March/April 2019


Are You Owner Within Your Firm?

Thomas C. Grella

Last month I made a critical decision, one that would affect my schedule for months. It was a decision that would reduce our family expenses but potentially reduce either the enjoyment or aggravation I experience in life, all depending upon the success of a group of 18- to 22-year-old men. For the first time in years, I decided I would give up my Wake Forest basketball season tickets. It was a decision that was not made lightly, but I would henceforth need to view Atlantic Coast Conference basketball on television.

Organizational Participation Levels

As I thought about my dedication to Wake Forest after making this momentous decision, it occurred to me that in any organization or endeavor in life there are varying degrees of dedication or commitment. As I looked at others in my law firm with ties to Wake Forest University, it occurred to me that there are three levels of commitment that can be applied to participation in any organization, including law firms.

1. Participant spectator.

The first level is what I call the “participant spectator.” Regarding Wake Forest athletics, this is the level where one remembers that a game is being broadcast on television and tunes in or perhaps is interested enough to look at the sports page to see the result after the fact. For a lawyer in a law firm, this is the level of having a job, or perhaps even the status of partner, coming to work, attending required meetings, performing client work and, of course, picking up a paycheck. Participation at this level is the lowest, meets stated expectations but is generally that of a spectator when it comes to achieving mission, vision and long-term strategic goals.

2. Investor.

In considering levels of participation, I realized that my own commitment to Wake Forest has been that of an “investor,” and this led to my change in view about season tickets. I went that extra mile to buy tickets and drive two hours to attend games; however, it really was all about me, and not really about the institution or team. The true bottom line when it came to Wake Forest basketball is that we used to be really good, and that success served me well. My investment in season tickets used to pay off for me. For years now they have been average at best, and terrible more often, and it now appears there is no end in sight to mediocre performance.

In the law firm setting being an investor is a level of commitment much more than a participant spectator, but it’s one where the purpose of service to the organization is self. Organizational benefit is a mere consequence or product of self-interested service rendered by the investor lawyer. The investor not only shows up to meetings but goes the further mile to assure his or her own personal success—and that may lead to organizational success though it is not the true goal.

3. Owner.

I have seen the “ownership” level as it regards Wake Forest in one of my law firm partners. For him it’s not just about athletics but a love and commitment to the whole institution. He has served as a university trustee, has been the president of its alumni board and has been given the university’s most prestigious distinguished alumni award. He attends most important functions held at the school and, though he may not buy season tickets from time to time, he truly lives and breathes the “old gold and black” of Wake Forest. He’s not merely in it for himself but treats Wake Forest as if he owns it—and is therefore compelled by his inner being to participate to further its mission and purpose.

Like this type of dedicated alumnus, owners are the lifeblood of a law firm organization. These are the folks who are interested in the future of the firm, working to achieve an ideal culture and long-term mission because of a true desire to see the firm last beyond their own involvement. The purpose of participation is not based on personal gain but is primarily for the good of the firm, with personal gain being a byproduct of organizational success.

Becoming an Owner

Obviously, the level of participation one has in one’s law firm is primarily a choice. Individually, we each consciously or subconsciously make a decision, expressed through action, that our position is either merely a job that is a stepping-stone to something else or something more. If something more, we decide whether we live to serve ourselves or others. It’s a given: If a lawyer chooses to be an owner of his or her own law firm, there are a few actions or initiatives to consider to further that level of participation:


Many firms continue to have systems that heavily reward short-term financial performance. Those systems, as a result, discourage activities that lead to long-term succession and success. They are simply not “firm first” in nature. An owner works to make changes to this type of system, finding that it’s difficult to be an owner when others are self-focused investors. Regardless, ownership is a choice. I will admit that when you make that choice, it may be years before you see true change, but I can attest to the fact that when you finally do, it’s worth the wait.

Developing others.

The future of the firm is promoted when service focuses on the development of others, both personally and professionally. There’s often a reluctance to serve others because of a fear that those served will then seek out a more profitable position elsewhere. My experience is that people do not usually leave employment primarily due to compensation. However, if you are serving others personally, looking out for them financially is a part of it. The greater good is to have the firm viewed as a supporting, developing place of employment. As an owner, you do this by promoting professional training of all employees, by volunteering to coach or mentor young professionals and by delegating to (and working alongside and supervising) fellow attorneys.

Values reinforcement.

Organization owners naturally desire to see the firm achieve, succeed and sustain. These cannot be attained if only one person is committed. I have written many times about the need for a firm to have shared values. An owner not only knows what they are but lives them out by example and reinforces them with others—reading them at meetings and allowing members to share with others what they personally mean to them. Owners have a plan to address self-focused activity, one that gently corrects. In a performance review the focus should be on corporate values as most important, such that all encouraged activities relate back to an agreed-upon value.

Looking Beyond Yourself

I would propose that even though some of the ideas I suggest above could result in positive personal and organizational change, the key to being a successful owner is to personally adopt all three of these participation categories using revised definitions. Instead of just showing up until something better comes along, embrace the firm and determine that you will find joy at work through true, dedicated participation. Instead of seeing work as an investment in your own professional and financial success, dedicate yourself to investing in others through servant leadership, understanding that individual fulfillment will flow as a direct result. Finally, add to the concept of ownership the notion of living by example, with the intended result of growing others into that same level of commitment.

Thomas C. Grella

Thomas C. Grella is a writer and speaker on practice management topics and a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. He practices law with McGuire, Wood & Bissette, PA in Asheville, North Carolina, and is a former managing partner, having served in that position for 12 years.