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What Firm Leaders Really Want You to Know

TYL Editorial Board

What Firm Leaders Really Want You to Know
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The TYL Editorial Board interviewed firm leaders from across the country about their positions in their firms. Under the promise of anonymity, this is what they had to say.

What is one thing you know now about firm leadership that you wish you knew before you accepted your position?

  • Everything must have a business case—if not the overriding consideration, it is always a major one. Whatever you want to accomplish in the context of firm practice, understand the financials: what it’s going to cost, who’s willing to pay, and what the expected payoff is. A corollary: there is a business case for almost anything that’s worth doing, but it makes sense to think it through and set it out expressly.
  • To lead a law firm, you must have a vision. Maintaining the status quo isn’t good enough anymore.
  • The significant time commitment.
  • I wouldn’t say that I didn’t know this before, but the pressure of planning out the future of the group (the overall responsibility for hiring and meeting revenue projections) is even more of a source of stress than I thought it would be.
  • How rewarding and fulfilling it is to have the opportunity to serve the firm and to give back some portion of what past leaders gave in building the firm into the incredible place it is today.
  • A remarkable number of otherwise strong-willed people want their firm leaders to tell them what to do. They want to outsource hard decision-making to someone else and reserve the right to complain about it.
  • I don’t think I truly understood the extent to which leading lawyers really depend on developing consensus. Most lawyers are, by nature, poor followers. To lead lawyers successfully, you must demonstrate why the direction or course that you’ve chosen makes the most sense and enlist the support of those that you’re leading. Ours is not a top-down, salute-smartly-and-carry-out-the-order profession. Consensus is key.
  • Before entering leadership, I was reticent to view a law firm through business lenses. I believed that there was an inherent conflict between certain management approaches that drive profitability and the greater obligations attorneys owe to society. I thought that there would routinely be choices to be made between fulfilling our obligations to the greater good and the potential for greater profits. I was determined to make decisions that would not compromise our heightened obligations that transcend driving revenue. I was braced to be an outlier in leadership, but I was pleased to discover that I was not.
  • What I came to learn is that there is inherent harmony between successful leadership/management practices and sustaining a platform that enables law firms to assist the less fortunate and enhance the communities in which they operate. Law firms doing well allows law firms to do greater good.

What advice do you have for junior attorneys interested in becoming firm leaders?

  • The way to be a leader is to lead, to have the expertise and confidence to earn the support and respect of your colleagues. There are no shortcuts. It’s a lot of work. And you can’t fake it—that is the surest route to gaining a reputation as someone who is not collegial.
  • Focus on developing your practice first, and leadership will follow.
  • Not everyone can be a leader; it takes a lot of tolerance. Develop your emotional intelligence as much as possible.
  • It’s not for everybody. If you love the practice of law and that’s all you want to do, firm leadership may not be for you, even though it might give you marginally more exposure with clients. Do it only if you have an entrepreneurial side to you and you want the responsibility (and the joy) of building and growing a practice group (or firm).
  • To me, leadership is service—so I would advise junior attorneys to look for opportunities to serve, and not just in opportunities that are meaningful to them or that have particularly high visibility. Many times, it is the willingness to serve with no glamor attached that is the mark of true leadership, and that can lead to opportunities for higher-profile service and leadership.
  • Pay attention to what’s going on at the firm around you. Even before I had a leadership position, often my colleagues were surprised when I knew basic things about other practice groups, like who was up for partner. A firm leader has to think beyond his or her own practice or practice area.
  • Develop relationships throughout your firm. Even if your role will be to lead only one part of the firm, such as a group of trial attorneys, cultivate relationships at every level throughout the entire firm to the extent possible. Those relationships will give you a broader, more comprehensive perspective that will help to shape your leadership of your portion of the organization.
  • First, being an effective leader requires you to focus on others before yourself. Keep in mind that law firms often begin identifying future leaders as associates when a partnership is still years off on the horizon. Here are a few things I think junior attorneys aspiring to management should consider:
    • Gain as much knowledge as you can about your firm, and build wide-ranging relationships with your colleagues. Become an expert on your law firm, including what services are offered by which attorneys and what clients are being serviced. Get to know folks in other practices and if applicable, different offices. Volunteer for firm committees, which will not only foster relationships but also will expose you to varying firm functions and processes. Along the way, always treat the non-attorney support team the same as you would treat the managing partner.
    • Always remember that providing the best possible services to clients must permeate every decision. When faced with a thorny leadership decision, the first question I always ask is: “What is best for our clients?”
    • Embrace change and always aspire to improve your firm. Doing things the way firms have always done them is a recipe for failure. Understand that even as a junior attorney, you have the power to change things that you don’t like about your firm, which can make it better for everyone. Don’t just identify problems, offer solutions (which is the reciprocal of being positive and not complaining).
    • Finally, it may sound like a cliché, but leadership by example is always a winning formula.

What is one thing you wish your non-leader colleagues knew about being a firm leader?

  • The practice group budget is not drink money—at least, not exclusively.
  • Leading other lawyers is hard work. It’s not enough to dictate; you must persuade.
  • Just how difficult some lawyers can be day to day to manage.
  • Help us help you. What can we do to make the group or firm work better from your perspective? You may not be interested in taking on the responsibility of executing an idea, but generating those ideas can be very helpful.
  • It is a tremendous responsibility to have stewardship of a firm—to be true to the culture that has brought the firm to this point and to carry that culture and vision forward into the future.
  • Most lawyers think what is (or has been) true for them is true for everyone else at the law firm. It isn’t. The hardest part about firm leadership is getting perspective on the entire firm and not just your own parochial corner of it.
  • I wish my non-leader colleagues understood how challenging they are to lead! It’s long been said that every US senator sees a future president in the mirror. I think almost all lawyers see firm leaders in their mirrors, even if they don’t want the job. As a result, most lawyers are convinced that they could do the job better, faster, and smarter than whoever has the job, which is one of the reasons lawyers are hard to lead. It would be helpful if non-leader lawyers understood what poor followers they are, as that might help make them better team members.
  • The success of the law firm (as measured by the results we obtain for our clients, our impact on the community, and our financial performance) has more to do with the day-to-day decisions that each of our colleagues makes than firm leadership directives. For a law firm to experience true success, it requires everyone to exercise leadership and ownership, regardless of whether they have a formal leadership role.