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July 18, 2022

Managing: Lessons Learned Through Lives Well Done

Thomas C. Grella
In this column, we remember  Karen MacKay, Wendy Werner and Jennifer Ator.

In this column, we remember Karen MacKay, Wendy Werner and Jennifer Ator.

iStock / ipletharathorn

Over 10 years ago the process of creating an issue of Law Practice magazine was significantly different. At that time, I had the privilege to begin serving as columns editor, where I gathered and edited the content of all 15 columns that appeared in each issue. Three of our authors when I served in this role were Karen MacKay, Wendy Werner and Jennifer Ator.

Between January 2021 and January 2022, it was with a deep and profound sense of sadness that we found out that all three of these very talented women had passed away, apparently due to non COVID-19-related illnesses. They all had dedicated themselves to the Law Practice Division‘s (LP) commitment to help lawyers in the business of the practice of law. Not only were they dedicated to the profession and its members, but they were supportive of me in my role as their editor. I considered each a friend.

In this column, in honor and memory of each of them, it is my desire to remind our readers of their law practice management wisdom. I suggest that though they are no longer with us, the principles they shared live on.

Karen MacKay was the author of Law Practice’s “Taking the Lead” column for many years. MacKay owned a consulting firm that provided services to law firms in areas of management and leadership. She partnered closely with accountant and consultant Stephen Mabey. The two of them co-authored a pamphlet that discusses the one practice management concept I believe to be her most significant contribution to the profession: key performance indicators (KPIs).

MacKay and Mabey taught that every law firm should identify KPIs that not only reflect a firm’s strategy and goals, but which are quantifiable. They identified KPIs in three main areas: marketing (for example, client growth rates, marketing cost per client and business development cost per client); productivity (for example, associate leverage, staffing ratio and number of matters opened in a specified period); and financial (for example, revenue per employee, charge-off percentage and average net overhead). Once specific relevant KPIs of a firm are identified, an organizational dashboard is created to track results, and benchmarking against the KPIs of other organizations and industries is possible.

Many law firms track specific factors related to firm finances, marketing expenditures and lawyer productivity. The structure that was encouraged by MacKay and Mabey, however, was organization of firm-specific KPIs into a useful system. It remains a tool that should be considered by firms that desire to appropriately analyze performance factors in a way which is helpful to both current decision making, and longer-term planning and strategy.

Wendy Werner authored our “Career Steps” column for many years. The theme of her column was to provide advice on job search strategy, lateral moves and advancement within the workplace and the profession. Werner, who was both a career coach and practice management consultant, not only helped individuals in their search for the perfect position of employment but also advised law firms on how to achieve best practices for success in their quest to find the perfect fit for membership on their firm teams.

I believe that Werner’s writings that focus on personal career strategy are timeless gems that can be immensely helpful to every legal professional. Here are a few of the more important principles she believed were keys to personal strategy and successful individual practice management:

  1. Every practicing lawyer should have a personal marketing strategy focused on sources of referrals. To understand this focus, one internally asks what the most important factors are when experiencing the other side of the table—that is, when referring a matter to someone else. Werner suggested that every professional needs to have, understand and be able to describe their own value proposition to a referral source. This should include existing personal successes and the unique personal methods that were employed in achieving those successes.
  2. Every practicing lawyer should be constantly aware of the unique position they have in their organization and profession and also understand that every position is in a constant state of flux or change. Werner understood and tried to help younger lawyers grasp and work effectively through the process of growth in a law firm. She thought that when starting out, one should understand that while they may not be able to change an existing leader’s thinking, learning opportunities are plentiful. By observation of those who have influence in an organization and soliciting feedback, advancement and influence become possible.

Jennifer Ator authored the “Managing” column before me. For a few years we worked as a team and shared the responsibility. Until Ator stepped away from active involvement in LP about six years ago, she was one of my close ABA friends. Ator served LP not only through this publication but in many other ways as well. I can say without a doubt that if it was not for her focused resolve and arm-twisting as a member of the LP Publications Board, I would have never authored my 2013 book on leadership.

Ator was a true small firm practitioner. For years she was in practice with one other lawyer, before stepping out on her own as a solo practitioner. We teamed well in writing this column, given my small (but larger than solo) firm experience, contrasted with her true general practice and solo firm exposure. The lessons she conveyed were much different than my own. Ator always had a single point or principle in her writings, relevant and easily understood.

In the January/February 2013 issue of Law Practice, Ator penned a column with the theme “Is it possible to be a little bit of everything?” She wrote that she had been challenged in her early career with the archaic thinking of an interviewing law firm partner who made inappropriate comments to her about the role of women in law firms. I suppose that encounter may have helped her eventually decide to walk away from larger firm opportunities. The overriding point of this one column was that in a law firm, “It takes a village.” She had a unique way of writing, and here is what she said about the diverse but valuable different roles of members of a law firm:

When reflecting on the role of women in today’s legal community, it often reminds me of the multiple roles of attorneys within a firm. Every firm needs a wide variety of lawyers to make it whole, and the same person can serve in these roles, but oftentimes different lawyers do different things. Some would therefore ask, “So who is the most valuable?” The answer is: Every lawyer is valuable because each brings a vital skill to the table. A good firm is a chicken salad, not a tossed salad.

A tossed salad is one where the parts are still visible and separate, but when you take a bite, the explosion of different tastes makes the salad especially delicious. A chicken salad, on the other hand, is a blend of ingredients that has a single flavor. Law firms need rainmakers, managers, researchers, litigators and drafters. Only by having all the flavors is the law firm complete.

If I could speak to them now, I would tell all three “Well done.” I know I would be speaking for their many friends in the Division as well, in telling them that though they will be forever missed, they can rest in peace knowing that so many benefited from their dedicated service to the legal profession and its members.

Thomas C. Grella

Past Chair, ABA Law Practice Division

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. [email protected]

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