Edge International

A Talent Take on Law Firm Rankings

David Cruickshank

The first quarter brings us rapturous reports of revenues, rankings and profits per partner from the U.S. legal press.  American Lawyer Top 100 rankings are announced.  Headlines like “30% Profit Increase at Firm Despite Pandemic” appear.  And “rumored expensive deals” for lateral partners get favorable attention for the acquiring firm.  This drumbeat from the legal press about “top firms” is supposedly a proxy for excellence in law firms, law practices and excellent individual talent.  But are these the best measures to help a client or a job-hunting professional decide to choose a “top” firm?

How did we get here?

 The U.S. legal business is unlike that in any other nation because it voluntarily offers up its financial numbers to The American Lawyer and other data aggregators who will publish (for profit) comparison tables that are principally focused on revenues, lawyer numbers and profits.  There is no S.E.C., no regulatory body and no external shareholders asking for these data.  You can’t get these numbers on law firms in Canada, Brazil or France.  But it has become a “given” to discuss U.S. firm rankings as a proxy for excellence.

Some Alternative Measurements to Consider

 The Client Perspective

It is true that some clients will choose a high revenue large firm because of its perceived excellence or AmLaw ranking.  But that is often because the corporate counsel answers to a Board or executive that wants “the best” external legal talent.  This provides a buffer if the legal strategy goes south.  But why would a client choose the most profitable firm?  That seems like a proxy for over-paying your lawyers, not necessarily excellence.  Clients do value personal connections to lawyers who have demonstrated their talents and provide both value and excellent service.  For that reason, it is often assumed that an excellent lateral partner hire will bring their clients with them.  There is no ranking for “How many loyal clients-per-partner do you have?”

The Associate, Partner or Professional Hiring Candidate Perspective

It is doubtful that prospective hires make their decisions based on external rankings.  True, a top student or mid-level associate might use rankings to create a pool of potential firms.  However, they will put greater weight on their future co-workers, career advancement, training and business development opportunities when making a final choice.

Internal Talent Ranking Numbers

Most of these internal numbers are not available, because they are not shared or consistently reported.  Yet, if a firm wanted to persuade clients and prospective hires of their excellence, value and a “best fit” for a lasting relationship, these are some numbers they might promote:

  • Associate retention rates at years 2, 5 and 8
  • Associate retention per practice group
  • Professional position promotion opportunities per year
  • Acceptance rates from the ten law schools where the firm most often competes for talent
  • Percentage of budget spent on talent, CLE, training and mentoring (of administrative budget) and year-over-year changes over 5 to 10 years
  • Average and high/low of partner hours per year recorded for training and mentoring
  • Lateral hires incoming (partners and associates) per year, last 5 years
  • Departures of laterals who were with the firm less than 5 years (compared to laterals who “stick” longer than 5 years)
  • Diversity hire increases/decreases over 5 years

External Rankings

External rankings turn on surveys and perceptions of employees.  When taken annually or every two years, these can show that a firm is on a rise or a downslope where employee satisfaction is concerned.  Two measures that get a lot of attention from those who work in recruiting and professional development are:

  • The AmLaw Mid-Levels rankings
  • Fortune 100 Best Places to Work (annual, covers all companies).

These rankings are more likely to be seen by clients, since firms will promote the rankings in their websites and newsletters.  The 2020 rankings will reveal satisfaction with early handling of the pandemic.  In the AmLaw Mid-Levels survey for 2020, O’Melveny & Myers was the top ranked.  When compared to all companies and professional services firms, it is tougher to place in the Fortune 100.  Yet Alston Bird, the first law firm to break into those rankings, is a perennial top 100 choice of employees.  Perkins Coie was the highest ranked law firm in 2020 and 2021.  Only 3 or 4 law firms make the Fortune 100 every year.  Orrick regularly ranks well in the Fortune 100 and appears in the top 75 of the AmLaw survey.

Conclusion

 Whether you are a client looking for excellent lawyers or a jobseeker looking for a great place to work, the much-touted rankings for revenues and profits may be the wrong proxy for excellence.  Excellence may be better measured by how much investment a law firm makes in its people, how long they remain at the firm, and how the employees, from first hire to longer career paths, rank the firm.  A law firm that is not ranked highly in revenues and profits might turn instead to showing how they excel on internal measures of career development and external rankings by employees.  There’s a unique competitive advantage if your measurements make your firm a talent magnet.

Resolving Conflict: Trouble at the Top and Why it’s sometimes best to part company

Jonathan Middleburgh

I have written previously (in an article in the Edge Communiqué entitled ‘Law Firm Armaggedon: How a major Law Firm nearly imploded and how the conflict was resolved’) about how the survival of law firms sometimes requires the capacity to resolve senior-level conflict. In that article I shared the story of one such conflict and how it was resolved through a long and difficult resolution process.

On that occasion conflict resolution achieved a truce between the key protagonists. In the situation described in this article the outcome was a recognition on the part of one of the key protagonists that it was best for everyone if he leave the firm.  While ostensibly a less dramatic situation, in reality this outcome was important for the continued flourishing of the firm.

My Relevant Background

I described my relevant background in my earlier article.

I am an ex-barrister (I practised at the Bar in London for 12 years), schooled primarily in an adversarial approach to dispute resolution.

Around fifteen years ago, I started to retrain as a psychologist, completing my undergraduate equivalency in psychology while still practising at the Bar. After leaving the Bar, I continued my studies and started to practise as an occupational / organisational psychologist. Over the years I have worked extensively in the field of senior-level talent development in law firms and corporate legal departments, both in the UK where I live and also in the US and internationally.

As I explained in my earlier article, given the breadth of my background, I have been involved in a variety of projects, which defy easy categorisation. Several of these projects have involved senior-level conflict resolution, which has become a significant strand of my work.

A Case Study: Trouble at the Top

Unlike my earlier case study there was no cataclysmic precipitating incident that sparked my involvement with the law firm in question. Rather I was brought in ostensibly to help the Management Committee of the law firm to work together more effectively.

The background was that the law firm was a mid-sized regional firm in the UK.  The firm had grown rapidly over the last 10 years, through a mixture of organic growth and as the result of a couple of large mergers.

The Managing Partner of the firm was half way through a second term of tenure, having been re-elected unanimously as Managing Partner prior to his second term.  He had been at the firm for over 20 years and was coming towards the end of a very successful career as a transactional lawyer.

The other members of the Management Committee were the heads of the firm’s key departments – litigation, property, corporate / commercial, banking & finance and private client – together with the firm’s finance director / COO.

My introduction to the firm was via a consultancy that had been helping the firm with the development of a new 5 year strategy and the implementation of some key organisational and technological changes.  The consultancy, in discussion with the firm’s HR Director, had identified that it might be helpful for someone to do some team development work with the firm’s Management Committee, as the Committee was not fully aligned on some key aspects of the proposed changes.

The HR Director felt that it would be helpful for the Management Committee to have a team charter and described this as the core of the necessary work when I first met with her.  I was unconvinced that this was really at the heart of the necessary work, but decided to refrain from expressing this until I was clearer about what was actually going on.

What was clear from my initial briefing, however, was that all was not well at the top of this organisation.  Although not presented as of key concern in this initial briefing, it was clear that there was a degree of conflict between members of the Management Committee. It was also clear to me that if the top team was unable to align it was highly unlikely that the planned changes would be fully effective.

Choice of Process

The HR Director was convinced that the implementation of a ‘team charter’ would help ameliorate behaviour of Management Committee members.  I initially tried to question why a team charter would be a panacea but it was clear to me that the HR Director was focused on the team charter and did not want to listen to other possible approaches to the situation.

Rather than continue to debate this issue with the HR Director I decided that the best approach was to agree that I would work towards the Management Committee embracing a team charter.  I suggested that I have a mix of conversations with the team members combined with a series of workshops dealing with issues emerging from the conversations.  I suggested that I speak first to the Managing Partner and that I then have meetings with the other Management Committee members. I explained that I felt that the Management Committee members might welcome some coaching and support in relation to their respective roles in the change process, in addition to my providing support to the Management Committee as a team.

First round of meetings

I met first with the Managing Partner.  He was very happy to engage with the process and acknowledged that the behaviour of the Management Committee was holding back the change process.  It emerged from the discussion that the Managing Partner felt that the head of litigation was a particularly disruptive influence on the Management Committee. He was resistant to many of the proposed changes, in particular to some of the proposed changes in technology and to more centralised resourcing.

According to the Managing Partner the head of litigation was undermining some of the work of the Management Committee and the external consultants.  He was apparently having ‘offline’ conversations with Management Committee members outside the formal Management Committee meetings, seeking to persuade them to hold out against some of the recommendations or to resile from changes that had already been discussed and agreed. The Managing Partner also suspected that he was ‘briefing’ against some of the proposed changes, i.e. telling his direct reports and possibly others that he was not in favour of the changes.

I tried to ask the Managing Partner whether he had called out this behaviour and, if not, why not – but it was clear to me that the Managing Partner was very uncomfortable discussing this and I was concerned that it would damage the relationship if I pushed him too hard on this.

The meetings that I held with the other Management Committee members confirmed that the head of litigation was a disruptive force on the Committee and highly resistant to the proposed changes.  The other Committee members all mentioned that he tended to dominate Committee meetings and that his contributions used up a disproportionate amount of the available airtime.  While it was clear that the Managing Partner was highly respected as a brilliant lawyer it was also clear that his leadership of the Management Committee was lacking and that he was, in the view of several of the other Committee members, highly averse to conflict and confrontation.

A couple of other factors emerged from these initial meetings.  First, it was clear that although the larger of the firm’s mergers had taken place several years previously it remained highly significant in terms of actual and perceived loyalties of the Committee members.  Several of the Committee members referenced the mergers and would refer to other members according to whether they were ‘original’ or ‘legacy’ i.e. whether they had been with the ‘original’ firm or one of the legacy firms with which the ‘original’ firm had merged.

It was clear to me that Committee members had retained their identities as either ‘original’ firm partners or ‘legacy’ firm partners and that those identities remained determinative of how partners were viewed by each other.  There remained a web of alliance and commonality between the ‘original’ firm partners and a similar web of alliance and commonality between the ‘legacy’ firm partners.  Each group was distrustful of the other group.

Second, it emerged that I needed to tread carefully in terms of my work with the Committee as a team.  Several of the Committee members referenced a previous disastrous engagement with an external consultant who had done some work with the team, which had backfired badly.  The consultant had held a kick off meeting without laying the groundwork by having individual meetings with the team members.  In the kick off meeting the consultant had done an exercise with the team where he encouraged the team to imagine their fellow team members as common animals (badger, beaver, lion, tiger etc.) and to explain why they identified which particular colleague with which particular animal, based on that animal’s behaviours and attributes.

The exercise had derailed in a spectacular fashion.  A couple of the team members chose to ‘zoomorphise’ their colleagues as animals which those colleagues regarded as, at best, inappropriate and, at worst, highly offensive.  Everyone maintained a polite front during the meeting but there were post-meeting recriminations, the work with the consultant was abandoned, and the exercise had clearly scarred team relationships for a while.  There was an understandable desire to avoid anything that might be a repeat of this disastrous experience.

I chose to meet the head of litigation towards the end of this first round of meetings.   He was ostensibly extremely affable and keen to emphasise that he thought the team development work was an excellent idea and that he welcome personal coaching.  However he was careful to extract several reassurances that our conversation was entirely confidential and spent a significant part of the conversation critiquing the proposed changes, emphasising the critical nature of his role to the success of the firm and explaining why, in his opinion, the litigation department was significantly different from the other departments such that his department should be excepted from several of the changes, particularly with regard to centralised resourcing.

I had been forewarned as to two of the head of litigation’s key traits – a tendency to interrupt while being asked questions and a propensity to keep on talking way beyond the scope of the question that had been asked.

The First Workshop

I decided to play it safe in the first workshop.  I thought that it was important to build rapport with the team and to have a relatively gentle workshop rather than trying to tackle anything too ambitious.

I gave the Management Committee some general feedback from the conversations that I had held with them.  I fed back with regard to the previous disastrous team development intervention and discussed with the team how that intervention had been counterproductive and caused considerable friction within the team rather than improving team relationships. I also spent some time discussing the fact that legacy relationships (i.e. relationships carried over from the ‘original’ firm and from the merger firms) still seemed to affect the dynamics of the group and there was general agreement as to this and how there was still a perception that some loyalty was owed to the legacy network of relationships.

We discussed in generic terms the key attributes of a high functioning team and the behaviours of such a team.  These were captured for later use in the team charter exercise. While everyone expressed a commitment to operating as a high functioning team there was an acceptance that it would take time and effort to shift the embedded dynamics of the team.

My approach subsequent to the First Workshop

Following this first round of meetings and the first team workshop I reflected on the approach I should adopt moving forward.

I decided to focus on the following areas in the one to one coaching conversations:

  1. Legacy relationships – It was clear to me that the head of litigation was using the loyalty created by legacy relationships to undermine the work of the Management Committee as a whole. This was unfortunate as it seemed to me that the Management Committee – with the exception of the head of litigation – was broadly aligned around the importance of the proposed changes.  So I decided, in my one to one coaching of the team members, to encourage them to focus on the importance of working together as one team and to seek out opportunities to work more collaboratively with those with whom they did not have legacy relationships.  This could be as simple as having more regular catch ups with those individuals. I also encouraged the consultants driving the change process to ensure that the internal working groups driving the change were made up of a mix of players, so that the group members did not all share legacy relationships. It transpired that several of the key working groups had key members who had strong legacy relationships and these groups were gradually mixed up as a result of my recommendations.

 

  1. Offline conversations – Much of the work of the Management Committee was being undermined by offline conversations seeded or coordinated by the head of litigation.  I decided to focus on steering the team members away from having these conversations, particularly conversations whose purpose was to undermine the proposed changes or to revisit decisions that had already been made by the Committee.  I thought that it was unlikely that the head of litigation would change his approach to a more positive one – and, assuming this supposition was correct, I believed that it was important that the other team members deprive him of the oxygen he was being given to fuel resistance to the changes.

 

  1. Stronger leadership – I thought it was important that the Managing Partner showed stronger leadership, calling out bad behaviour on the part of the head of litigation. I was not sure whether he would be prepared to do so given his aversion to confrontation.  I felt that I needed to encourage him to do so.

Subsequent developments

I had further rounds of coaching conversations with each of the team members, each round being followed by a team workshop. The bulk of each team workshop was consumed with the team discussing detailed aspects of the strategic change process (with me observing this work) and a small but significant portion of each workshop was devoted to discussing the team’s development.

I followed the approach outlined above with regard to the one to one coaching conversations, focusing on the areas outlined above in addition to providing each individual with support in relation to their roles in the larger change process.

A number of things happened as a result of the approach I adopted:

  1. Within a couple of coaching sessions the team members – with the exception of the head of litigation – increasingly realised and articulated in conversation that their interests were aligned to those of the firm as a whole rather than those of the legacy organisations. They became careful to consider whether their decision-making was based on loyalty or affiliation because of legacy relationships – and also to avoid intuitively conferring with legacy colleagues when making decisions.   Several of the team members were surprised at the extent to which they had previously been influenced unconsciously or intuitively by legacy colleagues, and less so by their ‘newer’ colleagues (even though these ‘newer’ colleagues had been their colleagues for several years).

 

  1. The number of reported offline conversations declined, in particular conversations focused on reviewing or second-guessing decisions already made by the Management Committee. Specifically legacy colleagues of the head of litigation were careful to ensure that the head of litigation did not draw them into these conversations.

 

  1. Both legacy and non-legacy colleagues of the head of litigation became more likely respectfully to call out the head of litigation at their team meetings. Whereas the head of litigation had previously been allowed disproportionate airtime at these meetings, colleagues were more likely to ask him to make way for other contributions and to point out where he was being unjustifiably negative about aspects of the proposed changes.

 

It also important to note that the Managing Partner himself did not call out any of the head of litigation’s bad behaviour.  When I raised this with him he attributed it to wanting the team to take ownership of the situation rather than imposing a solution himself – but I believed that the reality was that he was uncomfortable doing so, despite my efforts to encourage him to show clearer leadership.

In any event, within a couple of coaching sessions with the head of litigation it was clear that he was starting to feel marginalised as a result of the developments outlined above. He recognised that he was feeling increasingly isolated on the Management Committee and I encouraged him to explore with me why that was the case and what was going on.  I was able to give him some of the feedback that the Managing Partner had not given him and to explain to him objectively and respectfully my observations as to his communication style. To my surprise he took some of these observations on board and realised, at least partly, that he was responsible for his own isolation.

Decision to part company

In subsequent conversations the head of litigation discussed with me whether he was capable of adapting his communication style – and whether he wanted to do so.

He recognised that aspects of his communication style were entrenched but felt that he could modulate aspects of his style if he wanted to do so.  Indeed, he became notably more positive in a couple of team workshops and yielded the floor in those meetings to his more constructive colleagues to an extent that was noticed by the other Management Committee members.

Ultimately, though, he decided that he did not want to accept the new status quo.  The new status quo would see (from his perspective) his leadership of his department sidelined in two key ways.  He would have to agree that the technological changes would apply as much to his department as to other departments.  He would also have to agree to more centralised resourcing, such that resources from the litigation team would be available to other departments depending on patterns of work flow.

For my part I encouraged him to think through the issues around his communication style – but as he edged towards the decision to leave his role I did not try to persuade him to stay.  My view was that the team would work together much more effectively were he to leave.

I also helped him to think through the sort of environment that might play to his strengths.  He decided (rightly in my view) that this would be an environment where he could call the shots.  After exploring a variety of options he accepted an in house role heading a small team in a legal department that handled a heavy volume of litigation.

Outcome and Conclusions

As the work with the Management Team continued, the team charter itself receded in significance – as I had suspected it would from the start.  We put together and agreed a team charter but in reality the charter captured many of the behaviours that the team had already started to exhibit.  Those behaviours would not have developed without the coaching of team members and the team workshops.

As indicated above, the head of litigation parted company with the organisation to take up  another role.  This provided the opportunity to refresh the team and to bring in a new team member – the newly appointed head of litigation who possessed qualities of communication and collaboration lacking in his predecessor.

Following the departure of the head of litigation the team started to work together more effectively and became increasingly aligned with regard to the changes, most of which were implemented within a relatively short timeframe.  The firm has continued to grow, pulling ahead of some of its direct competitors.

By way of footnote the Managing Partner himself moved on within a year of my concluding the work with the team and the ‘new’ head of litigation was voted as his successor.  I can in no way claim any credit for this development – but the change in team dynamics enabled a new leader to step up and to replace a Managing Partner who himself had shown some clear deficiencies in his own leadership style.

For me, the core work illustrated that it is sometimes better to recognise that a key relationship (in this case the relationship of the head of litigation with his senior management colleagues) is not working – and therefore to part company – rather than to assume that every dysfunction can be resolved or that it is worth the time and expenditure of organisational resource to try to do so.

 

For further information or to discuss the issues in this article, please contact Jonathan Middleburgh at Middleburgh@edge-international.com or on +44(0)7973 836343

Edge Principal Jonathan Middleburgh consults on senior human capital issues and coaches senior legal talent in both law firms and legal departments. A former practicing lawyer who is also trained as an organisational psychologist, Jonathan has a wide range of experience helping law firms and legal departments to develop their senior legal talent so as to maximise business outcomes.

Virtual Coffee Breaks

Gerry Riskin

Reaching out to clients and colleagues while working remotely can seem awkward, especially if there is no apparent reason for doing so.  The value of connecting during this time is in preserving and enhancing relationships by showing genuine care.

The most effective way to do a “virtual coffee break” is one person (be it client or colleague) at a time.

I suggest you consider these steps:

  1. Make a list of coffee candidates NOW before this idea slips away… put a few names down… if only two or three individuals come to mind, that’s fine — it’s enough to get started… add more as they occur to you. Candidates might include clients (past and present), referral sources, colleagues (who you may not be interacting with as much as usual because you/they are working from home), as well as any other individuals who are important to you professionally.  Personal friends and family are important too but they go on a different list.
  2. Choose a person from your list. Don’t procrastinate – just do it!
  3. Text or email suggesting a 10-15-minute virtual coffee break.
  4. Your communication might be something like: “Matthew/Elizabeth, I hope you are well. It has been a while since we last spoke… I’d like to catch up over a virtual coffee if that sounds good to you. Would Wednesday at 3pm or Thursday at 11am work better for you? (Feel free to tell me if we need other options). Have a wonderful day.”
  5. Assuming an affirmative response, send a Zoom (or Microsoft Team) invitation.
  6. At the virtual coffee break, really have a beverage at hand (coffee, tea, water…).
  7. Ask how she/he is doing and be an attentive listener. Do not allow the conversation to deflect to yourself right away. Be gracious, but still persistent with caring and curiosity. Find out how your coffee break companion is REALLY doing. Also – an important note – be sure to use your judgement to not over-reach.
  8. After the call, make a note or two. You will be glad to remember details two months later when you circle back to check in again.
  9. Throw a reminder into your calendar to touch base again after what you consider to be a reasonable period of time.

This is so simple that you might just discount the idea and not do it.  That would be a mistake.

Shoot me a note if you would like to set up a virtual coffee break with me — I can show you some strong anecdotal evidence as to why these “virtual coffee breaks” are so powerful.

The Power of “How”

Gerry Riskin

I propose that you join the most effective law firm leaders in the world and start asking “how,“ rather than “whether.”

Let us start with an illustration. Here are two questions that a managing partner might ask a practice group leader. Which do you think will lead to better results?

  1. How do you think you and your team could enhance the quality of the clients we serve in your practice area in the coming year?
  2. I would like your take on whether you think you and your team could enhance the quality of the clients we serve in your practice area in the coming year.

Question 1 makes a strong assumption that the mission is to enhance the quality of the clients in the practice area. The practice group leader is being asked to suggest an action or a set of alternate actions that would accomplish that mission.

Question 2 invites a debate as to whether attempting to enhance the quality of the clients is a good idea or not (let alone how that enhancement might be accomplished). This question is more likely to draw a defensive response from the practice group leader that relates to the partner’s assumption that client quality should be – or could be – enhanced in the first place.

I have written elsewhere about the propensity of lawyers to be critical and analytical. We are trained to detect the fragrance of risk and to eliminate it. Therefore, a binary question which invites a debate about whether something is worth doing will spawn arguments and counterarguments, likely including reasons why the status quo is just fine or the contemplated change is beyond the control of those being asked.

If what you are looking for is a robust open discussion – including a dash of defensiveness for the status quo – which does not necessarily lead to action, then go ahead and ask “whether.” If you want to harness the cerebral horsepower of the person or team to whom you’re putting the question, ask “how.”

To further illustrate the point, here are some sample good and not-so-good questions:

Good: How can our law firm make more effective use of social media?

Not So Good: Do you think our law firm could make more effective use of social media?

Good: How can we raise the profile and street recognition of our law firm for the benefit of those of our lawyers who are trying to attract more work?

Not So Good: Do you think we could raise the profile and street recognition of our law firm for the benefit of those of our lawyers who are trying to attract more work?

The takeaway from this article is not complex… in fact, it’s insanely simple. The issue is not whether you comprehend or understand. The issue purely devolves to whether you have the discipline to pose your questions in this fashion.

Don’t take my word for it… try it. I hope you experience its power.

Gerry Riskin’s Immutable Laws of Law Firm Success

Gerry Riskin

When Edge International was formed, I was optimistic that by this century, we could all make the following statement – and it would be true:

Dateline 21st Century: Most professional firms today and their practice groups are led by individuals who have not only mastered practice skills but are equally adept in organizational behaviour. They understand group dynamics and the art of facilitation. They conduct highly effective meetings, coach individuals to achieve their personal best performances, and create an environment in which professionals thrive. Managing partners are masters at “managing the managers” by ensuring that they are working toward relevant, well-defined and achievable goals. That is why most firms are highly profitable, achieve very high levels of internal satisfaction, and give exemplary client service. Turnover has dropped to nearly zero and clients are extremely loyal, thinking it absurd to even consider switching firms.

“Dream on” you say. Well, yes, I do dream on and as a perennial optimist I believe that what I have described is still very much achievable. The major ingredient missing in 99% of today’s professional firms is simply “The Will to Manage.”

The following 12 immutable laws represent my assessment of the most critically important components of successful firm management.

Law #1. The Managing Partner Must Be Willing to Manage: The managing partner must assist the partnership in achieving a clear vision complete with a describable, quantifiable destination. Firms cannot succeed with managing partners who were selected for their uncanny ability to ruffle no feathers and who discern the predominant direction of the firm and then run out in front to give the appearance of leadership. Management requires courage.

Law #2. Leaders Need Power: Most leaders are chosen because of their seniority, rainmaking prowess, and book of business. How does such a leader get influence over others who may outrank them on any one of those attributes? The power comes from understanding what the members of the group aspire to, and then helping them achieve it. This requires “asking” and “listening” — not “telling.”

Law #3. Leaders Must Coach: The art of coaching is to strike the right balance between being supportive and continually demanding. Talented, rich and famous athletes accept coaching, and when they see the benefits, your partners will also.

Law #4. Managing Must Yield a Financial Return: Unless a leader understands the mathematics of the return on investment that is realized as a result of the managing effort, the role may be seen as honourary and not critically important.

Law #5. Leaders Must Motivate: The only way to change a practice group is one person at a time, and the only way to motivate an individual is to find out what they want and help them get it.

Law #6. A Group Requires Shared Ambition to Function: You cannot move forward until you’ve got some sense of where you want to go together. Each individual needs to answer the question: “What can I accomplish in this group that I cannot accomplish alone?”

Law #7. Teamwork Requires Enforceable Rules: Your strategy is not what you aspire to; your strategy is what you are prepared to enforce. To have a strategy you have to decide: “What sensible rules are we prepared to establish for our club?”

Law #8. Profitability Comes From “Smarter,” Not “Harder”: If the way you are making more money is by working harder, you should take that as a sign of personal failure, not success. Profits come from being ever more valuable, not from working eight days a week.

Law #9. Build Skills and Foster the Sharing of Knowledge: Intellectual capital walks out the door each night. Too much of it is a heartbeat away from being lost to the firm forever. By ensuring that appropriate skill dissemination and knowledge sharing is occurring, a firm can create tremendous additional value and an insurmountable competitive advantage.

Law #10. Give Recognition and Celebrate Successes: Brilliant leaders have a knack of setting goals that are sufficiently stretching to be worthwhile — but achievable — and then fueling the behaviour by fostering encouragement and celebrating successes.

Law #11. Encourage Innovation and Remove Obstacles: The essence of having a competitive advantage is not waiting for others to pioneer the way, but to constantly ask: “What are other people not yet doing that we have a suspicion clients might like?”

Law #12. Differentiate With Perpetual Action: When virtually every firm has essentially the same strategic plan, the real competition is not about having a better idea; victory goes to those who are better at execution. Effective leaders help individuals break their objectives down into bite-sized incremental bits and then relentlessly follow up to ensure that progress is continuous.

Estée Lauder, the business titan, said in a television interview many years ago, “I am not famous for my ideas but rather for what I have done” (italics mine). Therefore the management game is ensconced in what I call Law #13: Get to your war room and start creating your action plan. What is your first small step… and then… and then…? Only by doing will you join the ranks of the greatest achievers and, like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Estée Lauder and whomever else you regard as heroes. People will wonder how you did it — or think you were just lucky. But we’ll know differently, won’t we?

What will you do to breathe life into these laws in your firm?

Note: Those of you familiar with the work of David Maister will see his profound influence on my thinking in this article…. I am forever grateful to him as a mentor and as a friend.

Forget Systems and Structures – “Getting the Job Done” Is the Key

Sean Larkan

Successful businesses and law firms succeed because they get the right things done.

They determine a vision, identify strategic key objectives, strategies to achieve those, make decisions around these and then make sure they are implemented. This gets results – the real test of everything.

Too often I think firms and even my consulting colleagues around the world don’t put enough emphasis on this simple but challenging concept and need. This is possibly because “getting the job done” is so hard. How often have you heard of firms, possibly even your own, making important decisions or bringing in advisers to develop new systems and processes, only to find they get patchy or no real buy-in or results? This costs time; it costs money. It can also give some really important initiatives a bad name, from which they might never recover.

Somehow it is assumed that putting in a new system or structure will, in itself, provide results. What we forget is that it is people within firms who implement stuff, do things and ultimately ensure the firm gets results and achieves success. We need those same people to naturally coalesce around and support things we are trying to do, rather than micro-management to get them across the line.

Sure, some firms do just this via draconian checks, balances, disciplinary systems and ‘punishments,’ but fortunately these are in the minority. Such approaches also usually only get short-term results.

Far more attention and thought needs to be given to making sure there is an approach or philosophy and culture in place in a firm which will more or less guarantee that decisions taken by firm leadership, or strategies determined by a firm, will have a good chance of getting implemented and supported by people throughout the firm.

To me this is the real, non-sexy, X-factor around achieving success. It is also the most difficult aspect of law firm management and leadership, mainly because it usually involves people changing their thinking, behaviours and styles of interaction. There is always a need for some supporting systems and structures, but these must always be the supportive means rather than the end.

Most of my work involves helping firms solve major problems or build strength and success when they have hit a brick wall, or can’t work out why they aren’t getting there. Invariably in such cases I find there are some acceptable systems and processes in place, and some good people, but the real problem is the missing link, the X-factor – getting folk in the firm, as a natural part of their everyday work, to help achieve implementation, results and success.

Most of these people are what I call ‘bums up, heads down, working on files’ people, only interested in their immediate work challenges. You have to break them out of that mode and their cocoons and get their buy-in to come along for the ride.

In some thirty years working in or helping law firms try to achieve success I have found that only when we ensured we built these types of philosophies and culture into firms did we achieve lasting foundational strength, well-being and success.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ for such approaches; they need to fit the firm and its circumstances. This can be quite challenging, as it is not as simple as talking about, say, a new ‘Succession Planning System’ or ‘Strategy’. It is far subtler than that. It also takes winning trust and support from oft-skeptical colleagues, but earn that you must.

In Successful Law Firms, Actions Speak Louder than Plans

Gerry Riskin

“Doing” wins out over “Strategizing”

Studies predictably show that firms with a plan do better than firms without a plan.

As a managing partner, you need to determine whether your firm actually has a plan or not. Here is a test that will tell you if you do –

Choose a member of your firm at random and ask her/him what the firm plan is. If you get an answer that resembles the concept of your plan, you win. Winning would place you in rarefied air — most lawyers have no idea what their firm plan is (even the lawyers who were on the committee that drafted it).

The first step in implementing a plan is to communicate it, so that all stakeholders are on the same page. Once you have done that, you need to decide how you will execute it. Here are some suggestions that might help you get it right.

Be careful that what you plan passes the practicality test.

When senior partners lean back in their chairs to create a “plan,” they typically envelop each other in profound abstractions sifted through the filter of critical and analytical thought. The result is a work of art that is absolutely incomprehensible (except by those who created it) and therefore incapable of being executed. To make it worse, several senior people now have a stake in an unworkable plan.

Imagine yourself in a car that is being driven by several strong-minded individuals all at the same time, each with a different route and even a different destination in mind. Clearly, this is a pointless exercise. If you want to help your firm succeed, maintain a light touch on the steering wheel: give your senior leadership team a very short list of issues that are worthy of a place in your plan.

Decide how you will enlist the help of those who need to participate in the execution of the plan.

Have you ever tried to persuade someone to buy another brand of smart phone or automobile than the one they already own, or to change their minds on an issue relating to politics or religion? Okay. Good. Then you know how hard it is to change anyone’s mind about anything. People are deeply invested in their own opinions, biases and prejudices. In relation to firm planning, rather than arguing about the overall objectives, what you need to do is to show the lawyers whose help you need how the firm’s plan is going to help them to achieve their own objectives.

Encourage the firm’s lawyers to take small, incremental steps toward an objective with which they all agree.

As lawyers, we don’t normally think in incremental steps. We think in giant leaps. Ask a lawyer to write an article or make a speech and the typical lawyer will say that the only step involved is to “Write an article” or “Deliver a speech.” BZZZZT! Wrong! Writing an article or a speech begins with a single step – choosing a topic that is relevant to the audience. And how do you do that? By taking more, smaller steps: reviewing recent cases, perhaps, or observing recent trends in the industry you serve. After you decide on a topic, you move on to the next stage of writing your speech or article, and you break that down into small steps, too.

Your firm plan must be broken down into incremental steps as well, and appropriate constituencies within the firm must decide the baby steps that will be taken to achieve the objectives that affect them. By achieving one small step at a time, the team will gain a sense of accomplishment in moving toward an agreed-upon larger goal.

Create metrics to help you measure what you achieve.

If you know exactly what is supposed to happen next, you can determine whether it occurs or not: achievement of a step becomes a binary (yes/no) issue. Without metrics, you will pass George or Elizabeth in the hall and ask, “How’s the project going?” and you will invite meaningless replies such as, “Not too bad,” and “We are getting there.” Instead you need to be able to ask, “Has your team completed that list of top ten corporate targets?” – a question that requires a yes/no response. The clearer you are on what you expect to happen next, the greater the probability that your expectations will be met.

Firm leadership must over-communicate and then over-communicate again: You need to become obsessed with reporting back to the firm.

To return to our driving metaphor, imagine that the next time you take out your car, you find that the dashboard has been covered with masking tape. Will you take the car out in that condition – not knowing at what speed you are travelling, the oil pressure, the RPMs and engine temperature, or how much fuel remains and how much farther you can drive before the tank is empty? Not likely.

Keep in mind that your firm has absolutely no dashboard when it comes to the progress of the firm’s plan except what you communicate directly. You are the dashboard. Car dashboards update themselves in real time and are accessible continuously. A dashboard in an automobile cannot over-communicate. Neither can you.

The greatest minds with the greatest thoughts are crucial to the contemplation of complex legal matters, but thoughts will never move your firm closer to its designated objectives. Create a plan that your people can correlate with their own visions of success, and then design the path they need to take in order to achieve it. It is your responsibility to keep the display illuminated: show your people their progress along the way, thus offering them a sense of fulfillment as they advance together toward the agreed-upon destination.