Managing and Growing a Law Firm, Part 3

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By Yarman J Vachha | Aug 26, 2018

In this final article in the series of three, I highlight the legal scene in Asia, the changes to the legal industry, and the different resources available to law firms for expansion. I also take a look to the future, and share key leadership qualities.

In my first article, I shared my thoughts about managing and growing a law firm and in the second article, I discussed the global legal industry and its challenges.

I have previously discussed why firms need to look to the future, as they cannot live in the past and will soon become irrelevant in this fast-paced, tech-savvy environment. Disruptors are already well established and eating away the market share of many firms. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is here to stay and will become more and more sophisticated. For example, standard contracts are now easily available from the internet and there are other solutions in the market to make the “bread and butter” legal services no longer the “black art”, which at one time nobody understood. And then there is the growth of the “in-house” legal departments eroding business lines.

Leadership for the Future

To future-proof themselves, law firm managing partners need to “lead” and not “manage”. I have encountered many managing partners who manage (and at times micro-manage) rather than lead. Some are good at managing but many miss the critical role of a managing partner, which is to lead, have a vision and to inspire and drive the partners to achieve that vision. Then there are those who are poor managers, the ones that micro-manage or those who are indecisive and are too involved with the detail to see the bigger picture, or simply do not have time to manage. All these recognisable conditions lead to inefficiencies and mismanagement, creating potential financial, retention and reputational risks for the business.

As I shared in the first article, I believe that the day-to-day management of a law firm should be left to business professionals who have the necessary skills and experience. Hiring people with this skill set at an appropriate level for the firm is key. Firms need to hire business professionals at the right level and not under-hire. I would caution that hiring at an inappropriate level (too junior or too senior) will lead to additional issues and may be a wasted investment.

In the commercial world, all well-led and well-managed corporates will have a chief financial officer, chief information officer, chief marketing officer, etc. These are professionals in their own rights, and contribute to the success of the business. Why then do law firms think that partners can run such functions in which they have no real expertise or experience? Part of this stems from a “cost” rather than an “investment” mentality. I think what is not appreciated is that partners are being taken away from their core competencies and thrust into something that they are not trained for. What is not accounted for in the Profit & Loss Account is these lost partner hours that could be better utilised in marketing and discharging work which ultimately adds to the bottom line.

In addition to having a sound professional support infrastructure, it is important for leaders of law firms to interact within the industry, attend relevant conferences, keep up-to-date with major changes in the market, and respond promptly to the changes that are taking place in the industry. Keeping up with the legal press is also a must.

Law firm leaders need to have a strategy and a “laser-like focus” on what they want to achieve, and have a formalised succession plan to ensure there is an ongoing legacy for future generations.

Staying Relevant

The key to relevancy is a vision, a stated purpose, an evolving strategy to move with the times, a laser-like focus on the ultimate goal, investment in a sound and professional support infrastructure. Bringing all these together requires a strong and decisive leader with an innovative and flexible mindset.

Being Inclusive

To achieve these goals, it is very important for the management of the firm to be inclusive and to seek the opinions and insights of the lawyers and the business professionals who can help shape the present and future of the firm. Having a sharing and open culture is also important, so that all employees know what the firm’s vision is, and what they are striving to achieve.

At the end of the day, the management of a firm is in a stewardship role. The priority of these stewards should be to lead the firm and make it better than it was when they were put in the leadership position. Having this mindset will help shape and create a legacy for future generations. I would also encourage management not to take a short-term view on all matters. In particular, longer-term investment strategies are required in this competitive environment, as the firms that take a short-term view are unlikely to survive. 

Modern Lawyers

We live in a new age of millennials who are entrepreneurs at heart and are very much plugged into the ‘gig economy’, Much like all of us in this new age, they want instant gratification. This group of young lawyers comprise the engine room of the 21st century law firm, and very much the future of the business. This is where I believe a disconnect occurs. The current leaders and managers in law firms are most likely middle-aged and “Gen X,” brought up in a different age and with different values which included working hard, being in the office 9 am to 9 pm, and coming up through the ranks with the ultimate goal of being a partner in a firm.

This is not necessarily the mindset of the modern lawyer, who has many more life and work choices than the previous generations. Law-firm management has to listen carefully to younger lawyers and take heed of their needs to make them productive and engaged, and to retain them in the business long-term. Opportunities to work flexibly and remotely are high on their list. This could mean flexible working parameters and strong and secure IT systems to ensure effective and productive remote working. If this is what it takes to make this generation more productive and create an attractive long-term career path for them, then firms need to respond appropriately to this changing world with both action and rewards.

Women of Law

Firms also need to address the ongoing issue of women leaving the profession. Law firms lose many talented women in which much investment has been made when they decide to have a family. Sadly, this talent is often lost for good. Firms should do a much better job of providing flexibility and alternative career paths, thus giving these women an opportunity to look after their families while also adding value to the business.

Concluding Thoughts

Let’s not forget that 20 years down the line, the millennials group will be leaders of the firm, and they will have a different set of issues to deal with which we can’t even begin to imagine. I think if the current leaders can forge a blueprint for flexibility, succession, and legacy, this will be ingrained in the DNA of the young lawyers and will bode well for future generations.

In conclusion, my three top tips:

  • Have a clear vision and purpose, set accountable milestones for these to be achieved, and be inclusive of all in the firm
  • Managing partners need to “lead” not “manage”. Leave the management and the execution of strategies to the business professionals
  • Build a firm for the future with innovation, the millennials, and women in mind.