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Law Practice Magazine

The Leadership Issue

Rewarding Leaders

Courtney E Ward-Reichard


  • Five leaders answer questions about how their firms recognize, measure and value leadership.
  • It’s one thing for a firm to want its attorneys to develop and exercise leadership skills; it’s quite another for a firm to effectively measure and incentivize leadership.
  • Below ABA Law Practice Division leaders from a variety of firms describe how their firms recognize, measure and value leadership.
Rewarding Leaders

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It’s one thing for a firm to want its attorneys to develop and exercise leadership skills; it’s quite another for a firm to effectively measure and incentivize leadership. We asked leaders at a variety of firms to describe how their firms recognize, measure and value leadership.

Our participants were:

  • Jeana Goosmann, managing partner and CEO, Goosmann Law Firm, Sioux City, Iowa
  • John D. Bowers, chief executive officer, Thompson Burton, Franklin, Tennessee
  • Leander Dolphin, managing partner, Shipman & Goodwin, Hartford, Connecticut
  • Mary E. Vandenack, managing member and CEO, Vandenack Weaver, Omaha, Nebraska
  • Thomas C. Grella, shareholder, McGuire Wood & Bissette, Asheville, North Carolina.

How do you characterize an effective law firm leader?

Goosmann: An effective law firm leader is able to clearly articulate where the firm is headed in the future. They lead by example, demonstrating the core values of the firm, and reiterating the mission, vision and values of the firm regularly and consistently.

Dolphin: An effective law firm leader understands the practical challenges of today’s law practice, listens to all stakeholders, and effectively communicates good news, bad news and the short- and long-term vision for the firm.

Vandenack: An effective law firm leader consistently reflects integrity and excels at communication. Effective communication involves an exchange of thoughts and ideas in which participants on both sides of the conversation feel satisfied that they were listened to and given an opportunity to listen.

Grella: Effective leaders understand that leadership is all about service to others, not power, position or title, and they have willing followers—the type that follow out of trust and a belief in shared values. The mistake that some with leadership titles make is believing that compliant workers are equivalent to followers.

What is the best way to interest lawyers in becoming law firm leaders?

Goosmann: Some lawyers have an innate desire to serve in leadership, and others discover their desire through coaching, training and mentoring. That’s why it’s important for a law firm to provide career paths that allow attorneys to see the benefits of leadership and provide development resources.

Bowers: Associates, junior partners and middle management—yes, nonlawyers—are your law firm’s future. If you are not treating them as such, you are at best not being honest with them about their careers and at worse setting them up to fail. Pull in future leaders on administrative decision points: Some firms have diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) groups, associate development teams, compensation and recruiting commit- tees. Give them successively more input and control over each project in a protected environment.

Dolphin: Providing early opportunities for firm committee work for associates and new partners provides access to information, learning the business of law and how to lead in a particular area of the firm.

Vandenack: Leadership exists at all levels in the law firm. Every person at a law firm has the opportunity to engage in leadership at some level every day. Leadership skills should be acknowledged. Leadership training should be readily available and encouraged. Ultimately, leadership should be rewarded with compensation.

Grella: In our firm it is about gaining interest not only by lawyers, but every firm member. Interestingly, when you have a culture built on relationships, it is not that hard to interest folks in taking on leadership roles. Just give them the opportunity.

How does your firm measure contributions to firm leadership?

Goosmann: When our firm evaluates contributions to firm leadership, we look at whether attorneys have been recruiting, mentoring, training, developing business, building relationships, growing a book of business and supporting their team of attorneys within their practice area groups. Beyond that, we look at practice area group leaders. Are they setting a vision for their team, do they have clear goals that they articulate to their group? Are they mentoring, developing and training their group? Do they meet consistently when they bring in and recruit new attorneys to their group? Is their group growing and flourishing? And that’s usually a direct result of the leadership of the group.

Vandenack: As part of our annual strategic planning, we establish specific goals including leadership. We routinely engage a consultant to provide us feed- back on workforce attitudes to help us ascertain whether we are succeeding. Outside assessments can be of significant value. One year, we found there was a significant disconnect between how leaders thought about certain issues and workforce perception as to how the leaders thought about certain issues.

Grella: Subjectively, by a group of trusted leaders, who gain input through an evaluation system that includes input from each individual firm member, practice group leaders, committee leaders and the management committee. Ultimately the management committee considers the value brought by the member to the firm, measuring both objective numbers and subjective input, to subjectively determine value. This method has allowed the management committee to assess organizational value from leadership contribution. As to those who are the group of trusted leaders on our management committee, they are separately and individually evaluated by other nonmanagement leaders.

How do you provide feedback to your leaders?

Bowers: Direct and informal feedback on an ongoing basis is always the better solution, affording flexibility around life and work emergencies to gauge progress on projects that may not always have tight deadlines. However, being in touch enough to redirect efforts or call out the small wins yields both momentum and camaraderie to any team. While no leader expects hefty congratulations for not sinking the ship, we all can improve the frequency of encouragement that is carefully targeted to preserve the motivation of our leaders.

Vandenack: We use outside consultants to provide feedback to our leaders. Our consultant meets with each of our leaders, as well as each person in our workforce. Because we allocate leadership responsibility among three members, we engage in a mutual feedback session that is facilitated by our consultant.

Grella: Feedback is solicited directly at the time of annual evaluation, but our firm also conducts a full firm, anonymous evaluation system (a 360-degree feedback process), conducted by an outside third-party vendor, with direct questions intended to provide evaluation of leadership performance. All members of the firm are involved in this process and receive the results. Though this feed- back system goes beyond typical leader- ship feedback, it is heavily geared toward answering the simple question: Does our firm leadership team have followers, and is it leading the firm in the right direction, both long and short term?

How does your firm reward leadership contributions?

Goosmann: We reward and recognize leaders by promoting them, making connections to key client opportunities, assigning them to handpicked attorney teams for pitch presentations and selecting them to lead a team of attorneys on a specific matter. We also have an all- team firm-wide meeting every other Friday, and we give kudos to leaders throughout the whole firm, including support staff. Leadership doesn’t have to come just from your partners; it comes from many different seats across the organization.

Bowers: For leadership roles, we give random bonuses that timely recognize above and beyond contributions from lawyers and staff leaders, with communication of the reason why, along with a stiff measure of public gratitude.

Grella: In the past, we had a primarily objective compensation system, and it was extremely difficult to convert leadership hours into financial numbers. Our present system merges subjective and objective contributions to the firm, seeking to allow a trusted team to subjectively determine compensation, which assures that from a financial standpoint leadership is rewarded. From a nonfinancial standpoint, there is a focus on not only involving everyone in some leadership role, but also publicly highlighting the contributions that are being made.

How do you retain effective leaders?

Goosmann: Retaining effective leaders really comes back to reward and recognition for great work that’s aligned with our values and vision. Being a part of helping to create and make that vision come to fruition builds buy-in from the get-go. I also think you have to have constant communication with people, checking in, addressing their needs and being open to their career path. We just recently added a junior advisory board, which is a great way to train the next generation of leaders, helping them learn to focus on the business and not just their legal skills.

Bowers: A law firm holds on to solid leaders by taking them and their ideas seriously, setting aside egos and following. Nothing is more paralyzing to law practices than asking leaders to lead, and then refusing to participate in goal setting, complaining about decisions and neglecting to follow the proposed path. As months stack up on years of conflicting and meandering shenanigans, effective leaders simply find new ships.

Vandenack: Leaders need leadership and support. We provide support through coaching and educational opportunities. We recognize leader achievements with acknowledgment. When we reward a particular achievement, we try to find a gift that will be specific to the achievement. For example, we might provide a “wise owl” or a Buddha (as long as that would not be offensive) to a leader who succeeded in wisdom. We provide benefit opportunities to leadership.

Grella: Trust them, follow them, reward them and support them in their position even when they make mistakes.

How do you ensure that individuals in leadership roles help your firm meet DEI goals?

Goosmann: From the very start, diversity, equity and inclusion has been a core value of our firm. It starts with leadership; leadership must really value diversity and make it a constant part of the conversation. We do have formal policies in place, but it’s one thing to have a policy; it’s another thing to regularly implement it, do it and lead with that in mind. Our goal is to create a diverse, inclusive environment that reflects the clients and communities we serve. Diversity is not only a critical value of the firm but is incorporated in how we live our lives and how we conduct business every day.

Bowers: Leaders who ignore the need to hire and retain the best qualified lawyers and staff to build their practice in support of client needs do so at their peril. Notice the lack of identifying color, creed, gender or ethnicity in that statement: Few of us reside among demographics where the population is 10% diverse, but I’ve served at a law firm where we literally had a party when 10% diversity among lawyers was achieved. Instead of exhausting hours defining what is “diverse” or “equitable” or “inclusive” and what program or branding will make the firm seem so, invest that time on meeting, recruiting, hiring and retaining lawyers and staff who yield new and differing ideas and perspectives. Leaders who get on board with such genuine relationship-building action will succeed in improving firm inclusion.

Dolphin: We provide implicit bias training to all leaders at the firm, and to the management and compensation committees. We ask partners to demonstrate how they have contributed to the firm’s DEI goals each year, ensuring that partners understand that these are values that should be incorporated in all firm decisions.

Vandenack: As a female law firm owner, diversity, equity and inclusion was a priority long before it became a popular term. We ask each leader to function in a way that is consistent with other leaders. That is, we don’t allow a heterosexual white male leader to be less accountable than a female or gay leader. We also hold our leaders accountable for treating all our workforce similarly. We seek to educate on subtle bias.