What Law Firm Leaders Should Do

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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 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 that the fact that the great majority of 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.

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 that the most important function of all 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 the new 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 at the firm — lawyers, staff and support personnel — should be committed to such a team effort. Clients ultimately get an understanding of a firm by the way in which all team members conduct themselves.

Specifically, a successful law office or firm works first and foremost 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.

That improvement, regardless of other responsibilities, is a goal to which a firm leader must commit.

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 values will cause inefficiencies, create disharmony within the firm and result in financial difficulties, and perhaps even failure.

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 leadership.

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