What to do as a Law Firm Leader

It's easy to contend that "law firm leadership," like "jumbo shrimp," is a contradiction in terms for the larger organizations.

Such firms typically have a chief operating officer (often a non-lawyer), a CEO-Managing Partner (and chair of the Management Committee), and then sometimes a Chairman of the Board (usually a former CEO-Managing Partner).

If there are no clear lines of responsibility, effective functioning of the firm is problematic at best.

Add to this the fact that the great majority of law firm leaders are expected to maintain their practices. In fact, one noted legal consulting firm, Robert Denny Associates, recently estimated that, in firms of more than 100 lawyers, only 10 percent have full-time managing partners.

Further, at these firms, 70 percent of the managing partners or CEOs do not have a job description and most partners do not know what their managing partner does.

This last item begs an answer: with such a decentralized and non-professional leadership structure, what is it that a law firm leader actually should be expected to do? I believe the most important function of all law firm leadership is to facilitate continuous communication, ensuring that individual agendas continue to be attuned with one another. In divorce practice, lawyers frequently hear the complaint that "we grew apart" and failed to keep communications open and candid as time passed.

Law firms are subject to the same need to keep the communication process open, candid and frequent. The primary rainmakers of a firm — the management and the partners — all must be in concert, and all members of the firm must buy in. That is the true challenge of the managing partner or CEO leader.

Leaders are open and honest about what a firm needs to achieve, have no personal agendas, and support using sufficient resources to achieve firm-wide goals. Everyone in a law firm — lawyers, staff and support personnel — should be committed to such a team effort. Clients ultimately get their understanding of a firm by the way in which all persons, lawyers and staff, conduct themselves.

A successful law office or law firm should be a team that creates quality service and work product for the benefit of clients. Improving the client service skills of everyone in the office involves them in the financial and organizational life of the firm so that they understand and appreciate their role and look forward to the future. This improvement, regardless of other responsibilities, should be something to which a firm leader is committed.

Law firm leaders, like leaders in any organization, must connect effectively with every member of the organization through shared values and shared effort. Failure of leadership to create such shared values will cause inefficiencies, create disharmony within the firm and result in financial difficulties for, and perhaps even the failure of, the firm.

Operating in the consensus, collegial fashion that many firms aspire to is a difficult challenge. Yet failure to maintain consensus and communication merely causes poor economic results and unhappy lawyers. If all members of the firm are not clear about the overall goals as well as specific objectives and strategies, there is no real firm leadership.

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