Law Firm Owners: Are You a CEO or an Operator?

8 minutes to read

You’re not just an attorney. You’re also the CEO of your law firm. That means you must run your law firm like the business it is.

In the beginning, when you first start your law firm, this means doing everything, from trying cases, to marketing your firm, to accounting, to payroll, and everything in between. As your business grows, many of these functions expand to take more time, ultimately requiring you to delegate to dedicated individuals in your firm.

Alex Shunnarah

“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.” – Steve Jobs

When you have a firm of 5 people, it’s possible for you to lead your time, manage the payroll, field HR complaints, and run your business day to day. When it’s 50 people, or 80 people, or 100 people, it’s a different story.

If your law firm is growing so much you can’t wear every hat anymore, congratulations. It’s time to lean into your CEO role and find your right hand to handle the rest.

We’re talking about your Operator.

This is a way to get time back in your day, and as you know by this point, time is the most valuable currency we have. This knowledge will unlock your firm’s true potential and change your entire practice for the better.

Get ready to understand:

    1. The Difference Between a CEO and an Operator
    2. The Benefits of Having an Operator in Your Law Firm
    3. How to Identify the Right Operator for Your Law Firm

1. The Difference Between a CEO and an Operator

A key part of your growth journey as a law firm owner is figuring out your ideal role in the business.

The CEO is the visionary for your law firm — the dreamer, the creator, and the one constantly looking toward the future. As the CEO of your firm, you’re in charge of communicating the overall vision to your team and your clients. You should always be thinking of ways to develop new business, bring on clients and cases, and make your practice better than yesterday.


In the CEO role, you should be focused on:

  • Charting the vision for your firm
  • Communicating that vision to the team
  • Preparing your firm for the future
  • See the bigger picture (keeping a pulse on your industry)
  • Developing future business
  • Brand building

“Vision without execution is hallucination.” – Thomas Edison

The Operator, however, is focused on the execution of the vision. They are the one who focuses on the fives: Who, What, When, Where, Why (and How). They are the filter between the CEO and the entire team, and they’re the one who handles daily management so the CEO doesn’t have to. They are also the one who holds the CEO and other leaders accountable for their goals and plans for the future.

Duana Boswell-Loeschel Case Study

In summary, your Operator should:

  • Act as a filter
  • Prioritize and execute
  • Provide direction to the rest of the team and keep the team together
  • Hold your leadership team accountable to goals/metrics
  • Help solve client & people issues
  • Collaborate with the CEO to structure the best path forward
  • Translate vision into strategy

While it is possible to perform both of these functions at the same time when your firm is small, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be successful in doing so as your business grows. 

Here’s why:

As a CEO, it’s important to have a balance between short-, medium-, and long-term priorities. But research shows that the most successful CEOs are those who are adaptable and spend a significant amount of their time (about 50%) thinking about the long term. This focus helps them to anticipate potential issues and make better decisions.

Shannon Law Group

2. The Benefits of Having an Operator in Your Firm

While it may be tempting for a CEO to try and handle everything themselves, this can bottleneck the growth and success of the business. A CEO without an Operator is one who is stretched too thin, always putting out fires, operating outside of strengths and thus getting frustrated, taking tons of time to do things not strong at, not driving the business forward, stuck IN the day to day rather than stepping out to work ON the long-term vision.

Instead, a CEO needs to have an Operator who can handle the day-to-day operations, freeing the CEO to focus on their strengths, overall vision, and strategy. This not only allows the CEO to be more productive, but it also fosters a sense of trust and empowerment within the team.

“A good leader creates followers. A great leader creates leaders.” – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Picture this:

You are the CEO of a law firm that doesn’t have an Operator. You think you can handle everything no matter how much is on your plate, but you quickly realize that you can’t do it alone.

All Hands Meeting

That’s because:

  • You forgot to fill out last month’s invoices from your biggest client
  • There was a mistake when running payroll, and therefore your hardworking team members aren’t getting paid on time
  • Your team members are openly gossiping and creating drama that takes away from the firm’s productivity
  • You didn’t call back a potential client because your meeting ran long and it slipped your mind
  • The time you spent with your family was interrupted due to putting out fires at the office at the last minute
  • You’re now behind in both your personal life and professional life

Don’t you wish you had an Operator?

When you install an Operator at your firm, you are ensuring that bills are paid, payroll goes out on time, your people are managed effectively, all clients and cases are handled swiftly and efficiently, and you will always have the time to spend focused on the important things.

Grand Opening

3. How to Identify the Right Operator for Your Law Firm

When selecting an Operator, it’s important to find the right fit for the size and complexity of your firm. You want to hire ahead, but not so far ahead that you’re overpaying for an experience you don’t need. Consider the factors associated with each role and choose the one that best aligns with your company’s needs.

Here are a few options for you to consider when looking for the ideal fit for your firm:

Operations Manager

  • Suitable for smaller firms with fewer than 15 team members
  • Monitors and reports on team performance, but is not actively involved in leading team member performance
  • Ensures that day-to-day operations are running smoothly and that company systems are being followed
  • May not be deeply involved in setting future operational strategy as they are focused on the present rather than the long term

Director of Operations

  • Suitable for mid-size firms with 15-50 team members
  • Responsible for developing organizational complexity, such as building out a leadership team or having team leads
  • Ensures that the team’s operations are running smoothly and that company systems are being followed
  • Responsible for scaling operations with future growth in mind and monitoring and reporting on team performance

Chief Operating Officer (COO)

  • Suitable for larger firms with more than 50 team members
  • Responsible for greater organizational complexity, with multiple teams and levels of leadership
  • Ensures that the leadership team is keeping their respective teams on track and that company systems are being followed
  • Addressing organizational development challenges (dealing with growing pains)
  • Assessing organizational structure for future growth (not just scaling operations, but looking at the larger landscape)
  • Drives the company’s long-term strategy and ensures that the CEO’s vision is being executed effectively

Take a look around your law firm and determine which role would be best suited for it. Consider the number of team members you have, what your biggest holdups are, and what you hope to get out of having an Operator in your organization.

David W. Martin

Here are a few things to think about when looking for your law firm’s ideal Operator:

  • Lay out the role and responsibilities up front. Make sure you and your Operator are on the same page about what’s expected of them and how they fit into the overall organization.
  • Pick the right person. Find an Operator with the skills and qualities that match your law firm’s needs. Take the time to carefully consider candidates, and don’t be afraid to turn down those who aren’t the perfect fit.
  • Stay in touch. Keep the lines of communication open with your Operator and give them the support and authority they need to do their job well.
  • Give them the tools they need. Make sure your Operator has access to the resources and training they need to excel.
  • Trust them. Arguably the most important part of any relationship is trust. Give your Operator the freedom to make decisions and carry out their responsibilities< that will benefit your firm in the long run.

You can’t do it on your own, and you don’t want to have to go through the hiring process multiple times in order to find the perfect person to act as your law firm’s Operator. When you make it clear what you’re looking for from the beginning, you’ll start getting your practice together in no time.

Final Thoughts

As the CEO of your law firm, you should understand by now that you can’t do everything successfully on your own. You’ve got to know when to step aside, delegate, and focus on what is in your unique wheelhouse. By hiring an Operator to help run your firm, you’re going to have all of that and more.

If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of an Operator to grow your firm and take your practice to the next level, consider joining Crisp Coach. This is a closed-door community of the highest-performing law firms in the country, and yours could be the next one. The Crisp Coach program is specifically designed for committed law firm owners like you, and we’ll show you how to be the CEO you always wanted to be.

If you’re ready to join Crisp Coach, bring on an Operator, and make 2023 your law firm’s most successful  year yet, then you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s do this!