With everything else that goes into the practice of law at a mid-size firm, the practical aspects of keeping the firm running smoothly might go unnoticed.
But not for Renée Lane-Kunz, who has struck a balance between the responsibilities of practicing employment law and those of chief operating officer at Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler in Baltimore.
“How the lights turn on every day, how the bills are paid and the mail is delivered — all of those daily occurrences seemingly happen by magic,” said Lane-Kunz, of counsel at Shapiro Sher. “No one really pays particular attention to what it takes, to the level of business acumen that is required to successfully manage a law firm.”
Working in the hospitality industry for about 20 years before attending law school, Lane-Kunz acquired firsthand knowledge of business operations. At the same time, her legal experience puts her a step above the average firm administrator, said Joel Sher, chairman of Shapiro Sher.
“In terms of budgeting for law firms, marketing for law firms, staffing professionals, staffing support — the fact that she actually has a practice makes her better equipped to do it,” Sher said.
Back in 2000, the law firm was one of the first in the region to hire a non-attorney, Alan Fox, as its chief operating officer. Fox was succeeded by another non-attorney COO, Jane Robinson, who was Lane-Kunz’s predecessor.
Meanwhile, Lane-Kunz was working in the hotel industry when she decided to attend the University of Baltimore School of Law.
Initially, she didn’t intend to practice law after graduating in 2004; however, during law school, she spent a year as a litigation law clerk with Shapiro Sher. She stayed on as an associate once she passed the bar, at age 40.
After trading the world of management and human resources for the legal field, it wasn’t long before she began drawing on her business experience at the firm.
Since 2008, Lane-Kunz has served as chief operating officer at Shapiro Sher, a role that requires her to oversee day-to-day details like ensuring the facilities are running properly, as well as big-picture aspects such as budgeting and perhaps the most challenging role to date: the firm’s move from 36 S. Charles, where it has been for some 40 years, to 250 W. Pratt, where it will relocate in mid-December.
Meanwhile, she also co-chairs the firm’s employment law group.
“I have to prioritize my day. If there’s a pressing matter that I need to handle for a client, that priority always comes first,” she said.
Although the duties are different, the two roles often complement each other, Lane-Kunz said.
“The combination of being a practicing attorney and understanding the pressures and the responsibilities involved in that profession, and then also having a very solid background in executive business management, allows me to walk that fine line” between the legal and administrative sides of the business, she said.
Outside the office, Lane-Kunz is serving as this year’s president of the Maryland chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators, a professional organization that provides members with educational opportunities focused on law firm management. Most members of the group are not attorneys, but rather hail from fields like accounting or human resources.
“We’re the only firm I’m aware of that does it this way, but it’s sort of the model we’ve always wanted,” Sher said.
Many of the personal qualities legal administrators should embody are the same as those needed to succeed as a lawyer, Lane-Kunz said, including empathy, patience and engagement with the rest of the firm. Knowledge of fields like information technology and accounting, as well as experience in human resources, is also vital, she said.
“I think that relationships — personal relationships, employment relationships — are the very foundation of the business,” she said. “The relationship that a business has as an entity to its employees determines the culture of that business, the success of that business, the identity of that business.”
Lane-Kunz said one of the main reasons she’s been able to thrive at Shapiro Sher is the flexibility the firm has given her to blend her legal training and business experience. Although it’s a balance she’s still figuring out, Lane-Kunz said she lives for the “thrill” of the new challenges it brings.
“Usually once you leave a certain profession and become an attorney, you’re sort of expected to leave that past behind,” she said. “Their unique recognition of all that I had done allowed me to get to this place, which I thoroughly enjoy.”
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