Success Story


Success Story

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By G. Carole Morris, CLM


My career in legal administration started by chance in the spring of 1960, while I was a junior in high school. In May 2006, I celebrated my 45th year with Mabry & McClelland, LLP. Had anyone told me in 1961 that I would still be working with the same firm 45 years later, I probably would have run screaming from the room and ultimately missed out on some great experiences!
A Quick Start

I decided early in life that I wanted to be a secretary when I grew up. I do not know how the idea originated; it was just there. In the spring of 1960, one of my teachers asked me if I was interested in working for a law firm for the summer. A former graduate of my high school was a legal secretary for a three-man firm in Atlanta, and she was scheduled for an appendectomy that would force her to miss work for two months. Needing a replacement for the summer, she called her former high school to see if any qualified students could cover for her. The teacher chose me, and I went on an interview.

I interviewed with Ed Henning, and as luck would have it, we hit it off immediately.  He hired me that day, and I worked for the firm for two months. In the early 1960s, courts in Atlanta recessed for the summer, so it was not a hectic time. Nevertheless, it was a fun and rewarding experience. During my first day on the job, I had to deal with an electric typewriter with a carbon ribbon that dared to run out! Because I had never seen an electric typewriter – much less a carbon ribbon – Ed and I called IBM and got a representative to walk us through how to change the ribbon.

During December of my senior year of high school, I learned that the firm I had worked for was splitting up, and I was asked for which attorney I would choose to work. Without hesitation, I said Ed Henning. Then, in March of my senior year, I received a telephone call from Ed, who asked me to become his secretary upon graduation from high school. It seems his secretary (the one from my high school) was getting married and moving out of state.

I began working for Ed part time in March, but transitioned to full time within four days of graduation. Of course, I understood how this position was simply something for me to do to earn money and keep me busy until I got married and began my “real job” of being a wife and mother!

The Next Steps

Ed eventually decided that he wanted to be part of a larger firm; so, in January 1967, we merged with another Atlanta-based firm. The new law firm of Henning, Chambers & Mabry had six attorneys and four secretaries.

I worked with Ed until the summer of 1968. By then, I was married and pregnant and had quit work to become a full-time wife and mother. Within two years, however, I had resumed working for the firm, albeit from home. The firm had a subrogation department that required intense secretarial support, and I was able to handle most of this work from home. (I may have been one of the first “telecommuters” in Atlanta!)

Fortunately, taking two years off to start a family didn’t disrupt Carole’s relationship with the firm, as working from home became a win-win.

In 1971, I went back to work for the firm in a temporary position at the office, filling in for someone who was recovering from back surgery. Once her recovery period was over, she left the firm, and I went back full time as the secretary in charge of the subrogation department. That lasted for about a year, and then I became secretary to Speer Mabry (the law firm’s managing partner), and I was his secretary until 1978. At that time, the firm’s leaders asked if I would like to become its office manager. Scared but delighted with the confidence they had in me, I said yes – and thus launched the career that led me to where I am today. For several years I worked as legal secretary/office manager, until the firm grew to the point where it needed a full-time office manager.

Discovering the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA)

In those days (before the Internet), finding resources to help me in my career was not easy, and it took me until 1987 to find the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA). Once I found the Association and requested permission to join, the partners in my firm were quick to agree – and they have never since questioned whether or not it was a worthwhile investment. Once I joined ALA, I learned more about the local Chapter (“Atlanta ALA,” or “AALA”), but for several years I felt I was “too busy” to attend Chapter meetings or to do anything on the local level. I scarcely found time to leave the office to go home!

In 1998, as the firm grew, we promoted my assistant to Human Resources Director and sponsored her involvement with ALA and AALA.  She and I began attending ALA meetings, going to an ALA Region 2 Conference in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1999, and then attending the ALA Annual Conference in 2000 in Denver, Colorado. The more we attended ALA events, the more knowledge we both gained.

By this time, I was serving as the office manager and technology “expert” for my firm, while my Human Resources Director handled most staff-related issues. The firm had grown to 76 people, and I desperately needed a technology expert on staff. Fortunately, I was able to find one in late 1999, and he also joined ALA and AALA – once again with my firm’s blessing.

More Changes in Store

Entering the new millennium, more changes were on the horizon. My firm split in 2000 and changed its name yet again. My title at that time also changed from Office Manager to Firm Administrator.

I served on several committees within AALA, and in 2002, I was asked to serve on the Board of Directors as Secretary. Once again, my partners quickly agreed to my terms of service, and I took the Secretary position for 2003-2004. I served again as Secretary for 2004-2005, and then moved into the Vice President/President-Elect position in 2005-2006.

This year, it is my honor to be AALA’s President. When I was first asked to be on the Board, I told them I would be in any position so long as it did not involve public speaking. (I hated public speaking!) However, the more involved I got in AALA, and the more friends I made, the less uncomfortable I became. While I will never “like” public speaking, it is no longer the nightmare I considered it to be four years ago. I thank AALA for creating a safe place for me to learn and expand my horizons.

Pursuing the Certified Legal Manager Certification Program

When the Certified Legal Manager (CLM) program was launched in 1997, I printed the materials and decided I would take the test before I retired. I eventually watched as three AALA members earned the esteemed designation – and wondered how they ever found time to study!

Finally, in January 2006, I decided it was “now or never.” I joined a CLM study group and strived to learn as much as possible and reinforce what I already knew. In April, while in Montréal for the ALA Annual Conference, I took the CLM test.

Many people asked me why I would go to the trouble and expense to pursue the CLM – not to mention risk the possible heartbreak of failure – when I had worked for the same firm for so long and was approaching the end of my career. My answer: for personal satisfaction. It also proves to me – and to colleagues in my firm – that I really do know what I am doing!

In the past, young partners have wanted to know why the firm allowed someone who lacked a college education to manage the firm and asked whether or not the firm should hire someone with a degree. They were not shy about letting me know their feelings and, after a while, I sometimes felt inadequate. Fortunately, the more experienced partners with whom I had worked for years had faith in me and trusted my abilities and my judgment.

Those same partners are among the reasons I have stayed at my firm for 45 years, even though partners have come and gone and the one who hired me initially left in 1985 to form Henning Mediation Services. Ed and I stay in touch regularly. He always tells people that I was the best secretary he ever had, and he continues to tell me how proud he is of everything I have accomplished. I will be forever grateful for what he taught me. To think, I did not even know the difference between a plaintiff and a defendant that summer so long ago!

The Moment of Truth

Only a couple of my firm’s partners knew that I was studying for the CLM test and planning to take it in Montréal. They were very supportive of my efforts, but assured me that even if I failed the test, they still had great faith in my abilities and not to worry about it. Speer Mabry, for whom I worked as secretary and then as office manager to his managing partner, has been very supportive during the years.  I have learned so much about managing a firm and life in general from Speer that I can never thank him enough.

My firm has always supported my pursuit of educational opportunities, allowing me to attend numerous local seminars and ALA conferences, and my colleagues have repeatedly demonstrated their faith in my professional abilities.

Had I failed the CLM test in April, I would have taken it again in September.  (Frankly, because it was the first test I had taken in 45 years, I expected to fail it!)  However, thanks to the Atlanta study group and the excellent mentoring I received from the group’s chair, James Gillespie, CLM, I passed the test!

Mission Accomplished

My firm and my Chapter are very proud that I passed the CLM test.  My firm announced my accomplishment on its Web site and published a full-page “congratulations” message in one of our newsletters.

I am certainly proud of myself, as it was a tough test, and I feel I truly earned the CLM designation. This is not a test to be taken lightly! But if you know your business and study the CLM Study Guide and other supporting materials, you can take the test with confidence.

I strongly urge anyone who can to join a study group, because having others to bounce around ideas with certainly helps. I received constant encouragement from members of my study group – both before and after the test, even when I still was not sure whether I had passed or not.

I am very grateful for the support of my ALA and law firm colleagues for their support in my pursuit of what I consider a tremendous achievement. I am now one of about 200 CLMs, and I’m proud of it!

About the Author

G. Carole Morris, CLM, is 2006-2007 President of ALA’s Atlanta Chapter and Firm Administrator at Mabry & McClelland, LLP, in Atlanta, Georgia. You can contact her at