Today’s Law Firm Leader as Juggler

Volume 38 Number 5

By

About the Author

Brian K. Burke served for 15 years as managing partner and chair of Baker & Daniels. He is now retired from the practice of law and is a consultant to law firms on strategic planning, leadership succession, profitability and financial planning, and other matters. 

Law Practice Magazine | September/October 2012 | The Recruitment and Retention Issue
This issue we offer the leadership insight of Brian K. Burke, chair emeritus of the Faegre Baker Daniels law firm.

Today’s law firm leader is put to the test of juggling an active law practice and the challenging responsibilities of leading the firm through an ever-changing environment. With so many “balls in the air,” the leader often must wonder which ones he or she should try to catch.

Catching the following three balls can bring solid returns for the time and effort invested:

  1. helping the strong performers in the firm to become even stronger,
  2. meeting with the firm’s clients to receive assessments of performance and to learn more about their businesses, and
  3. leading the firm’s development of strategies for success in the future. These high-priority areas often are neglected because day-to-day issues claim the leader’s attention and time.

PEOPLE

Most law firms have a broad range of performers—from those who struggle to meet expectations (including expectations about conduct) to those who are outstanding performers. All too often, the firm’s leader is called on to try to rescue people at the lower end of the performance spectrum. And it is possible for the leader to commit huge amounts of time and attention to these people, with little or no return on the investment. Helpful advice, which I first received from Tom Clay at Altman Weil, is to forsake efforts to rescue the “lost causes” in the firm. Not only will these efforts yield little success, they will be frustrating and personally deflating. Importantly, there is also a very significant opportunity cost to be borne—the time spent trying to rescue the lost causes cannot be used on more-productive matters.

In contrast, working with and helping the stronger performers in the firm to succeed can be, and usually is, rewarding on multiple levels—enhanced financial performance for the firm and personal satisfaction from helping others to succeed, to name just two. This advice to focus on stronger performers is not intended to be cruel or harsh. Everyone in the firm deserves the opportunity to meet performance expectations, but when it becomes clear that a person either cannot or will not meet expectations, then the better, and often more humane and compassionate, course is to help the person move on from the firm. Experience teaches that this lesson must be relearned over and over again, as new opportunities to rescue lost causes present themselves with regularity.

CLIENTS

Virtually all law firm leaders probably would agree that meeting with clients to gauge the quality of service and performance, and to learn about their expectations and plans, is a desirable investment of their time. But, despite this likely general agreement, relatively few leaders devote much time or attention to catching this ball. Clients with whom I have met, including executives of large multinational organizations, report that their law firms rarely, if ever, have paid visits to assess performance or to inquire about client preferences.

The client visits suggested here emphatically are not sales calls. Instead, the object is to elicit the client’s candid assessment of the firm’s performance and to express appreciation for the client relationship. The firm’s leader is not the only person who can conduct such visits, but his or her doing so aligns with clients’ expectations and experience—client-customer relationships are high priorities for most of them—and the leader’s conducting the visit conveys to the client that he or she is important to the firm.

THE BENEFITS OF CLIENT VISITS ARE MANY:

  • Clients appreciate the personal interest shown to them and their businesses, in part because clients are proud of their businesses and like to show them off, and therefore plant tours are frequent.
  • The leader learns about the client and becomes another point of contact with him or her.
  • The leader learns about the firm’s performance and has first-hand knowledge about clients’ views on the performance of individuals serving the client.
  • The leader nearly always learns about desirable improvements to be made in serving the client.
  • Potentially serious problems can be, and are, unearthed, enabling the firm to make adjustments that preserve and possibly enhance the client relationship.
  • The leader can gather competitive intelligence about the performance of other professionals the client has engaged.
  • Positive reports reinforce the client’s perception of the firm by providing an opportunity for the client to reflect on and appreciate the quality of service it has received.
  • Positive reports from clients reinforce and encourage excellent service among the firm’s professionals.
  • The visits distinguish the firm from others, as almost no service providers approach the client in this fashion.
  • Clients often ask about additional services that the firm might provide, and when the client raises the issue, follow-up is fine.

Many firms have launched client visitation programs, only to see them lose energy or meet resistance from relationship partners. Two suggested approaches might help to overcome these conditions. First, to sustain the visitation program, develop an infrastructure within the firm to manage the process. In our firm, a former marketing director developed leads for visits and helped to organize road trips for visits to multiple clients. My assistant was responsible for contacting clients to schedule the visits. If these tasks are left to the firm’s leader, the program might not receive the priority it deserves. Second, to overcome partner resistance to client visits, conduct the early visits with clients for which cooperative partners are responsible, and then let other partners in the firm know about the valuable information generated during the visits. Over time, resistance might well give way to the desire to learn what the client has to say.

STRATEGY

Leading the firm in developing strategies for future success is among the leader’s most important and most daunting responsibilities. This is true, in part, because lawyers are not well-equipped for developing business strategies. Lawyers are paid to be right, but in business, taking a calculated risk that means far less than 100-percent success can be a viable and desirable strategy. Moreover, lawyers are trained to honor precedent, so we often ask, “Who else has done it this way?,” hoping to find precedent for the direction in which we propose to take the firm. Unfortunately, strategies for the future cannot be calibrated to produce 100-percent correct judgments, and there often are no clear precedents for future success. These conditions contribute to making planning for the future a mystery for many firms.

But it is the leader’s job to “demystify” strategic direction. In this area, as with many, keeping matters simple can foster success.

HERE ARE A FEW SUGGESTIONS:

  • Start small and proceed incrementally.
  • Focus initially on those within the firm with skills for developing strategies for litigation matters and transactions.
  • Consider using a navigation analogy. First, know your firm and its people; develop a confident understanding of where the firm is now. This knowledge is gained over time, but talking with clients about their views of the firm and with partners and associates about their practices and plans for the future will help to inform the leader about the firm’s present condition and its prospects for the future. Second, make informed and reasoned judgments about where the firm wants to go. Figuratively, these are destinations toward which the firm can steer in the future. Third, identify strategies that will enable the firm to chart a course to take it from where it is now to the desired destination. Fourth, be prepared to change course as circumstances warrant.
  • To enhance focus and facilitate accountability, select no more than two or three strategic goals (or destinations), and let everyone in the firm know what they are. Optimally, the goals should be so succinctly stated as to fit on a 3-by-5 index card.
  • Frequent, brief updates on progress toward the goals will help to promote accountability and advance implementation.

The juggling law firm leader can catch any number of balls, many of which deserve attention. But I strongly suggest that three of the most important are helping strong performers to succeed, meeting with the firm’s clients and focusing on development of strategy.

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