By Joel A. Rose

What Partners Expect from their Firm’s Leaders

What kind of person makes a good leader? Generally, lawyers are not recruited to a law firm on the basis of their leadership skills.  Consequently, lawyers' leadership skills are greatly varied.

The requisites for leadership are, in this day and age, well known. The leader must garner respect and support, have clout and wield it when necessary. The leader's skills must combine judgment, timing and vision.

Those partners who are successful leaders must keep the objectives of the firm in proper perspective. They must be able to rise above the "self" and understand that the good of their firms must come first.

One significant problem in many of today's law firms is the paucity of partners who are true firm leaders. There are plenty of partners who are capable of managing, but, in the eyes of the majority of partners, most lack the leadership component.

During the 48 years that I have been retained by partners as a management consultant to assess and make recommendations to improve their firm’s financial position and its management processes, many mid-level and younger partners have referred to certain senior partners as the "heart and soul of their firms.” It is curious that in a great many cases, most of these mid-level and younger partners are hard pressed to identify other members of the firm  who they perceive as  possessing the appropriate leadership component.  Below is a list of what the significant majority of the above mid-level and younger partners said they expect from the leaders of their firms:

• Acknowledged trust in the leader’s motivation, fairness and respect of colleagues:
• Demonstrated willingness to subordinate their personal motivation to the benefit of the firm;
• Can lead with strength when circumstances dictate change;
• An ability to bridge the natural constituent barriers, i.e. age, gender, departmental, to achieve successful results;
• Clear and convincing business acumen and technical skills to assure leadership.
• Leadership…but not dictatorship
• An optimistic, realistic vision of the firm
• Focus on strategic issues rather than day-to-day administrative matters
• Build relationships with each of the partners
• Possess the instinct to know when to consult with and secure support of partners
• Build a consensus on key issues prior to presenting initiatives
• Financial knowledge and good business judgment
• Be decisive…but build consensus
• Listen to all points of view
• Willingness to take prudent risks
• Appreciation of firm culture
• Maintain confidence
• Be accessible
• Always have a few minutes to listen
• Provide recognition and praise
• Communicate with associates and staff

It is my opinion that collaboration is the best way to generate ideas and options for leading the firm. In the more professionally and financially successful firms, much gets done by teams of partners pulling together. The firm, not the leader, becomes the star. The leader serves primarily as the one who articulates/recommends the firm's goals and plans for accomplishing its objectives.

Joel’s hints for effective communications

Communication is essential for collaboration, and the latter  is essential to try to gain proper partner “buy-in” to implement new and innovative initiatives to progress the firm.

To insure that the firm’s leaders have enough time to communicate properly with the attorneys, the managing partner should attempt to delegate as much of the day-to-day administrative work as possible to the firm’s Director of Administration or Office Administrator.  The managing partner should:

  1. Assisted by the management committee, the Heads of each office in multi-office firms and Practice Group heads, recommend goals and objectives for the firm, each Practice Group, office and partner.
  2. Take the time to schedule “warm and fuzzy” lunches with partners in each of the firm’s offices, as appropriate.
  3. Conduct at least annual management retreats attended by members of the management committee, heads of each office, and the heads of each Practice Group to develop and discuss strategies for progressing the firm.
  4. Make partners’ meetings as productive as possible. Circulate proposed agendas before the meeting; discuss critical topics with the more influential partners; ask partners for input about topics/issues to be discussed; broadcast the results of meeting to partners.
  5. Be very careful when attempting to solve problems by e-mail. Even the best solutions to problems may be misinterpreted when they are sent via e-mail. Depending upon the issue to be addressed, it is much better for the managing partner to meet briefly and personally with the partner who has asked the question.
  6. Avoid being chained to your desk. Make the time to walk the halls of your office and make it a point to regularly visit each of the firm’s other offices.
  7. Be mindful of the vocal minority who constantly “revisit” issues because they may not agree with the majority of the partners, thinking that if they belabor the point long enough, the former will wear-down the majority who may be willing to concede to the minority to end the discussion.
  8. Conduct appropriate discussions with the more influential partners about initiatives, strategies and policy issues in advance of the meeting (where the subject will be discussed) will build support for the proposal.
  9. Always obtain critical “buy-in” from the more influential partners before “going out on a limb about certain questionable initiatives.
  10. Never go into a meeting at which a new policy issue will be discussed without discussing these issues with certain partners prior to the meeting so that he or she will not be surprised by the outcome of the discussion.
  11. Pay attention to his or her own personal habits. Every move you make as the Managing Partner will be subject to discussion and interpretation by other partners. That includes how early you arrive at the office; how you relate to attorneys and staff in the hallway; how you allocate your time; whether your time is submitted in a timely manner; how you prepare and conduct yourself at all meetings of partners, associates and staff; how attentive you are to following up on your accounts receivables and write-downs and write-offs; how long it takes for you to respond to partners’ requests; etc.
  12. Attend occasional practice group meetings.
  13. Assisted by the Director of Administration and/or members of the Management Committee, Heads of offices and practice groups and other partners, develop action plans to implement your recommended initiatives before promoting these initiative to the partners.
  14. Establish and announce dates for standing meetings well in advance of the meeting so that partners will enter these dates on their calendars
  15. “360 degree evaluations”
  16. Ask partners for input for Meetings
  17. Circulate meeting agendas at least 48 hours prior to a management committee and partners’ meetings
  18. Circulate copies of the minutes of management committee and partners’ meetings at least 48 hours after management committee and partners’ meetings

Concluding Comments

There are some leadership functions, however, that should be performed by the managing partner or members of the management committee that should not be delegated. There are other management tasks that may be performed by either the committee or the partner, but also may be performed by individual members of the management committee or other lawyers in the firm. These firm leaders should be charged with performing those leadership functions that require their specific talents and energy. In placing responsibility for other tasks, it is important to make certain that they have the time to perform the functions that only they can perform.

In assessing his or her leadership function, the managing partner should realize that today’s attorneys' expectations regarding the practice of law may well be different from the expectations that attorneys held ten years ago and longer. These expectations may have changed in regard to hours of work, specialization, income, risk, independence and ethics.

A firm’s leader needs to consider how the social, educational and economic backgrounds of the new crop of attorneys have changed, and how these changes may be reflected in their attitudes, needs and expectations. Ultimately, these changes will be reflected in the firm's recruiting activities, turnover, work product and fields of specialization.

In the final analysis, it is the work that binds and unifies the various components of the firm - that is, the attorneys. The prudent leader will recognize the need to chart a course that mediates between the requirements of the practice of law and the needs of those who perform the work.

©1999-2014 Joel A. Rose & Associates