It’s been a conscious decision from the day I started working at Summit Law Group (August 29, 2005, but who’s counting) that I would become Summit’s second CLM. Knowing very well, that it would take me another 3.5 years to qualify as a “Functional Specialist” (someone who works in a specific function at a law firm, in my case I am the Accounting Manager having only oversight of the firm’s financial activity, this is opposed to an “Overall Administrator”). The qualifications for a Functional Specialist are a bit more stringent than those of an Overall Administrator. First off, you need five years in a managerial role. Secondly, BEYOND the 120 minutes of certified course work in five of the nine areas of study over a 24 month period prior to applying for the exam, you ALSO needed 15 ADDITIONAL HOURS of certified course study outside of your own functional specialty. The understood reasoning for the additional hours requirement is because, as a functional specialist you do not have responsibility and thus perhaps knowledge in all the areas of the law firm’s operations, even if you could sit for and pass the exam.
Knowing all this, it was apparent that any functional specialist seeking the Certified Legal Manager designation would need to exert a higher level of dedication and discipline to achieve this already very high standard for professional certification.
What I didn’t initially realize during my initial preparations was how much support and encouragement, education, mentoring, and cheer leading it would take for me to go from Certifiable to Certified!
Over the first two years of my employment at Summit, Marc G. Reynolds, CLM sat with me on many occasions to discuss the certification, the process, the educational requirements, his journey through the process, the trials others went through, the idea that many people hide the fact that they are taking the exam simply to save embarrassment if they should fail, and so on and so forth. There was much to discuss and much to prepare for. These discussions led me to offer complete transparency of the challenges I would be facing over the upcoming years. Almost immediately, I began sharing with colleagues in PSALA that in May 2009 I would be sitting for the CLM. Keep in mind, that this is 2005 still! I couldn’t even start compiling my educational requirements for another two years, but yet, I was already putting myself and my dedication out there knowing very well, that if I placed this standard on myself, then others around me would encourage and help me along the way.
So we skip forward to October 2007. I attend the Region 5 conference in Portland, OR and receive my first few CLM qualified hours of course work!! How exciting! I didn’t even realize it. (Keeping in mind it was also at this conference where I met Wendy Rice-Isaacs, President of ALA International, and told her, “I”m going to be President someday too”. To which she relied, “Oh, of your chapter?” and I said, “No! Of all ALA, just like you!” What was I thinking? Anyway, let’s hope I’m writing about that journey at another time.)
Next big step in the journey was attending the International Conference the following spring which happened to be in Seattle in May 2008. Just prior to this conference I started back tracking through my legal course work and started documenting all of the sessions I attended in Portland as well as any chapter education that would qualify for certification. Then, when the Annual Conference Educational Brochure was released I very delicately scoured the educational sessions for EVERY single CLM certified course to determine if I would reach all my educational needs by the end of the conference. To my amazement, if I attended all the CLM sessions during the 2008 conference I was going to have more than 80% of my course work already completed, with still another year to complete the remaining educational requirements before sitting for the exam in May 2009. WOW!
My next step was the PSALA CLM Study Group. Beginning on October 1, 2008 members of our chapter’s elite compiled courses covering all the essential “areas of competence” for legal administrators. These courses would be conducted every other Wednesday from 3:30-5PM until APRIL! WOW! We were so lucky to have such an amazing group of dedicated and specialized knowledge in our chapter. And although I didn’t need to document this coursework into my criteria for certification, it was absolutely critical to my ultimate success. After all, JUST simply being a manager for 5 years and receiving the prerequisite course work was simply NOT enough to pass the exam. You needed a true and thorough knowledge of ALL areas of law firm operations.
The very first CLM Study Group meeting was a bit intimidating. Even though I had discussed the exam and processes quite extensively with Marc G. Reynolds, CLM over the past few years, it was quite intimidating to hear that Carol Anne Nitsche, CLM had actually read THE Financial Management for Law Firms reference book three times, cover to cover. This monstrous book was 500+ pages of formulas and finance theory all based around law firm performance standards. OMG… There was no way I was going to have that much dedication. Is that what it really took? It was at that moment that I severely regretted having told EVERYONE that I was definitely going to sit for AND PASS that exam in May 2009. Thank goodness, no other prior CLM’s at this meeting had gone to quite that length.
Skipping forward to January 2009, I submitted my certified educational listing to ALA Headquarters to “certify” that I could in fact sit for the exam in May. I submitted my payment and application then… I found out that they wouldn’t schedule me to sit for the exam. Well, not until February 2009 when I actually hit my 5 year mark! PHEW! I have to say, I was a bit panicked when I got the phone call saying “We received your application and your payment, but we can’t send you a confirmation letter just yet”. But alas, in late February I received my certification letter telling me that I officially qualified to sit for the Certified Legal Manager exam on Sunday, May 17, 2009 from 8AM-12PM in New Orleans, LA. YES! SUCCESS! Well, not yet, but I was so close!!!
Over the next few months, I spent 3-4 nights per week reading through all my study materials from the CLM Study Group, as well as the CLM Study Guide. It seemed like the more I read and the more I studied the more confusing all the information got! But, I made it through all the materials. I was as prepared as I could be.
Fast forward to the morning of May 17, Barb Paige and I met for breakfast at 6:30AM to make a final study run and to fuel up for the 4 hour mental marathon! But… both of us were exhausted! Many of our friends went out on Saturday night while we stayed in to study, while we stayed in to be well rested and un-hungover. So, that solemn morning we sat there at breakfast, ate quietly, and expressed how nervous we were to take that LONG escalator ride up to the third floor of the Marriott Hotel.
When we arrived at the exam room at 7:30, we were the FIRST people there. The doors weren’t even open yet. Just moments later, one of the ALA staffers bursts through the doors perky and happy and praising us for arriving first and SO excited that we were sitting for the exam (the other ALA staffer seemed just as exhausted as we were and fortunately shared our lack of enthusiasm at such an early hour).
Over the next half hour each of the other 30 or so exam participants trickled into the room, each one taking a seat at their individual tables, the rules were explained and off we went! I read through the exam once marking all the answers I knew instinctively, setting aside all the questions that I would need to “process” more thoroughly for later on. This took me about an hour to go through the 125 questions. Next I went back through to process the approximate 1/3 of the questions that required some evaluation or at least a coin flip approach. That took another hour. It was now 10AM and I had all the answers circled in my exam booklet. Last step was to transfer the answers from the booklet to the answer sheet. That took another 40 minutes as I still re-read every question as I transferred the answers from the booklet to the answer sheet. 10:40… and I was done? Just moments before that I saw one gentleman turn in his materials and leave, but that meant I was number 2 to finish? That couldn’t be a good sign, so I started going through my booklet again…. hold on, I had done my best. I promised myself that I would not beat myself to death and risk changing perfectly good answers! So, I took a deep breath, picked up my exam and took the walk of shame to the “hall monitor” at the front of the room, went back, gathered my personal belongings and out the door I went, knowing it would be “6-8 weeks” before I knew the results.
The conference was amazing, blah blah blah. The only thing I could think about was that exam, the individual questions that seemed crazy, the results of that exam, and what it would mean for my future. Trying to picture my new email signature “Richard L. Wood, CLM”.
Four weeks passed, I’m sitting in my office. It’s about 11:15AM and Marc G. Reynolds, CLM walks into my office holding one single envelope. This envelop is handed over to me. It hasn’t been opened. It says “Association of Legal Administrators” on the outside. My heart races! Why did he do this to me? He intercepted my exam results and now had brought the letter to me and expected me to open it in front of him. What if I failed???
I slowly tear open the letter… “We are sorry to inform you that you did NOT PASS the Certified Legal Manager exam.” My heart sunk. I looked up at Marc G. Reynolds, CLM and said, “I didn’t get it”. Together we went over the very vague scoring results to see where my weaknesses were. Come to find out, I was actually pretty good in finance… but not so good in ALL the other areas, just BARELY not passing each of the other areas of the exam.
Now what? The Region 5 Conference was going to be in lovely Banff, just outside Calgary up in Canada and would not be an exam site for the fall. So, the only next chance I would have to retake the exam would be in Las Vegas the week after the Region 5 Conference. Would I have to go through ALL that study prep AGAIN? What if I failed AGAIN? What would be next for me? Was it supposed to be a sign that I shouldn’t even be in legal? All of these questions pounded in my head for two months.
Then I sucked in my ample stomach and said, “I’m going for it. I’ve already put in SO much effort. I can do this!” So, once again I was on the studious path preparing for the exam retake in Las Vegas, NV on October 8th at 1-5pm.
I decided to skip the Region 5 conference in Banff assuming I would be spending that weekend studying intensely for the exam.
I won’t drag you through the play by play again, except for a few minor steps. I arrived in Vegas on the evening of October 7, got up early on the 8th and went to the spa for a full body Shiatsu massage, had lunch and went to the exam. I was VERY relaxed. I had been through this before and decided there was no need to be nervous. I already knew what to expect, except this time I wasn’t expecting a failure notice! Once again, I had finished the exam in less than three hours, then RUSHED to the airport to catch my 5:30 flight back to Seattle.
Once I get back to my office four weeks pass and I am contemplating my entire future based around the results of this exam. I couldn’t let Marc G. Reynolds, CLM down again. We’re peers. He’s put a lot of effort into preparing me for this exam, preparing me for a bright future in Legal Administration, building me up to our peers inside and outside our firm. What if I failed again? Should I just leave? Should I change careers? I was heart broken at the idea of leaving, but very worried about the consequences of proving my own incompetence.
Again, four weeks passes, this time I grab the letter out of my mail box. I open it… “Congratulations! You have PASSED the Certified Legal Manager Exam!!” Tears welled up in my eyes, not quite spilling over the dam. I literally RAN to Marc G. Reynolds, CLM’s office and tossed the letter on his desk, “I PASSED!!!” To which, Marc G. Reynolds, CLM replied, “Congratulations Richard L. Wood, CLM”. I was the 7th PSALA chapter member to become a Certified Legal Manager and number 312 in the United States. It was a very proud, yet humbling moment in my life.
I hope I’ve given you an idea of the risks and rewards of the journey through the CLM process. Would I do it again? Would I have told everyone that I was going to sit for the exam? Would I sit for the exam knowing I would fail the first time? Would I sit for the exam a SECOND time knowing in my heart of hearts that my life and career were going to changer regardless of the results? I would.
Out of this intense process blossomed a new Certified Legal Manager. A designation currently reserved for only 312 of our 10,000+ membership. It’s not only a moment of pride for pride’s sake. It’s an accomplishment of a thorough and well balanced education. Even though the exam seemed like the “be all and end all”, looking back at the process, I learned so many new skills and developed a whole new understanding and respect for the AMAZING industry that I’m thrilled to be a leader in, Legal Administration.
If you’d like more information about the CLM process, the exam or my experience, please feel free to email me, Richard L. Wood, CLM at RichardW@SummitLaw.com.
Filed under: Management