HOW DOES ONE LEAD a 21st-century law firm? How does one manage a 21st-century law firm? Leadership and management are often used interchangeably in discussing law firm administration, but there are differences that require different sets of skills.
The partnership was the traditional structure of law firm business operations. But after there are more than a few partners, management by committee becomes too cumbersome for the majority of matters. Many law firms now operate as a different business entity, with a president or CEO. Law firms still operating as a partnership are led by a managing partner or small management committee. Most law firms have some nonlawyer management staff.
WHY LAWYERS ARE DIFFICULT TO LEAD
Discussions of managing lawyers often include the cliché of herding cats. Cats are notoriously independent, as are lawyers. But lawyers are also trained to be outspoken, to construct arguments, to pick apart weakness in others’ positions, to be perfectionists and to attempt to gain as much advantage as possible in any negotiation. Delegation is often a challenge for lawyers because it is drummed into us, starting in law school, that a lawyer is still ultimately responsible for the failure of any delegated task. When you think about it, herding cats sounds easy when compared to leading lawyers.
I recently was privileged to hear an address by Gerry Riskin, founding member of the legal consultancy Edge International. He discussed the dynamics of group decision-making among lawyers, particularly when new proposals are under consideration. Riskin said that lawyers, because of their work, are critical and analytical, and tend to default to that pattern even when inappropriate. For example, at a partner meeting, if you could imagine words coming out of the mouth of one partner, by the time those words traveled 18 inches, another partner would whip out his verbal sword and slash the idea to bits. “We have already tried that. That will never work because …” The verbal gladiators would then sheath their weapons and stride back to their offices satisfied, thinking their work for the firm is done. No new ideas will be put into action today. For that matter, no new ideas will be tried. Partners must learn a different approach, whereby they seek the elements of wisdom from an idea and explore its advantageous opportunities.
A more objective observer might think the point of the meeting was to make some decisions, to engage in strategic planning or to try something new. Instead, the firm has decided by default to stay its course.
In truth, the proffered idea might have been a poor one. But a nonjudgmental discussion of the idea might have yielded something of value. The next idea from a brash associate might have been of immense value. But that one may never be heard by the group after the lawyers witnessed a demonstration of how new ideas are received. Our profession must innovate, and innovation is accompanied by mistakes and false starts.
Perhaps these law firm discussions would benefit from emulating the U.S. Supreme Court, where the most junior associate justice speaks first and the chief justice speaks last.
BEING A TRUE LEADER
Lessons in Leadership: Essential Skills for Lawyers by Thomas C. Grella was recently published by the ABA Law Practice Division. The book is divided into short and easy-to-consume lessons. But each lesson also includes references to suggested additional reading material. Included among the many references are books I would encourage a smart managing partner or law firm CEO to read: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t by Jim Collins (Harper Collins, 2001) and First Among Equals: How to Manage a Group of Professionals by Patrick J. McKenna and David H. Maister (Free Press, 2002). And Grella’s book is highly recommended as well.
Many books have been written on the intertwined topics of leadership, management, time management and personal productivity. The number of volumes validates the observation that it is easier to read about these skills than to accomplish them in practice.
The Wall Street Journal has published a free (and brief) how-to guide titled “What Is the Difference Between Management and Leadership?” that can be easily found on the Internet. Among the included comparisons, there are
- the manager administers, the leader innovates;
- the manager focuses on systems and structure, the leader focuses on people;
- the manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line, the leader’s eye is on the horizon; and
- the manager does things right, the leader does the right thing.
A law firm needs both types of visions to succeed. Our romantic image of leaders encompasses a certain greatness, with military leaders like George S. Patton, or national leaders like John F. Kennedy or Winston Churchill. But probably none of those people would have been great in law firm management.
Lawyers often want to push the edge of the envelope in following rules and interpreting regulations. But the leader doesn’t have that luxury and must lead by example. Law firms frequently have issues with lawyers submitting their billing records in a timely manner. The law firm leader must lead by example and submit his or her billing on time. At some point, he or she may have to become the “enforcer” on billing deadlines and will lack credibility if he or she has personally ignored the policy.
Law firms must have stringent cybersecurity policies to protect the confidentiality of client information. But it is often the senior partners who expect that the rules should not apply to them. For example, we hear things like “I don’t care if everyone else’s computer is secured, I want administrative rights.” Or “I don’t care what IT says; I’m still using that cloud service I like.” Or “I’m taking my iPhone to China—I need it.”
The true law firm leader will also lead by example in treating the nonlawyer staff with courtesy and politeness so that associates are not tempted to belittle staff.
The true law firm leader will be willing to learn about the technology that the firm must master to survive and be able to respond with factual explanations in response to complaints about “stupid policies from the IT department.” With any
significant law firm technology upgrade, one of the biggest predictors of success is whether the law firm leaders buy in or fail to participate. If some partners insist on doing things the way they have always done them, it is a certain bet that six months later everyone will have reverted to doing things the old way.
The true law firm leader will take time to listen—to the staff’s problems, to the young associate’s crazy new ideas and to the senior lawyer who bemoans that things are just not how they used to be. That leader will solve problems when possible and offer encouragement and direction when needed.
We are in a time of change. Change is hard.
A perfectly reasonable plan to revise the law firm compensation plan may be just what the law firm needs. But the result of such a plan will mean some get less pay and some get more. It is foreseeable and understandable that the group that will get less could band together to do everything possible to derail the process. The true leader will anticipate those reactions and try to look at things from everyone’s viewpoint. Everyone may not be satisfied, but everyone’s view can be considered.
Our two takeaways this month can be summed up succinctly. First, lead by example if you want to succeed. Second, the firm has hired a lot of smart people. It is not smart to stifle their ideas and creativity.