LI Feature Legal Industry/Business Management

Certify Your Career

Earning your CLM designation can give you the edge over your competition. 

It’s a great time to be on the hunt for a new job. Pandemic-induced early retirements and record numbers of people quitting have given job seekers the upper hand and their choice of jobs. If you’re looking to change legal organizations, now is the time to make your résumé to stand out from the email pile. 

Valerie A. Danner

One way to do that is with your Certified Legal Manager (CLM)® after your name. It’s how Dawn Donham, CLM, sets herself apart. As the Administrator at Worden Thane, PC, in Missoula, Montana, Donham faces a unique set of challenges. With a population of just over a million, Montana’s law firms are generally much smaller than those in more populous states. This often translates into less legal support staff to go around, leaving lawyers on the hook for running the business aspects of the firm in addition to serving the client’s needs.

“Often the firms are so small that an administrator isn’t even staffed,” says Donham. “Solo practitioners will often hire a legal assistant who is also charged with the firm’s operational or billing duties. A boutique firm may have a receptionist or bookkeeper but will divide up other managerial tasks among other owner-attorneys. This means that attorneys are responsible for running a business and practicing law. In some cases, one attorney may naturally gravitate toward doing all the administrative duties, leaving less time for them to serve clients. This can put added stress on the attorney, who may also be responsible for contributing to firm revenue.”

Though the firms are smaller in Montana, the challenges remain the same as any other: The lawyers need to serve clients and generate revenue. Donham saw this as an opportunity. Earning her CLM was one way to show her command of law firm administration and demonstrate that she could remove the burden of administrative tasks to help attorneys realign their practices toward improving client service.

She’s not alone. Many legal managers turn to the CLM credential to boost their profile in the industry. Ken F. Koehn, CLM, CPA, CMA, is Chief Financial Officer at Gould & Ratner LLP and serves as Chair of ALA’s Certification Committee. He looked to the CLM program after being away from legal for nearly 10 years.

“I thought that the exam, and especially preparing for it, would be a great way to quickly get back up to speed on the knowledge needed for my role,” says Koehn. He got that and more, as he says earning his CLM amplified his voice within his firm. “I find it’s been a tool that has continued to come in handy. The knowledge gained has proved to be relevant time after time, allowing me to contribute to discussions and planning much more than I otherwise would have.”

Eric Hightower, CLM, SPHR, is Director of Operations at Wright Constable & Skeen, LLP; he also serves on ALA’s Board of Directors. He says his CLM has been instrumental for his last two positions. “In my prior [job], they specifically advertised for a CLM,” he says. When he was interviewing for his current position, he made sure the certification was part of his interview process.

“I submitted a copy of the KSAs [knowledge, skills and abilities] associated with the designation so the powers that be could have a deeper understanding of the benefits they would receive by hiring a CLM. There were some questions regarding the KSAs that were asked during the interview. I like to think this action and the designation gave me an edge with my current position!”

Though the industry has shifted tremendously in the last 50 years, there is one constant within the profession: Legal managers need to understand a lot about almost everything operations-related in a firm.


The high-level overview of the program is that those who pass the exam demonstrate the core knowledge identified as essential to the effective performance of a principal administrator. Earning the CLM demonstrates mastery of the knowledge, skills and abilities ALA has classified as paramount for managing a law firm.

In terms of the actual exam, it’s broken down into the following areas: financial management (31%), human resources (33%), legal industry/business management (19%) and operations management (17%).

That likely sounds like a daunting list. But that’s also the point — it’s designed to be challenging. But don’t let that deter you. If anything, the amount of work you put forth studying for the exam will make passing it that much more meaningful.

Katie Bryant, CLM, says that while it wasn’t easy, it also wasn’t as time-consuming as she had feared. “I understand the concern about the time commitment, but honestly for me it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected it to be,” says the Executive Director of Udall Shumway PLC. “Sometimes our own fear of committing to a new endeavor is what holds us back the most. It makes it easy to put off something we need to do.”

It’s where the phrase “#JustTaketheDamnTest” came from — she really wants others to remember those words when they are on the fence about whether to take the exam. “For me, certification demonstrates my commitment to superior professionalism, upholding industry standards and continued learning. The credential has helped boost my professional credibility and prestige within the legal community.”

Plus, ALA has multiple resources available to help you prepare.

A good place to start is with the Certification Committee. Not only has each member of the committee gone through the exam process, but they also oversee revising and writing test items. Additionally, they work with the testing contractor to evaluate and improve the assessment process, while partnering with ALA headquarters to administer the program and recommend needed changes in prerequisite and certification requirements.

And Koehn says the committee has some exciting projects in store. “Our test question writing has been refined to incorporate the results of the latest Practice Analysis, as well as to be cognizant of avoiding implicit bias. And we are developing a Path to Certification model, which potential exam takers can use to guide their study in an organized manner.”

Other study materials include the CLM Webinar Bundle, which includes 10 on-demand recordings to help you prepare for the exam. When completed, this bundle satisfies the 10-hour education requirement for the CLM application.

You can also purchase the Study Guide for the CLM Exam to prep. It focuses on real-world issues legal managers face and details the CLM Content Outline of the Body of Knowledge, also known as the test blueprint. You’ll also find a practice exam and a comprehensive list of terms and definitions. ALA also offers an interactive way to study with the CLM e-learning supplement.

“I understand the concern about the time commitment, but honestly for me it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected it to be. Sometimes our own fear of committing to a new endeavor is what holds us back the most. It makes it easy to put off something we need to do.” 

As an exciting new way to study, ALA headquarters began hosting CLM trivia events last year to coincide with the test dates. The questions are taken directly from the Study Guide. The events are open to all (but free to exam takers) and aim to bring some fun competition to prepping for the test. They’ll be offered again this spring and fall ahead of the exams.

Then there is the study tool that many find the most critical to their success: joining a study group.


Aside from the career boost, many CLMs find the process opens the door to an even tighter circle of friends within the ALA community.

“Being part of a study group and having a study buddy (thank you Joyce Patrick-Bai, CLM!) made it so much easier and, when I think back on it, a very enjoyable process,” says Bryant.

Koehn agrees and cites being a member of the Chicago Chapter’s study group as his gateway into great ALA participation. “I met many people while studying for the exam and, once I passed, discovered a great community existed that I had not really tapped into before beginning my CLM journey.”

Victoria L. Allen, CLM, Administrator at Goren Cherof Doody & Ezrol, PA, first looked to the CLM exam to validate her wealth of industry knowledge. “While I had a lot of practical experience, I did not have a college degree, and I hoped that obtaining the CLM designation would give me more credibility than just having the experience,” she says.

She also found lifelong friendships in the cohort she studied with. “My study group was such a great experience,” says Allen. Her group offers a good outline for members looking to get their own group together.

“We formed our group based on geography and met at one person’s office on a Saturday to work out our details,” says Allen. They had a clear plan: They mapped out a study timeline based on the exam date and selected topics of study for each session, setting a lead person for each session. “We encouraged people to lead a topic they were not strong in so that it would push them to study a little harder,” she says. They also enlisted some local business partners to speak on their areas of expertise.

For the final sessions, they each wrote 10 practice questions similar in format to the samples given. “That was the hardest part,” recalls Allen. “You had to really be able to understand the topic to write a good question.”  

Though she took the exam in 2004, to this day, the group remains tight. “[We] regularly get together to celebrate birthdays and other milestones and still reach out to each other for help on touchy subjects,” says Allen.


Earning the CLM can also be away to brush up on core competencies in an ever-changing field. By now, we are all familiar with the changes that firms — well, everyone — experienced due to the pandemic. These changes present opportunities for legal administrators to have their invaluable input heard.

“For example, managing space and leases will continue to be an evolving topic for firms,” says ALA President Michael T. Bumgarner, CLM, CPA, CGMA. “Even though some firms never would imagine letting people work remotely, the legal workforce has demonstrated it can be remote, and incoming employees are going to continue to push for more flexible schedules. Part of the CLM means understanding leases and options.

“Needing to recertify every year means CLMs are always up on best practices in any given area. It’s become even more valuable to have this type of understanding in these current times,” says Bumgarner, who is the Chief Executive Officer at Flaherty Sensabaugh Bonasso PLLC.


One area that needs work is bringing more attention to the role of legal managers and the benefits of earning the CLM to the broader legal industry.

“I’m actually very disappointed that most attorneys in regional firms do not recognize the CLM or even the ALA,” says Allen. “Since earning my CLM, I have changed jobs three times and each time while I proudly listed CLM on my résumé, I had to educate the hiring attorneys as to what it meant and had to tell one what the ALA was. I understand not every attorney is going to be aware, but if a firm is large enough to hire an administrator, they should at least be aware of the organization.”

Koehn agrees. “I would like to see the program expand in terms of publicity and recognition for the CLM credential. I would hope that more members would earn their CLM designation, and one way to achieve this is to work on making the credential as well-known and valued in the legal industry as other professional certifications, such as SHRM.”

“Aside from the career boost, many CLMs find the process opens the door to an even tighter circle of friends within the ALA community.”

It’s on the ALA Board of Directors’ radar, as elevating the certification is part of ALA’s latest strategic direction, says Bumgarner. “We know our members need education opportunities to stay current in this ever-evolving profession. When the ALA Board of Directors unveiled this direction earlier last year, education and professional development was one of the key components of that direction. One of the goals within that is to enhance professional development through industry-recognized certification and credentialing. CLM is certainly a part of that.”

Deciding to earn the CLM is a commitment of time and even headspace. It’s not an easy process, and it does require commitment to maintain it each year. But that’s also what makes it so rewarding.  

“While the materials are extensive and the exam is difficult, the end result is rewarding for the professional and for the law firm looking for a qualified individual to manage and lead their firm,” says Donham. “Through my experience, I have built on my professional knowledge and can confidently say that a law firm will benefit in the short term and long term if they choose to recruit a professional who holds the Certified Legal Manager credential.”

You have two opportunities each year to take the exam: spring and fall. You can learn more about the process by visiting or by emailing [email protected].