Questions for the New Leader

Volume 39 Number 1


About the Author

Karen MacKay is president of the consultancy Phoenix Legal Inc., focusing her work on leadership and strategy execution for law firms. 

Law Practice Magazine | January/February 2013 | The Management IssueFirst, please join me in welcoming Linda A. Klein, a shareholder and member of the board of directors of Baker Donelson, as my partner in the Taking the Lead column for this upcoming year. We will be alternating authorship of the column throughout the year. Together we look forward to continuing to offer our practical perspectives for law firm leaders.

 It’s January and you are new in your leadership role. Now that you have achieved it, what are your plans? The term, scope of responsibility and authority may vary, and on many days this will feel like service more than leadership. To begin, how can you take a snapshot of your group to get an accurate picture of where you are today so that you can measure the impact of your efforts at some later point? What are you setting out to do? How are you going to know what you’ve achieved and in what time frame?


What is the current state of the “health” of your group? Is there a sense of identity? Is there a social fabric binding the group? Do people trust each other, and are they proud of being part of this group? Does your success as the leader, and the success as a group, matter to group members? To get a sense of these questions, get to know your colleagues. Ask them a few simple, open-ended questions, and listen.

Most law firms gather more financial information than they use, so take the time to understand your information systems and get to know your group by the numbers. What are its demographics, and what might they be like by the end of your term as leader? What gaps might guide your recruiting efforts? Consider the utilization of the group. Whether or not you bill by the hour, you likely track hours, so look at the inputs by timekeeper group. What is the ratio of partner hours worked to the total hours worked by all timekeepers? How might you get more leverage through people, technology or process improvement? Where does the work come from—that is, are you a net generator of business for the firm, or do you or the group provide expertise to clients originated by others? Take a look at your talent. What is your attrition rate? Do associates make partner? Should they? If you could, what might you change? If you don’t know where you are, how will you know what you have accomplished? So create your own set of key performance indicators that are measurable, support your goals and are critical to your success.


Q: What must leaders do?

A: Establish a direction, develop a vision and a road map to get there. When you are new to the role, keep the direction-setting and planning stage simple and achievable. Better to tackle one or two things needed by the group and do them well in your first 100 days than to take on a list so long that you buckle under the weight of it and get nothing done.

Q: How do leaders deliver results?

A: By engaging, motivating, mentoring and aligning people. When leading matters in the practice of law, you can be controlling and detail-oriented, but nothing kills both motivation and creativity like micromanaging. Resist checking up on your colleagues, asking whether they’ve finished a task or constantly monitoring how they achieve their goals. Instead, try asking questions such as, “What do you need to get this project done?” or “Is anything getting in your way?” or “What can I do to help out?”

Q: What are the outcomes?

A: Change—ranging from incremental to dramatic—but change that moves your firm forward from where it is today. Leaders have two things in common: They are going somewhere, and people will follow. With an understanding of your team’s current health, you’ll know where you are. With a focused road map for the first 100 days, you’ll have some quick wins, foster a sense of accomplishment and take a step toward earning the political capital you’ll need to achieve bigger goals. By taking the time to understand what results you want—and how to measure them—you’ll be able to communicate with clarity. And finally, by resisting the inclination to micromanage, you will take steps toward engaging, motivating and aligning your colleagues around the group and some common goals.



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