Firm Leadership

Rants, Raves, Rebuttals, Reflections, Revelations & Ruminations

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Post #392 – Friday, April 24, 2009
How To Identify High Potential Leaders

In the context of some strategy work I’m doing for one of the AmLaw 200 firms, I’ve found myself thinking about a couple of related question that I’m often asked by managing partners: How do you go about identifying those attorneys who could be good practice group leaders?  I suspect that we’re like most firms in that we don’t have a great deal of attorneys to choose from to be practice leaders.  Then the follow-up question becomes: Is it better to have the group select the leader or should I, as managing partner, make the appointment?

There is no right answer on whether the managing partner should make the selection or not.  In some cases it is a matter of what fits with your firm’s particular culture.  What is most important is that the potential leader understands what the job of being a practice group leader is all about and a job description exists (see my Post #388 – What Does A Practice Group Leader Actually Do?); that the chosen candidate really wants to take on the responsibility and knows precisely what amount of non-billable time is expected of them in managing the group (and is not being arm twisted); and that the chosen leader is prepared to accept some guidance and training on how to successfully execute their leadership role.

In my discussions with other managing partners I continually hear that what firms believe they need today is practice leaders capable of:
- being adept at exercising exceptional interpersonal skills, as opposed to simply having substantive legal competence;
- thinking like their clients and anticipating how to react to client’s continual demands for quality, value and cost-effective service delivery;
- connecting with different kinds of professional colleagues, of different ages, different values and different cultural backgrounds;
- working and managing groups in a boundary-less, virtual manner as more and more members of practice teams are geographically separated from one another; and
- fostering growth while dealing with uncertainty in adapting to today’s economic constraints.

This quest for finding the right kind of practice leader is something just about every firm is struggling with.  I therefore, continue to be surprised that we, in the profession, do not subscribe to the rigors of assessing our leadership talent as do so many other professions and industries.  And there are some great resources available to help.  For example, I have discovered that when you select your next practice group leader, it could be enormously beneficial to know how the attorneys you are considering compare, with respect to these 10 critical competencies:

BUSINESS DOMAIN (competencies related to the processing of information to address business challenges)
• Strategic Reasoning – Combines the ideas of self and others to envision the possibilities
and chart a course for the group to an improved future-state.
• Tactical Problem Solving - Synthesizes available data and facts into plausible courses of
action that will result in the resolution of identified problems.
• Operational Excellence - Manages business priorities and resources to ensure the efficient,
timely, and cost effective achievement of results for the practice group.

LEADERSHIP DOMAIN (competencies related to the challenges of leading self and others)
• Results Orientation - Establishes high performance standards for self and others and
assumes personal ownership and accountability for achieving results.
• Talent Development - Pursues a personal course of development related to business
acumen and uses that knowledge to recruit, coach, and develop the performance of peers.

INTERPERSONAL DOMAIN (competencies related to building and maintaining relationships)
• Respect for People - Builds trust-based relationships with peers by treating them
with dignity, respect, and fairness, while valuing their diversity in background and views.
• Collaboration - Develops positive working relationships that emphasizes the practice group’s accomplishment in conjunction with individual contributions.

INTRAPERSONAL DOMAIN (competencies related to the way one approaches challenges in the office)
• Strategic Self-Awareness - Recognizes own strengths and weaknesses and uses that information to guide personal growth and development.
• Tenacity - Pursues the resolution of business development challenges with urgency and determination to achieve positive outcomes.
• Judgment - Initiates action only after evaluating the consequences of the action and determining that the benefits are likely to outweigh the costs.

How can you increase your confidence that you are selecting practice group leaders with the potential to be great? 

Based on research from a global sample of more than a thousand executive MBA program graduates, there is now a sophisticated assessment tool called the High Potential Candidate Report that allows you to identify top candidates in relation to the specific competencies I’ve outlined above.  Requiring less than an hour for completion, the High Potential Report provides you with a snap-shot for enhancing your leadership candidate selection.  Your candidate registers online, completes the assessments, and the detailed report is emailed to your firm within a day of completion.  (To learn more about this High Potential Report contact me.)

Winning firms find a way to manage through these turbulent economic times and take advantage of the opportunities presented.  And in order to take advantage of those opportunities you need to have the best attorney leading your various practice teams.

Post #391 - Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Is Innovation In BigLaw An Oxymoron?

A few weeks back, I posed this question to the over 500 members of LinkedIn’s Legal Innovation Group (a group specifically constituted of those people in the profession interested in innovation):  “Is there a law firm anywhere, with a culture that consistently encourages innovation?  In other industries, organizations that encourage and appreciate innovation are often known to reinforce those core values by undertaking activities such as: providing internal training to assist people to tap into their natural creativity, facilitating innovation meetings, sponsoring internal innovation award initiatives, and providing some means to finance and enable small-risk experimentation.  Is anyone aware of any law firm anywhere, doing something of this nature?”

As I fully expected, thus far there has not been one single response.  It is sadly reminiscent of an article that appeared a few years ago wherein forty-five Chief Legal Officers, meeting in Europe, were asked: “What is the single most innovative practice proposed or used by your outside counsel in the last 12 months?” The unanimous answer . . . Nothing?

What this all makes painfully clear is that:

1. Innovation is a trip to a vague and uncertain future.

Successful innovation requires getting comfortable with the discomfort of not knowing precisely where the heck you’re going.  Some of us might enjoy the adventure of getting into our cars and taking a Sunday afternoon drive with no specific destination in mind.  For others, the possibility of getting lost is a scary proposition.  If there isn’t a documented road-map – in legal terms: Who else has done this before? – available, too many firms are not prepared to venture into anything that smacks of ‘the unknown.’

2. How you view your competitive position affects your ability to innovate.

Today’s vibrant BigLaw firm is probably well aware that it should embrace innovation to sustain its leadership.  But, in its heart, it needs any accepted innovation to be clean, non-disruptive and most of all, painless.  Unfortunately, real innovation is rarely mistake free.  It can be painful, discouraging, expensive, time-consuming, and worst of all, the outcome is always uncertain.  All of these are characteristics that most in BigLaw don’t support.  Anything that is perceived to be innovative is usually just a trivial incremental step towards differentiation.  Thus the firms that most desperately need to be innovative are often the least likely to achieve it.

3. Finally, following the market, rather than leading it, is the major innovation roadblock.

The real challenge in innovation is in identifying how to lead clients not follow them.  If your innovation efforts are grounded solely in your understanding of where your clients are today, you will not likely succeed.  By the time you get your innovation launched, the marketplace will have already progressed well beyond where it is currently.  By way of example, when Allen & Overy (UK) launched the first of its online, subscription-based legal services, there was no client survey informing the firm that this was what clients wanted or would be willing to pay to subscribe to.  Similarly, when Eversheds initiated its massive internal program to teach its lawyers project management skills, it was not based on any client satisfaction survey results asking for better project management. These were firms following the Gretzky Paradigm. (Legend has it that when hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky was asked to disclose the secret to his phenomenal success, he responded, “I don’t skate to where the puck is. I skate to where the puck is going to be.”)

There is no doubt that every law firm, even the most tradition bound of BigLaw, have individuals who look at situations in a new way and say, “Hey, there’s a way we could do this faster, easier, cheaper and better.”  What happens next with that blossoming idea determines whether your firm is truly capable of innovation.

Post #390 – Monday, April 20, 2009
Foundational Success

I am honored to have been asked and have now contributed a chapter to a new book scheduled for release on May 15th. 

Entitled Foundational Success: Building Blocks for Personal and Professional Success, I am joining Seth Godin, Jim Cathcart, Shelle Rose Charvet, Nido Qubein and twenty-five other prominent contributors in authoring a text designed to raise funds for a charitable foundation dedicated to providing the financing for student scholarships and encouraging more children to choose a post-secondary education.

You can obtain more information on the book and the impressive list of guest authors at: 
where you can also pre-order your copy now.

Post #389 – Friday, April 10, 2009
What Am I Doing?

With this economy, it would not be unusual to feel that your world has been turned upside down and your sunny disposition transformed into that of a neurotic alley cat.  You’re no longer waiting for an economic rebound; you just want to hit the bottom so you can plant your feet somewhere.  I suspect that the last thing you are thinking about is your own professional development . . . .and maybe you should be!  CONSIDER:

1.     What am I doing to be regarded as a thought leader in my field?

When times were hectic the busyness of business trumped everything, but this may be the perfect time for you to invest in some long delayed, self-development.  Are there some courses that you’ve been putting off registering for, a book that you haven’t had the time to read?

2.     What am I doing to raise my visibility?

And I guess that prompts some related questions: What am I doing to ensure that I get asked to appear at conferences and gatherings of the top people in my chosen field or industry?  And, what am I doing to stand out from the common herd?

For example, I would submit that it is easy to stand out since most blogs are pathetic and IF you offer originality, worthwhile content, and boldness, you get noticed.   I’m always surprised to see that many blogs are merely reprints from other people, and how many articles from supposed experts do not offer a new idea or concept that is usable.  Neither of these strike me as particularly useful or compelling for enhancing the author’s credibility with clients.

3.     What am I doing to create new intellectual property that will be of value to clients?

One needs to always do a critical assessment of how much of your fee revenue emanates from services that you did not provide five years ago.  In other words, are you building your marketable skills or simply doing the same shtick for your clients and expecting them to pay higher fees for the privilege.  This downturn may contribute to you having some down time. Why not use that down time to begin some projects you’ve been procrastinating about: design that new client workshop you’ve been thinking about for the last year.

4.     What am I doing to provide new ways for clients to retain and apply my value?

Turn your rough notes into a speech, your speech into a booklet, your booklet into a workshop.  Offer to facilitate one of your client’s meetings. Make yourself so valuable that you’re irresistible.

5.     What am I doing to expand my client base?

Find three ways to do something that will contribute to your client’s business – help them reduce their costs, perform more efficiently or improve their revenues.  That changes the question from “Should we do business?” to “How should we do business?”

6.     What I am doing to contribute time to helping others?

The more you help others, the more you’re helped.  Now is a great time to offer pro bono services, contribute to charities, and provide others with counsel and support.  You may just find yourself better off as a result.

7.    What am I doing differently with my practice and my life?

Do one thing different every week.  Find something that's "always been done that way" and see if you can find a new way to do it.  You might not succeed, but this is how innovations happen and you might discover a much better way -- and a more productive way -- to do your work.

Now is not the time to bury your head in the sand and hope it all just goes away. Because then everything will go away, and you’ll be left with nothing! Tough economic times exacerbate strengths and weaknesses, meaning that slight competitive edges can become significant advantages, and troubling deficiencies can prove fatal.

Post #388 – Friday, April 3, 2009
What Does A Practice Group Leader Actually Do?

Now that could be seen as a pretty strange question for one to ask . . . if it weren’t for the fact that so few law firms seem to have effectively answered this question.

Twice a year I have the privilege of conducting a one-day master class for new practice group leaders hosted by the Ark Group.  I have now conducted about six of these sessions and in all cases the participants comprise firms of over 100 attorneys in size including the likes of Jones Day, Kirkland & Ellis, Morgan Lewis, Sidley Austin, Weil Gotshal, Winston & Strawn and so forth.  Amongst a number of opening questions I pose to the entire group at the beginning of the day, is to inquire how many of them have a formal written job description. At my last master class this past January, out of a group of 18 participants, ONLY three hands went up – which is pretty typical of the responses I obtain.  What I didn’t ask, of those who had responded in the affirmative, is to tell us specifically what their job description entails.  I’ve since learned that that would have made for the perfect follow on inquiry.

In February I was engaged by a firm to help them launch and develop a strategic plan for a brand new practice group (focused on helping companies cope with the recession) as well as help kick-start one group that has clearly not been firing on all cylinders.  In my preparatory briefing, I asked (among a number of other questions) the usual one about formal job descriptions.  I was informed that indeed job descriptions had just been developed, arising out of a session with all of the practice leaders the month before.  I learned that this job description was formulated during an exercise conducted by some consultant in attempting to determine what tasks and activities these practice leaders should be held responsible for executing.  I was assured that I would be sent a copy.

Later that day I received the promised draft job description . . . all four pages of it.  Entitled, Practice Group Leader Position Responsibilities, this document covered EVERYTHING – from developing an annual budget to approving marketing expenditures and signing-off on quarterly WIP reports; from coordinating file distribution to workload management; and from circulating draft agendas in advance of meetings to coordinating the performance reviews of students and associates.  It included everything . . . EXCEPT anything to do with managing or leading a team!!!  This was the most exacting laundry list of administrative minutiae I have ever read through.

My response to the managing partner:  I will be surprised (almost alarmed) if you don't hear from some of the practice group leaders, after having reviewed this job description, that it is a touch "overwhelming."   I personally think that the practice leader's job description should be evolutionary in mature such that you identify a few 'mission critical' tasks that you will absolutely hold people accountable for achieving and then slowly progress to adding more responsibilities.

I would, therefore, if I were drafting this job description, start with what I believe should be your two (and only two) mission critical objectives (which are the highest value use of the leader's time and curiously are not addressed, in any sense, anywhere in this draft):

• Mission Critical Objective Number One:
To invest time in getting to really know the individual members of your team; getting conversant with their strengths and career aspirations; and coaching and helping (one-on-one) each individual member become even more successful then they would have been, had you not been the practice group leader.

• Mission Critical Objective Number Two:
To work with your practice group, as a team, to identify and implement specific joint action projects intended to increase the group’s overall morale; enhance the visibility of the group in their competitive arena; improve the service and value delivered to clients; secure better business; and win in the marketplace.

From that as my start, I would then include perhaps one page of only the key, essential items that have been documented over the 4-page attachment, as simply supplemental action points to accomplishing the two mission critical objectives.

And, on that note, I would respectfully delete any reference to 'Financial Management' for two reasons: I believe that these activities lead practice group leaders into unconsciously behaving like policeman rather than coaches; and I think that much of this should be in the job description of the office managing partner (consider: what is that individual's responsibilities? And how do they interface with the practice leaders?)

So, what do the job descriptions (if they exist) of practice leaders in your firm say?

Post #387 – Friday, April 3, 2009
How To Spot The Uncoachable

I spotted a great little piece the other day authored by Marshall Goldsmith.  Marshall and I both had articles included in a book published last year, entitled In The Company of Leaders.  Marshall’s advice here I think particularly relevant to those who wonder what to do with an underperforming lawyer.  Here are the highlights (with a few modifications from me, designed to reflect the kind of situation that a practice leader might face):

How do you know when someone is uncoachable?  How do you detect a lost cause? What follows are four indicators that signal when you are dealing with one of these people.

• They think everyone else is the problem.  A long time ago I had a client who, after a few high-profile departures, was concerned about morale.  He managed a successful firm, but feedback said that he played favorites in the way he dispensed compensation.  When I reported this feedback to my client, he completely surprised me.  He said he agreed with the charge and thought he was right to do so.  Now I'm not a compensation specialist and so I wasn't equipped to deal with this problem, but then he surprised me again.  He hadn't called me to help him change; he wanted me to fix his people!  It's times like these that I find the nearest exit.  It's hard to help people who don't think they have a problem.  It's impossible to fix people who think someone else is the problem.

• She doesn't think she has a problem.  This successful professional has no interest in changing.  Her behavior is working fine for her.  If she doesn't care to change, you are wasting your time!

• He is pursuing the wrong strategy for his practice.  If this guy is insistent upon and already going in the wrong direction, all you're going to do with your coaching is help him get there faster.

• She is the perpetual pessimist.  You can't change the behavior of unhappy people so that they become happy:  You can only fix behavior that's making people around them unhappy.

My suggestion in cases like these?  Save time, skip the heroic measures, and move on.  These are situations you can't ever win.

Post #386 - Thursday, March 26, 2009
Keeping Morale Up In A Downturn

Last March, together with Baker & Daniels Chair Emeritus Brian K. Burke, I co-founded what is now known as The LAB (the Managing Partner Leadership Advisory Board) – a forum designed to provide recently appointed managing partners with a source for obtaining pragmatic advice on their leadership questions and critical burning issues.  The formation of this group was the result of suggestions made during our bi-annual First 100 Days master class for new managing partners and has proven to be a valuable resource for new leaders.

Here is the latest question in a series of different queries that The LAB members have now responded to:

The current economic climate is proving exceptionally challenging. Our firm went through two different layoff announcements last year, albeit both were rather small compared to what we’re all seeing now. We were hoping for a turnaround this year, but in the event that things continued to deteriorate we put contingency plans in place for further cuts at the end of the first quarter. It appears that we now have to implement that plan. This will be our largest round of personnel cuts. Meanwhile, on one of those notorious web sites I read this note following our last layoffs in December: “Well, I have to say, this is no surprise. The associates and the support staff bear the brunt of the cuts to continue to support the lavish lifestyles of the partners. Expect more cuts soon . . .” Under such market duress how in the world does one go about keeping up the morale of your people, both lawyers and staff members?
Read the entire question and response: Keeping Morale Up In A Downturn     

LAB responses derive from its members' many years' experience as law firm leaders.  Along with Brian and I, the LAB is comprised of the following distinguished current and former law firm leaders: Angelo Arcadipane (Dickstein Shapiro LLP); John Bouma (Snell & Wilmer LLP); Ben F. Johnson, III (Alston & Bird LLP); John R. Sapp (Michael Best & Friedrich LLP); Keith B. Simmons (Bass Berry & Sims PLC); William J. Strickland (McGuire Woods LLP); and Harry P. Trueheart, III (Nixon Peabody LLP).

Post #385 – Thursday, March 26, 2009
Know When Your Time Is Up

Further to my Post #383 (Involving The Firm Leader In Selecting A Successor), I received a note from a buddy at Egon Zehnder directing me to some comments made by Frank Brown, the dean of premier business school Insead, which has campuses in Singapore and France.

According to Brown (an accountant by training and formerly with PwC), When you look at the credit crisis and some of the colossal failures such as Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, you'll find that in each case the CEO was in place for many years, in some cases more than 20 years.  That creates a situation where the CEO surrounds himself with people who will listen, as opposed to challenge, with people who will probably be about his age or older, and therefore not capable of succeeding him.

Times change and you need the injection of new ideas. The same formula is not going to work over and over again.  To reduce the number of long-in- the-tooth CEOs and encourage succession management, he is a keen advocate of bringing back into vogue 'servant leadership', an approach developed by the late Robert Greenleaf, an executive with AT&T.  Mr Greenleaf's 1970 paper on the topic became a seminal piece of research and was taken up by management gurus such as Stephen Covey, Peter Block, Peter Senge and Margaret Wheatley.  Mr Greenleaf wrote in his essay that servant leaders have a desire to serve first.

Post #384 – Thursday, March 26, 2009
More Bad-News Trends Worth Noting

Sometimes it’s necessary to prepare for the worst and pray for the best.  This is one of those times.  Here are a couple of trends worth noting:

• A brand new research study conducted by Archstone Consulting revealed that 57% of the companies have not yet identified sufficient savings opportunities to meet the cost reduction targets necessitated by the dramatic economic decline in 2009.  The survey found that in 2009, companies are turning increasingly to the use of more complex initiatives, such as logistics redesign (+11%), shared services (+9%) and asset rationalization (+9%), in order to realize their cost savings goals this year.

Since earlier this year, I’ve been telling clients that my corporate experience suggests that companies will have prepared three budgets for 2009 – their best case, the most realistic case and their worst case.  Get ready for many of these companies to begin the switch to their worst case scenarios in the next few weeks as they see the results from the first quarter.

• Alarms ring as European M&A plunges!   There has been a stark warning of what to expect in 2009 after the Q1 M&A tables from Mergermarket showed that deal activity has entered freefall across Europe. According to provisional figures, the first quarter of 2009 has seen 487 deals valued at $88.7bn.  This represents a hefty 61% decrease on the last quarter in 2008.  AND, when compared to Q1 2008, this quarter is down by 70% in value terms ($225.2bn) and by 69% in volume terms (1,544 deals).
These findings come ahead of the Q1 2008 M&A legal adviser table, due in the next two weeks. The substantial drop in activity will not make pleasant reading for many law firms, which are expected to take a major hit as the recession tightens.

• In a startling speech earlier this week China went on public record to propose a sweeping overhaul of the global monetary system, outlining how the U. S. dollar could eventually be replaced as the world's main reserve currency by the IMF's Special Drawing Right.  Mr. Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of the People's Bank of China, diplomatically did not refer explicitly to the U. S. dollar.  But his speech spelled out Beijing's dissatisfaction with the primacy of the U. S. currency, which Mr. Zhou says has led to increasingly frequent global financial crises.

We had all better pray that Obama’s multi-trillion dollar rescue plans start to show some measurable results and soon. China is the largest holder of U.S. dollars -- approximately $2 trillion.  If China should decide to dump it’s holdings, we are in big trouble.

• With the commercial space vacated by defunct financial firms and an array of troubled businesses, from restaurants to architectural firms, to high tech operations, to offset printers, etc., the inescapable result (that I predicted in my alert last year ‘Managing Through A Prolonged Downturn” and only now being discussed in the business media) is a commercial real estate bust that will be costlier, wreak greater havoc and prove more intractable than the residential market decline.

When commercial real estate crashes, the depressive atmosphere of vacant floors and empty cubicles will dampen the workday spirit of the still-employed; ever present reminders of laid-off friends and colleagues and of the fragility of employment.  Abandoned, untended business and industrial parks will highlight the already mournful scene.

• From a former BigLaw managing partner and extraordinarily astute observer of the profession, Edwin Reeser, comes this prognosis:

The big question that will be asked at the end of this month . . . “now that we have made all these cuts, how do we look for year end income projections, assuming nothing changes?"

The answer is likely to be very somber for a lot of firms.  Net operating revenues are likely to be down in serious double digits for most firms in 2009 from 2008, notwithstanding all of the hard steps taken.  Confronted with that reality, (and the "insider" partners are going to have a direct line to the management committee that is sitting on those constantly updated projections), there is going to be a palpable tension over who is going to stay and ride it out and who is going to be among the first to go.  Internal policies over return of departing partner capital will be one of the primary hooks that holds people in.  If the reduction in income over loss from return of capital is out of balance such as to favor departure - the house of cards comes down, and fast.

Do NOT expect the mass layoffs to continue in the second quarter.  The second quarter will be a) voluntary departures and moves by solos and small groups taking clients with them.  And b) involuntary partner de-equitizations and expulsions / terminations.

Do NOT expect significant mergers.  The political will is not likely to be there to draw upon for the partner votes needed to make them happen, (partners will be concerned about rounds of partner level cuts) and the aversion to taking on debt, fixed overhead and liabilities is not likely to be there.

There will be collapses and failures of firms increasing in the third and fourth quarters as numbers of lawyers make the decision that there is no way to work their way out of the hole the enterprise is in.  The experience of Thelen, Heller, Thacher and Wolf will be repeated more times than we care to imagine right now.

Post #383 - Friday, March 13, 2009
Involving The Firm Leader In Selecting A Successor

A partner, on the executive committee, at an AmLaw 200 firm (which should remain confidential) posed the following question:

Our managing partner has confirmed that he will be stepping down at the conclusion (in June) of his current term.  He is now recommending to the executive committee that it would be expedient for him to select his successor.  He informs us that that is a common and expected practice within the business community (e.g. Jack Welch at GE) and that there are a number of larger AmLaw firms where it is the accepted practice.  From your work with managing partners, what is your experience?

My response:

Firm chairs and managing partners can play a very critical role in identifying and developing leadership talent within their firms – most specifically those ready to head up offices, practice groups and industry teams.  But in my experience there are a number of reasons why I would caution you about having your current firm leader choose his successor.

Your next managing partner needs a clean break.  If that professional feels in any way that they owe their position or are obligated in any way to their predecessor, the predecessor’s influence could constrain that new leader from making any needed changes.

Old leaders tire and especially if they have held the office for some prolonged period of time.  The initial fire-in-the-belly for improvement, change and innovation may (not surprisingly) have cooled somewhat with each passing year.  (In fact, there is empirical evidence to show that it does cool and eventually affects the performance of the organization).  Sometimes a long-serving leader can become more focused on preserving what they feel they have accomplished than with positioning the firm for the future.  Either way, a once high-spirited change agent can become a foot-dragging defender of the status quo.

Finally, times change, opportunities change, our economy changes (and not for the best) and law firms regularly need new perspectives.  If the same personality, sensibility and approach that made your firm what it is today, gets to decide who will lead the firm tomorrow, there will be a very natural human tendency to choose a clone . . . and then tell me please, where will the new ideas come from?

Now, given all of the ink spilled in business articles about how the job of a corporate leader is to choose and develop their successor – this may be a controversial subject.  So, what do you think?

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