LI Feature Legal Industry/Business Management

Navigating a Path to the C-Suite

As law firms continue to hire C-Suite professionals to drive business operations, earning your CLM designation will help advance your career.

For Karie Rivkin, CLM, the plan had always been to obtain her MBA, but working full-time while raising three children and other life events forced her to place that goal, at that time, on hold.

Paula Tsurutani

“Still wanting something more, the [Certified Legal Manager (CLM)® designation] seemed to be my logical and natural next step,” says Rivkin, who is the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) at Eichelbaum Wardell Hansen Powell & Muñoz, PC, and a Director on ALA’s Board of Directors. “Since the CLM is an ALA offering — and ALA is recognized in the legal industry — the credential would help validate my expertise.”

Though already responsible for guiding the strategy and vision of the firm’s future, the CLM credentials provided her the opportunity to update her title from Firm Administrator to Chief Financial Officer. It validated her skills. 

It’s an example of how the way firms approach business has drastically changed in recent years. One notable change that’s pertinent for legal management professionals? Relying on C-Suite level positions to drive the business part of the law firm and leaving lawyers to do what they do best — practice law.

As Rivkin’s story illustrates, expanding your professional development is an important way to enhance your C-Suite credentials and make yourself more valuable to the firm. The CLM certification is one meaningful way to sharpen skills and demonstrate expertise.

“For even the most seasoned leaders,” says Rivkin, “the CLM preparation materials provide relevant legal industry and management expertise for continued professional growth and development.”

The CLM exam is rigorous, designed to test the mastery of core competencies needed to be an effective administrator. In other words, it’s an excellent foundation for those looking to advance their positions within the firm.

While it can be a good place to start in your C-Suite journey, there are other things to consider, too, according to Matthew Sullivan, Executive Vice President, Finance and Operations, at Sullivan Law and Associates, and Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at Unravel Legal. (He also serves as a member of ALA’s Professional Development Advisory Committee.)

“To be successful in a C-Suite position, you need to assess situations at a very high level and operate strategically — weighing options, assessing risks and making calculated decisions based on all the information,” says Sullivan. “Cultivating this skill does not come naturally to many — especially administrators — who are used to doing and handling the nuts and bolts of the business.”

Maybe you’re interested in expanding your knowledge in the field and learning how to take on a more strategic role in your legal organization. Or, perhaps, you’d like to set your career course on a C-Suite track. Or maybe, like Rivkin, you are already doing many of the tasks required of a C-Suite position — but you just need that extra piece to demonstrate your expertise to firm leadership. Whatever your course, here’s how earning your CLM can bridge the gap to get you to the next step.  


Developing a strategic skill set requires experience, managing shoulder-to-shoulder with leadership and learning on the job. However, if you’re not in the position of making strategic decisions just yet, you still can “play out the scenarios in your mind, much as a bench coach would in baseball with the team manager,” says Sullivan.

Communicating your readiness and willingness to move out of your comfort zone is another important step. A recent article about transitioning from upper management to the C-Suite noted that gaining the attention and trust from current C-Suite occupants is one of the first steps managers can take. That means raising your hand to take on more responsibility. Although you may not be ready to advance right away, the point is to demonstrate your potential and create — not just measure — value at the firm.

In Rivkin’s case, she was already doing that. She had a seat at the table and was involved in the firm’s forward-looking planning. But the education and courses in preparing for the CLM exam provided her with new ideas  for example, for preparing budgets and calculating future profitability.

“For even the most seasoned leaders, the CLM preparation materials provide relevant legal industry and management expertise for continued professional growth and development.”

Rita Nielsen, CLM, PHR, SHRM-CP, is an Office Administrator at Locke Lord LLP, and CLM Director for the Chicago Chapter. “It is a well-respected certification within the legal field,” says Nielsen. “It is an important bridge to upper management.”

In a field that’s quickly evolving, the continuous learning required to keep your CLM (much like attorneys do with continuing legal education credits) means those with the designation regularly broaden the perspective they bring to work. It can help in unexpected ways, including how you handle challenges at work.

“Try not to say no,” says Nielsen. “Before thinking something cannot be done, think it through. Tap into other resources within the firm because you may likely find a way to make it work.”

Additionally, ask questions and gather facts. Rivkin says that she often relies on business partners for solutions. “It takes a team. I cannot possibly know everything and that’s where our trusted business partners come in. They might suggest an alternative to consider (sometimes even recommend not to move forward) or a product not yet released that would be even better allowing you to alter or delay your project.”

Considering all options and presenting the results in a well-communicated document is a critical step, because for C-Suite professionals, it isn’t just about execution, it is the strategy, analysis and reasons supporting the project or plan. The CLM course materials and the required continuing education provide educational opportunities to develop these skills and “it proves you have mastered a range of management skills and are competent to take on a more strategic role in the business of law,” says Rivkin. 


Law firms often roll out elaborate mentoring programs for their associates, citing the benefits to both mentors and mentees, and the importance of mentors in professional development, client service and succession planning. Likewise, mentoring within the administrative ranks can produce equally positive results and could help retain high performers, ensuring greater operational stability and continuity.

Since formal, internal mentoring programs for administrators are scarce, identifying and working with a trusted mentor or group of sponsors needs to be a priority for legal managers aiming for the C-Suite. Such career advisers serve as advocates, act as a sounding board and provide feedback about professional development. Often, these mentors may be professionals working outside of the firm.

“To be successful in a C-Suite position, you need to assess situations at a very high level and operate strategically — weighing options, assessing risks and making calculated decisions based on all the information.”

Sullivan credits his father-in-law who, in a mentor role, helped him think differently. After finishing law school and being trained to “think like a lawyer, he took me under his wing to [teach me] how to think analytically and strategically like a businessperson,” says Sullivan. “As you may have guessed, he did not work in the legal industry.”

Tap into your ALA network, too. If you decide the CLM is where you’d like to start your C-Suite journey, you may also find like-minded cohorts and possibly access to mentors.

“The CLM exam is difficult and studying for it can be daunting,” says Nielsen. “I would highly recommend joining a study group. A study group provides a structure specific to the different knowledge areas. You’ll also have study buddies who can share study tips, encourage you and help you stay motivated. My study group included a CLM mentor who guided us to success. He helped find subject matter expert speakers to teach us.”


The industry will continue to shift, presenting new career opportunities for legal administrators. Now more than ever, states are examining (and making) changes to legal ownership, so there will be opportunities for professionals within legal who don’t practice law, particularly within C-Suites.  

“My advice to those wanting to step up to a C-Suite title: The CLM is a great start,” says Rivkin.

Once in the C-Suite, all that you’ve learned along the way will help shape the direction at your firm.

“How do you want to inspire?” says Sullivan. “Your words and actions will carry much more meaning. Be mindful of your personal brand when you reach this career stage. Give people the opportunity to speak and really be heard. And have enough self-awareness to know when something is not working and make a timely change.”

Make 2023 the year you make time for yourself and your professional development. ALA’s Certified Legal Manager (CLM)® program provides the opportunity to demonstrate you have mastered the knowledge, skills and abilities to operate at a high level of expertise in the field of legal management. For more information on how to start your CLM journey, visit

Plus, don't miss the CLM episode of Legal Management Talk, where Rita Nielsen, CLM, PHR, SHRM-CP, discusses the program, the benefits it offers and what the process is to achieve it. Visit to tune in!