The Bar News

Best Practice: Law firm leadership: How do we get started?

Asked and Answered

By John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Q. I am the managing partner of a 24 attorney firm in San Francisco. We are becoming frustrated at our inability to achieve a consensus and make timely decisions on matters of firm policy, strategy, marketing, and management. We are missing out on opportunities. We have no management scheme and no one to lead the charge -- no team effort. The attorneys can't decide anything and firm management is a free for all. Things don't get done because no one is responsible. Conflict exists because anyone may be in charge. We are strong on ideas but weak on implementation. We lack leadership and focus. What are your ideas regarding leadership? Where should we start?

A. This is a common in firms of all sizes. In general, the foundation of leadership is built upon exhibited behaviors illustrating a proven track record of trust, respect, and accountability. These are the building blocks required for the development of leadership practices. Without these building blocks leadership cannot exist or be developed. The law firm culture must be nourished in such a way as to support these behaviors. These behaviors must become a part of everyday practice in dealing with clients as well as partners and others within and outside of the law firm. Law firm leaders must develop and practice the following behaviors:

  • Formulate and articulate a shared vision for the firm.
  • Lead the fight for constructive organizational change.
  • Empower and develop other attorneys and support personnel and enable them to accept responsibility and make decisions.
  • Develop and foster an effective management team.
  • Develop problem solving and multiple options thinking skills.
  • Take intelligent risks.
  • Make tough decisions.
  • Establish both firm goals and performance goals for all attorneys and support personnel.
  • Seek input from others.
  • Coach and develop others.
  • Confront and deal directly with internal and external (client) conflict and communications problems.
  • Hold everyone in the firm accountable for actions and performance.

The organizational structures, practices and procedures that exist in many law firms also discourage the development of leadership behaviors and practices. Many firms have a short-term production orientation focused upon individual lawyer productivity and production based upon billable hours and dollars billed and collected. A "me first" attitude rather than "firm first" "client first" attitude is frequently prevalent. Many lawyers hoard clients and consider them their clients as opposed to firm clients. These lawyers use individualistic approaches to client problems as opposed to team approaches. Compensation and other reward systems are not well suited to fostering leadership and developing teamwork in law firms. Firm governance, practice management, and performance management systems in law firms are also ill-suited to foster a climate encouraging and supporting leadership.

Law firms are finding that developing effective leadership skills can be a very difficult task. Dealing with leadership is a very emotional issue for most law firms due to the independent nature of most lawyers and the general unwillingness of firm lawyers to put aside their personal interests for the good of the firm. In fact, in many cases existing law firm partnership structures reinforce this tendency. What is needed is a balance between partner autonomy and partner accountability. Leaders will either have to be recruited externally (ie lateral partners) or skills will need to be developed internally.

The firm can begin by conducting a self-assessment using the following 10 point checklist:

1.   Only the best should lead and be placed in key leadership positions. Does the firm have its most
      capable people in leadership positions?

2.   Does the firm have partners or other lawyers with leadership skills or potential leadership skills?
      How many?

3.   How many lawyer leader positions are there in the firm that require leadership skills? How many
      lawyers have these skills? 

4.   Does the firm's compensation system reward management and leadership activities?

5.   Does the firm's compensation system have a team reward component and are non-billable firm
       investment activities respected and rewarded?

6.   Does the firm's culture support a team orientated practice or an individual type practice?

7.   Does the firm's governance structure provide for administrative, management, and leadership
      roles and responsibilities?

8.   Does the firm have an in-house leadership training and development program?

9.   Does the firm invest and budget funds for leadership development?

10.      Is the firm willing to make the commitment?

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC, (www.olmsteadassoc.com) is a past chair and member of the ISBA Standing Committee on Law Office Management and Economics. For more information on law office management please direct questions to the ISBA listserver, which John and other committee members review, or view archived copies of The Bottom Line Newsletters. Contact John at jolmstead@olmsteadassoc.com.

Posted on October 19, 2011 by Chris Bonjean
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