Taking Stock of Your Firm: The Power of Great Questions

Volume 37 Number 6

By

Karen MacKay (kmackay@phoenix-legal.com) is President of the consultancy Phoenix Legal Inc., focusing her work on leadership and strategy execution for law firms. She is also a member of Law Practice’s Editorial Board.

As you reflect on the past year and plan the next, what questions should you ask yourself about your past effectiveness as a leader? What questions should you ask your partners that will cause good reflection and realistic planning? And, what questions should be asked of your administrative team as next year’s budget is planned?

What to Ask the Person in the Mirror
In 2007, Robert S. Kaplan wrote an article by this name, which poses questions that should be part of every leader’s year end review, including:

  • How often do I communicate a vision and key priorities to achieve that vision?
  • Does the way I spend my time match my key priorities?
  • Have I identified potential successors?
  • Do I give people timely and direct feedback they can act on?
  • How do I behave under pressure?
  • Does my leadership style reflect who I truly am?

Strong leaders with strong vision risk leaving their firms behind if they cannot articulate vision and connect emotionally and intellectually. When those being led know where the firm is headed they can get behind a leader who clearly articulates shared vision. When key priorities are being discussed, members of the firm at all levels understand how their own goals and objectives fit, and how their day to day contributions move the firm toward its goals. 

Strong leaders lead by example. What you say and do is what people hear and see. If they see a leadership style that is authentic, coping well under pressure and time expenditure aligned with what is said to be important—you are truly leading by example.

Taking Stock
As you embark on a new year, your partners should reflect on the year past and plan the year to come by asking themselves a few questions:

  • What have you done in the past twelve months to justify an increase in your hourly rate?
  • What have you done in the past twelve months to increase profitability in your group, your office or your firm?
  • What have you done in the past twelve months to develop the young lawyers in your group, office or firm?
  • What have you done in the past twelve months to improve your profile?
  • What have you done in the past twelve months to cross sell your expertise to others in your firm?

Rate, hours and target revenue are important, to be sure, but think about a few key performance indicators that are critical to your firm’s success.

Inspiring your Managers
Your administrative management team is challenged with leading from the middle. If effective in their roles, these folks can have influence beyond the scope of their job description. Managers who are engaged, committed and empowered will make a positive impact on your firm. Their influence, and your leadership of them, begins with asking them to collectively answer questions about the issues, projects and challenges cited in their business plans and budgets:

  • What is the question? (reframe the issue as a question beginning with how or what)
  • What makes it an issue now? (importance/urgency)
  • What assumptions are you making? (gather new information)
  • What are the implications of doing nothing? (Why now? Why in this plan? Why in this budget year?)
  • What have we/you already tried? (learn from our past experience)
  • What are the options? (brainstorming)
  • How can we contrast effort/cost with the impact on the firm?
  • What is the next step? (moving to action)
  • Who will take ownership of the action step? (ownership and accountability)
  • How will we measure progress?

These questions will help your management team understand issues, identify priorities, consider assumptions, learn from the past and generate ideas. With a clear understanding of the cost and impact; risks and benefits; action and accountabilities the management team will be aligned, collaborative and engaged in the success of your firm. Imagine that!

Now what?
As Peter Drucker said, “The leader of the past was a person who knew how to tell. The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.” Engage others in thoughtful inquiry. Share vision, challenge thinking and empower colleagues at all levels to engage in robust debate. Make it safe. Give them a framework. Connect with them emotionally and intellectually. Ask them good questions—it could change your firm and its future. 

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