October 2003  Volume 29, Issue 7
October 2003 Issue
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The Edge Roundtable:
The Special Traits of Law Firm Leaders
Moderated by H. Edward Wesemann
Law Firm Leaders Roundtable | In law firms of all sizes, leadership is a hot topic. You know it's critical to surviving the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But exactly what is leadership? How do you define it? How do you obtain it? As today's firm leaders move into retirement and the changing business of law shouts out for new vision, the questions become more urgent. Looking for answers from those who know best, Ed Wesemann, a partner with Edge International, recently led a discussion among a group of seasoned law firm leaders in San Francisco. Here's what the participants had to say about identifying and developing leaders to guide your firm into the future--the ones who can go the distance.

H. Edward Wesemann Edge International

Charles R. Campbell, JR, Former Managing Partner, San Francisco Office, Altheimer & Gray
Nancy J. Geenen, Managing Partner, San Francisco Office, Foley & Lardner
Ronald E. Ruma Managing Partner, San Francisco Office, Hancock Rothert & Bunshoft, LLP
Rachel Schaming Office Administrator, Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro, LLP
Wendy Tice-Wallner, Managing Shareholder, Littler Mendelson

The Special Traits of Law Firm Leaders

Ed Wesemann: Are there particular characteristics of individual lawyers that seem to make them successful as law firm leaders?
Ron ruma: Sure. There's some combination of sound judgment, imagination, diplomacy skills, intelligence and ability to forge consensus.

Nancy Geenen: I'll echo that, especially forging consensus, that is, being able to look at a task and bring people together. Most importantly, great leaders I've seen always have great senses of humor. They are capable of being selfless, but at the same time bringing a lightness and humor to the job.

Chuck Campbell: I wholeheartedly agree with the sense of humor aspect. Also, to be effective as a managing partner, you must have vision-a capacity to see beyond the present reality so you can direct the actions and motivate the lawyers who work in the firm. The key is to have personal integrity, self-confidence and security in oneself.

Rachel Schaming: I also think that really effective managing partners have to have a whole lot of courage-the ability to make really tough decisions, especially on the issues involving people. They must have great communication skills and be able to adapt to change. They also have to understand that law firms are a business and have to be managed like a business, with a certain amount of risk taking. Finally, leaders have to understand the difference between a leader and a manager.

Wendy Tice-Wallner: What Chuck said about vision is important. The law firm environment actually undermines the natural instincts of good leaders. One of the biggest problems is that leaders lose their sense of humor. It gets beaten out of them. Another is that leaders can get tunnel vision. The internal machinations of their firms can become so much a part of their day-to-day life that they cease to see where the firm fits in the world. To function effectively, firm leaders must push themselves away from the abyss of internal focus that can destroy their ability to see the future.

Questions of Nature versus Nurture

Wesemann: Are the characteristics just discussed things that leaders can be trained in, or must law firm leaders be born with leadership characteristics?

Geenen: Can you grow leaders in a law firm? Absolutely. Are there mechanisms to train them? No.

Campbell: The only effective means of cultivating leadership skills that I've seen work time and again has been a mentoring structure. You have to have it, though not necessarily a formal one. In particular, I believe firm management must identify, on a tactical basis, a line of succession.

Schaming: Sometimes you need to go outside your firm to find a mentor. Also, perhaps you need to include partners on some sort of rotational track so that you demystify the management process.
Yes, it's very difficult to develop strong leadership skills in a law firm. However, if you encourage them-start young and get them involved-you'll see the leaders rise.

Ruma: Underneath the baggage and armor, the traits we identified earlier are there. You may have to excavate to find them, but, if given the opportunity, they can grow. The nature-or-nurture question oversimplifies things. I think the extent to which you need one or the other-the training or the innate skills set-is a function of the organization's specific needs.

Geenen: With an organization the size of my firm, Foley & Lardner, we're seeing a theme to challenge mediocrity and inspire excellence-that it's not good enough to just be good enough.

Tice-Wallner: When I came into my job, Littler Mendelson was still a first-generation law firm and didn't really have a definable structure. So the first thing I had to do was get people together to reform the firm's governance structure. Any law firm that wants to grow leaders must have a clear understanding of what its governance plan is and how the leaders fit into that structure.

Getting Called to the Plate

Wesemann: That segues neatly into the next issue. How did you end up in a position of leadership? Were you simply thrown in? Was there any formal or informal program to help?

Campbell: I was thrown into my current position. That said, it was an easy transition because I was already familiar with many lawyers in the firm and I trusted them. Also, in the past I've had the privilege of working with a number of managing partners with different styles. What really influenced me was evaluating the quality of their relationships, and the integrity and respect they had for others. There were a number of lawyers who mentored me and whom I learned from.

Tice-Wallner: It used to be that leaders in law firms were partners at the end of their careers-as we'd sometimes joke, lawyers who had lost their appeal. Now there seems to be a desire among younger people to find alternative career paths within their own law firms. For me, I saw that being involved in leadership required a whole new skill set and I enjoyed that challenge.

Ruma: Like Wendy, I came into my position following a first generation of leaders. I became curious about the business finance issues-I've never been afraid of arithmetic-so I got involved. At one point, we had sort of a crisis and I was able to take a significant role in what was needed at the time. And that's how it began.

Geenen: I was working at the United Nations, so I had already decided to take an alternative path. When I came back to law firm life, I just got lucky. There was a void in the firm, and it needed to be filled. No one asked me to do it, it just happened. I kept coming up with ideas. For example, I'd say, "Gee, I think we need a national program on fundamental trial skills," and everybody would say, 'How much will it cost?" They just never said, "No."

Schaming: That's the mark of a leader: You raise the issues. Instead of complaining sideways, you step out there.

Wesemann : One of the things I have seen in looking at literally hundreds of law firms is that in any major initiative, there is always one person championing it. As long as someone is willing to step forward, law firms typically don't say no very often.

Dos and Don'ts for Honeymooners

Wesemann: New leaders, certainly new managers, traditionally enjoy a honeymoon period. Are there things that leaders and managers should do, and perhaps not do, to take advantage of this period?

Schaming: During that first phase, you've got to connect one-to-one with your constituencies, from your partners to the people in the mailroom, and find out what they feel the issues are. Also talk to clients and see what they'd like done differently. I think it works better if you don't have a preconceived agenda of what has to happen. A good question for leaders to ask is, "What have we avoided dealing with?"

Campbell: That brings to mind another essential characteristic of leadership, which may be so elemental that we haven't stated it yet, but it is the ability to be a good listener. As the saying goes, "God gave us one mouth and two ears for a reason."

Geenen: One of the important things I have found is the freedom to say, "I don't know." Before I went to law school, I was a high school teacher, and there I learned that there are 40 good minds in that room besides yours.

Tice-Wallner: You also have to start by building a coalition of leadership. You can't do this job all by yourself. In the beginning, while you have everybody's ear, it's very important to figure out which people you will need to work with to accomplish your agenda.

Ruma: I agree. During the honeymoon phase, people will actually listen and share their concerns. Sound judgment is very important here-you have to pick your battles. The honeymoon stage is a valuable opportunity to demonstrate that you are worthy of being followed.

Campbell: The clear "don't" in the honeymoon period is to start to think and act as if you've gotten to your leadership position solely on your own strengths, without the talents and abilities of a lot of people who helped get you to this point-and who you'll need to rely on later.

Jumping the Hurdles to Leadership

Wesemann: Are there barriers or disincentives to getting people to aspire to leadership positions within law firms? If so, what can be done to overcome those barriers?

Tice-Wallner: The biggest problem is that law firms don't know how to compensate, or even acknowledge, the value of leaders apart from their roles as working lawyers or business developers. This is especially a problem for partners who haven't come to their leadership position by virtue of having accumulated an enormous book of business. Many firms think that, in order to manage a law firm, you have to practice law at least 50 percent of the time. It's hard to take management seriously when it is viewed as a secondary activity.

Ruma: I can't think of another industry that would suggest that a $50 million or $100 million business be run by a part-timer. But law firms seem to begin with that notion. There is an insufficient level of understanding about the impact leadership can have on the bottom line. Another barrier is the succession issue-not just who is in line for succession, but also what happens with existing leaders once they are emeritus.

Geenen: I think you have to look for that innate leadership ability in younger lawyers. You've got to give the best people the biggest opportunities because the best people are not motivated by money. They're motivated by being challenged.

Also, firms need to give younger people the okay to fail. Out of lots of failures come some really terrific ideas and great successes. As I look at younger lawyers, I am looking for that capacity for vigorous, open, honest debate.

Campbell: There are really two points of view-what the firm can do and what the individual perceives it can do. Partners make decisions about participating in leadership based on their perception of how the firm treats its leaders while they're in the leadership position, as well as what happens to the leaders afterward.

Geenen: Talking about compensation, I'll say that money doesn't necessarily motivate people to the right behavior. However, the right amount of money keeps the right people in place.

Wesemann: If an individual is basically performing an altruistic activity without compensation, that person will be looked at as a volunteer. So if that person doesn't do a very good job, the partners feel they can't say a whole lot because the leader is just a volunteer. Leaders generally see themselves as volunteers. One wonders if a law firm leader or manager were paid, would that change how they are held accountable? Beyond even the compensation, when you look back at many lawyers' backgrounds, their only real experience with organizations is the academic institutions they came out of, where department chairs have little real authority.

Schaming: In tandem with that, one of the things that needs to be discussed is what competencies are needed in this role. How will those be measured, and who will do the measuring? We just sort of throw people in the raging river and hope they make it to the other side.

Tice-Wallner: That's an excellent point. If firms would actually write job descriptions for the roles of leaders, they would learn a lot, not only about appropriate compensation, but also what they're really looking for in their leaders. As a leader, you also need to have some amount of alignment with the management team or coalition of leadership that is going to assist you.

Who Will Emerge to Guide Your Firm?

Wesemann: For my final question, let me follow up on succession planning. I hate to say it, but I rarely see it actually work. Does anyone have closing thoughts on this issue?

Campbell: I don't see succession planning as being a matter of identifying the one person. It necessarily involves encouraging and developing leadership skills in a group of individuals. In order to account for changes in the profession, succession planning needs to have flexibility built into it.

Tice-Wallner: I think that any succession planning process run by the person leaving the job will fall woefully short. You need to get outside yourself. You can gain tremendous insight when you bring in a neutral party to talk with partners about leadership and who will emerge to guide the firm.

And to have people who can rise to the challenge, you definitely have to grow leaders for the future. I call it the leadership pipeline. We put a limit on the terms of individuals in management positions, so that we are forced to create this pipeline for the future. To me, the future of the firm heavily depends on the quality of the people willing to assume management positions.

Wesemann: A good point to close on. Thank you all for joining in today and sharing your insights.

For a complete transcript of the EDGE Roundtable, go to www.edge.ai.

About the Edge Roundtables

This is the first in a series of roundtable discussions that will be hosted for Law Practice Management by principals of Edge International. These discussions are designed to bring you the current thinking of leading practice management experts. Your comments are welcome and can be submitted to lpm-editor@abanet.org. For more information on Edge International, please visit www.edge.ai.

About the Edge Roundtable Participants

Charles R. Campbell, Jr. was formerly Managing Partner of Altheimer & Gray's San Francisco office.

Nancy J. Geenen is Managing Partner of Foley & Lardner's San Francisco office ( www.foleylaw.com). Her firm has nearly 1,000 lawyers in 18 offices around the globe, working in more than 60 practice areas. Her practice focuses on cases involving commercial litigation, intellectual property rights, unfair competition, trade secrets, creditor's rights and business valuations.

Ronald E. Ruma is Managing Partner of the San Francisco office of Hancock Rothert & Bunshoft LLP ( www.hrblaw.com). It is a full-service litigation firm based in San Francisco, with additional offices in Los Angeles, Lake Tahoe and London, and has more than 100 lawyers. His practice focuses on civil litigation, including alternative dispute resolution.

Rachel Schaming is San Francisco Office Administrator of Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro ( www.jmbm.com). Her firm has offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco, with more than 150 lawyers practicing across all areas of commercial and business law.

Wendy Tice-Wallner is the Managing Director of Littler Mendelson ( www .littler.com). With nearly 400 lawyers in 29 offices, it is the largest firm in the United States practicing exclusively in employment and labor law, representing management. She has advised or represented clients in wrongful termination, sexual harassment, discrimination and employee privacy.

H. Edward Wesemann is a principal in Edge International, a consulting firm that works with law firms around the world ( www.edge.ai). He limits his consulting practice to strategic planning and growth issues and isconsidered an international expert on law firm culture. He is a frequent law firm retreat facilitator, speaker and author.