired lawyer who lives in the country, drives a pick-up truck, writes, teaches and mentors. You can reach him at [email protected] or see what he is up to at


Law Firm Primer For Articling Students and New Associates – Part Two: The Practice Group Leader

Law Firm Primer For Articling Students and New Associates – Part One: The Managing Partner

Bad and Worse Advice for Law Firm Associates

Talking to Partners about Problems

Reporting to the Lawyer From Hell

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