Observations on 30 years in the legal profession
As I enjoyed a break in the New England mountains of Australia last week, kayaking and fishing for the magnificent native Murray cod, I realised I had been closely associated with leadership and management of law firms for close on thirty years – about twenty in managing partner roles in three jurisdictions, and ten in consulting to the legal and corporate world, with the benefit of working with firms from various parts of the world.
In thinking about this time, I realised that while a lot has changed (technology, areas of practice, social media, etc.), much seems to remain the same, and it’s not all good! A few thoughts on the latter, which I hope will be helpful to readers:
- Law firms still fail to appreciate the value of brand and the importance of developing an understanding of it in its three forms – organisational, individual and employment;
- When things appear to be going really well (and they do sometimes!), the biggest mistake one can make is to relax or take collective eyes off the ball. Things change quickly;
- While some firms have strategies of sorts, very few attend to the “pre-strategy essentials,” take the partners along for the ride, or achieve implementation or results from it;
- Quite a few firms have agreed values and cultural attributes. Unfortunately, these are seldom observed or enforced. Sometimes it is because people are confused about what they mean, or they may sound similar to every other law firm, or – in many cases – a number of high-profile partners ignore them and so set a bad example. It is for this reason that I advocate going down the path of Guiding Principles and making them enforceable;
- Very few partners, still, build or leave in their firm on departure what I call “capital fabric” – those many things which contribute to the long-term, fundamental, foundational strength and well-being of the organisation long after they have gone;
- In similar vein to the last point, it is seldom part of the DNA of the firm for partners to build succession. When they leave, the cupboard is bare;
- What is missing in many firms is a structural and philosophical “engine” whereby the things that are discussed and agreed at partner meetings or by leadership are naturally, as part of the firm’s DNA, applied throughout every section of the firm, both legal and support services;
- Firms still fail to appreciate the power of ensuring that a genuine interest is taken by senior individuals, both legal and management, in the personal well-being and professional development and success of people for whom they are responsible. This has implications for staff turnover, recruitment costs, engagement levels and the strength of a firm’s employment brand;
- For any young people coming into law firms three things remain extremely powerful – reliability, a true sense of responsibility and accessibility;
- Speaking of young people, they have opportunities to venture into new fields in legal practice like never before, in particular in relation to industry sector specialties. We always encouraged our young lawyers to develop these interests at an early age and know their industry of interest better than the clients in it;
- When thinking of appointing a new person or partner, firms often fail to apply a simple but effective test such as ensuring the candidate is “high calibre, committed and a team player”: they need to tick the box on each of those to get across the line;
- Whether the legal profession or some consultants (in particular) like it or not, there will always be a place for time–based billing as one of various bases for billing; the reason? Many clients like the clarity of the option;
- The power of team work and teams, whether in a hierarchical sense (e.g., between a partner and his/her lawyers) or between groups (a property practice group teaming with a town planning practice group) is underestimated and undervalued;
- The effective use of the salaried or fixed-share partner/director is a massive missed opportunity for many firms. Properly structured and managed and supported by the right philosophy, it can become the economic powerhouse of a firm;
- Most firms have pockets of high-level expertise within them. Few convert this into true thought leadership and the individual and organisational brand value and power that go with it. The missing link is effective communication;
- When one considers styles of thinking, behaviour and interaction within law firms, one of the standout styles on the part of both partners/directors and firms would be avoidance, in the sense of not taking tough decisions, putting off dealing with underperforming or misbehaving partners, etc.
- As the support service “manager” regime has taken hold in small to large firms, so more and more power is often devolved to them. Unfortunately, few seem to exhibit creativity and too often act subtly as blockers to change, particularly when it may impact their turf or role. Properly led, with the right calibre of manager, these individuals can easily contribute as much if not more than partners; and
- Somewhat in summary of the above, every firm I have ever worked with, no matter how ‘good’ or not so good or big or small, has had loads of potential and unrealised opportunity, very often right under their noses. To take advantage often takes consistency, persistency, strong leadership and team-work, not rocket science.