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May/June 2020


Management vs. Leadership: Why They Both Matter

Rodney Dowell

A great law firm needs both strong leadership and leaders who manage. We work in an industry that requires strict adherence to deadlines, rules and procedures, or a firm or an individual attorney will suffer grave consequences that directly arise from a lack of management. The importance of law firm management is reflected in the existence of the LP division.

Extraordinary firms demonstrate that the skills of leadership and management are inexorably linked. These firms either have an individual who is both an outstanding leader and manager, or the firm has found a way to find the right combination of individuals with leadership and management skills. The combined skills of individuals create the success of the firm. A law firm that succeeds without both strong leadership and excellent management is rare.

When a law firm has great managers, it produces services on time and within budget; it ensures that risks are reduced by implementing best practices in technology, finance and file management; and it works diligently to follow the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Well-managed firms identify individuals who excel at task management, and those firms work to keep excellent people engaged and motivated through strong leadership.

Every firm must manage a litany of core functions. These include:

  1. Client acquisition.
  2. Client intake.
  3. Case management.
  4. Finance.
  5. Technology acquisition, use and security.
  6. Human resources.
  7. Document retention and destruction.
  8. Professional development.
  9. Office space use and cost.
  10. Risk management and insurance.
  11. Professional ethics.

How a firm successfully manages these core functions differs based upon the size and structure of the firm. Larger firms will hire managers for each core function. We see larger firms with a chief financial officer, a CEO, a director of client acquisition or maybe a director of marketing, a chief technology officer, a head of HR and a managing partner. However, medium and small firms and solo practitioners must manage the same core functions without the resources to hire a manager for each function. The challenge to properly manage these core functions in small firms is significant due to a lack of resources and time.

In smaller firms, overcoming the management challenge of such a large number of pressing needs requires the ability to identify and use individuals with the proper skills, to know when and how to ethically outsource the work, to use checklists and implement best practices, to train and manage individuals, and finally, back to leadership, to manage with inspiration. Great firm leaders find strong managers. They inspire those individuals to accurately perform multiple critical tasks in a timely and accurate manner. This ensures the smaller firm operates smoothly and reduces risks associated with lapses.

Given the management demands and need for timely and consistent performance, how can small firms increase the likelihood of success and meet the aspiration of being a great firm? There are many keys to success including hiring well, clearly defining responsibilities, delegating function with autonomy, and providing key guidance such as checklists and auditing performance. Leadership inspires the troops, but the ability to use management skills to ensure the core functions are done well and in a timely manner ensures long-term success.

My drumbeat continues on how the Law Practice Division provides the managing partner shortcuts to succeed in establishing the structure and workflow to ensure successful management of all the core functions. At the LP, you will find our books on law practice management, checklists for lawyers and risk management, while Law Practice magazine provides practical advice on management issues facing law firms. Management of the core functions of a law firm is difficult work, but the Law Practice Division makes it simpler.

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Rodney Dowell

Rodney Dowell is the chair of the Law Practice Division. He is bar counsel, Massachusetts Office of Bar Counsel, Board of Bar Overseers.