(This article was originally published in the February 2017 edition of TLOMA Today, the newsletter of The Law Office Management Association of Ontario.)
In my many years of consultation with law firms around the globe, I have learned that the most successful firms are those that offer the best leadership for their individual lawyers. One of the most gifted managing partners I ever met made it one of his priorities to conduct an ongoing, never-ending study of what made the individual lawyers in his firm, and the firm as a whole, tick. Being sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of the people you lead, and helping individual lawyers in your firm to refine their practices so that they find them more challenging and rewarding, will result in long-term benefits to the company as well as to individual practitioners.
Lawyers are among the most ferociously independent people on this planet who have ever chosen to work in groups. Many of us chose the law because we wanted to be able to apply independent thinking, and have a lot of control. We wanted to be able to decide for ourselves how to conduct a matter, and how to serve a client.
In addition to being independent, lawyers are also highly critical and analytical. When we review a legal document we are always looking for omissions, and thinking about how to improve the wording. We have been trained to listen to arguments with a view to destroying them. In short, by default we tend to approach everything we see and hear in a highly critical and analytical way.
While these skills are essential to good lawyering, they can get in the way of our ability to be innovative when it comes to building practices that we find personally satisfying. The human brain will not allow us to be critical and analytical, and innovative and creative, all at the same time. As a result, many lawyers get themselves into ruts, where they find themselves performing exceedingly well in practices that they find less than satisfying.
The lawyers in your firm deserve practices that are personally satisfying while also returning the financial rewards that are commensurate with the value they give your clients. As a law firm leader, you can help individual lawyers to create a vision for attaining personal fulfillment, while also contributing to the law firm as a whole, by providing them with the tools they will need to make those personal visions a reality.
Here is an overview of some of the approaches that leaders at successful firms around the world have taken to help individual lawyers in their firms create and deploy personal action plans:
- Provide lawyers in the firm with the leeway to create a vision of the kind of clientele and the practice they want within the scope of the firm’s initiatives;
- Offer professional development sessions that will facilitate their moving closer to their goals, by honing skills in such areas as courting prospective clients, cross-selling services, asking for referrals, and transferring clients within the firm;
- Conduct workshops in areas relating to client interaction that many lawyers find difficult, such as handling telephone inquiries, requesting retainer fees, and managing files where fees exceed estimates;
- Build leadership skills for those in situations requiring leadership;
- Help individuals learn ways to combat the pressures of time;
- Work with all lawyers in the firm to make firm meetings more productive and desirable for attendees;
- Offer workshops in practical areas such as billing, managing finances and optimizing the firm’s technology.
When it comes to facilitating skill development on the part of a firm’s lawyers, there is a lesson to be learned from some of the most successful corporations in the world: they have determined that trying to take people out of their work for chunks of time to train them is not as effective as providing small doses of training from time to time on an ongoing basis. Specifically, a training session of one hour – perhaps during lunch once a month – is far more effective than trying to take someone away from their work for a day or two.
Many lawyers resist being asked to spend weekends or parts thereof in training – and lawyer buy-in is key to the success of training and coaching initiatives. One of the biggest benefits of ongoing training in small amounts is that the real-world experience between sessions can influence the evolution of the training. By way of an analogy, imagine that we trained lawyers first to hit a golf ball off a tee. When we come back for the next session, we can get feedback from the participants as to how the golf game was affected by the previous session. That will allow us to debrief and fine-tune the previous session before going onto the next segment – which might be hitting the ball from the middle of the fairway, and so on. Compare that approach with an attempt to give a lawyer lessons on golf from the tee to the putting green all at one time. Your instincts will tell you which approach will be more effective.
Lead by Example
The second lesson those corporations teach us is that peers and seniors within the organization must be a critical part of the training process. An outsider may have impressive credentials, but that is no match for the credibility that the top performers within the organization enjoy. The most effective coaching teams include in-house leaders and a gifted outside professional who has both substantial knowledge and facilitation skills, so that optimal results are achieved utilizing those inside top performers.
Law firms with lawyers who have happy and fulfilling careers will prosper. Competitors cannot easily emulate them, and the advantages enjoyed by firms who have worked with lawyers to develop their own personal action plans quickly becomes obvious – resulting in benefits not only in the work environment but also on the bottom line.