Tag Archives: firm success

Gerry Riskin’s Immutable Laws of Law Firm Success

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.


Leaders Need Followers: Tips for Team Performance

When it comes to maximising the performance of a firm, much of the focus is placed on leadership. This often involves enhancing the leadership skills of the existing leaders, but we can’t lose sight of the people they are supposed to be leading. Success can be attributed partly to how well the leaders lead, but probably more important is how well their followers follow.

Whether or not your firm has successful leadership and followership will be demonstrated in a number of ways.

It may be that you have a highly cohesive team whose members understand and enjoy the role they play in achieving the overall goals of the firm. People are enthused about their work, they constantly seek better ways of doing things and they service their clients – whether internal or external – with their best efforts. This situation would indicate effective leadership and followership is in place.

If developing the quality of followers in your firm will be beneficial, the first task is to identify the desired characteristics of those in a follower role. The nature of legal practice is such that most people will very likely have a leadership role and follower role during different times of the day as well as at different points during their career. Even when one has subordinates, one still has bosses.

Characteristics of Effective Followers

Those people who make the most effective followers share a number of characteristics.

Self-Management Skills

Effective followers have the ability to exercise control over their work and are comfortable operating without supervision. They are confident they have the requisite knowledge and skill set to perform all tasks asked of them.

More importantly, effective followers understand their role in the team and how their actions benefit the firm as a whole. They take an active interest in the overall well being of the team and do not focus on the hierarchy that may be in place. The difficulty for some practitioners is that they can feel uncomfortable having self-managing subordinates, as the pressure to perform as a leader is a burden they would prefer to do without.

Competence and Focus

Effective followers master the skills that will benefit both their careers and the firm for which they work. This will involve attending courses and conferences relevant to their current and future roles, with a view to making themselves a more effective member of the team.

High levels of competence also allow for these people to have responsibility delegated to them. They are able to identify potential problems and present formulated solutions for the consideration of the team and leaders.

Value and Goals

The values and goals of effective followers are aligned with those of the firm. Satisfaction is gained from accomplishment. Effective followers will be committed to achieving a particular goal. These goals may be large or small, varying from successful outcomes in a litigation matter to completing all the word processing in the ‘In’ tray. It is not the size of the goal that is important, but the commitment to achieving it that sets people apart. A high level of commitment can be contagious.

Creating Effective Followers

Creating effective followership can be difficult. In many firms, a leadership role such as associate or partner is the definition of success. Leadership skills are taught and encouraged while followership is not. This gives the impression that those in a followers role are just along for the ride and the real difference is made by those at the top.

Practices wanting to perform at a higher level should espouse the notion that effective followership is essential for organisational success. These strategies can be implemented to improve the level of followership in your firm.

Role Definition

The distinguishing feature between followers and leaders is the role they play as opposed to their level of skill, intelligence or ability. Providing well-publicised role definitions will contribute significantly to ensuring that an ‘us and them’ mentality is avoided.

Often leaders in a firm are solicitors who have assumed a leadership role by virtue of their legal skills and seniority as opposed to their individual leadership ability. In such a situation, a well defined role for the leader is essential. For example: if a leader’s role is defined as being one to motivate others, the leader will likely react toward followers as if they need motivating. A more effective role for the leader would be to:

  • set firm / department goals and strategies
  • monitor performance and timelines
  • effectively delegate work
  • communicate enthusiasm

Similarly, the role definition of those in a follower’s capacity would involve:

  • having a thorough knowledge of how their actions contribute to the final outcome of a matter and the overall objectives of the firm
  • having the capacity and desire to work as part of a team
  • creating congruence between personal and corporate values and goals

Having defined these roles (note – these are not job descriptions), it is essential that they become part of the firm culture rather than just something to which you pay lip service.

The importance of these roles can be conveyed to all in the firm through training and by example.


There is an assumption that leadership has to be taught and that following is simply a matter of doing what you are told. Providing training to all members of your team will enhance overall performance.

For those in a subordinate role, the most effective training that will improve their levels of followership are courses which increase their understanding of the firm’s goals and objectives. Such courses may include:

  • The cash flow cycle of a legal practice;
  • How various matters are priced and selling value to clients;
  • Business development skills.

Organisational Structure and Culture

The culture within the firm will have a significant bearing on the effectiveness of people within your teams. Practices that have an inclusive approach to all members report significantly higher levels of team and individual performance. Such a culture encourages people to push the boundaries of their ability. This in turn creates motivation to increase skills and accept greater responsibility.

Delegation is a significant way of encouraging the right sort of behaviour. Have the courage to push work down to subordinates. Provide assistance where necessary and allow them to learn from the experience of others.

Similarly, the involvement of members of the team in strategic planning and goal setting will quickly build commitment and enthusiasm in those you require to be committed and enthused.

At the end of the day, the best way to test the quality of your leadership is to look over your shoulder and see if anyone is following.