by Joel A. Rose

While the function of management can be stated with particularity, the exact skills, tools, techniques, methods and approaches used to fulfill the function cannot.

The culture and personality of each firm, and the personality and style of firm management varies from firm to firm.  Nevertheless, general observations are possible, and constants do exist.  Identifiable areas of responsibility can be defined, and tools essential for management’s success can be developed and implemented.

The degree to which management is centralized also varies from firm to firm; from a restricted role, to a very expansive role.  In smaller firms the role of management is usually as much related to management’s ability and desire to be involved as it is in any objective job description agreed to or promulgated by the firm  The larger a firm becomes, generally speaking, the more structured and defined its management becomes, both in terms of management and authority.

Determining Management Skills

The first management skill is identifying what needs to be managed.  The degree to which decision-making should or can be delegated is a second skill.  Decision making itself, including adequate or necessary input and involvement, is a third skill.  Communication of sufficient information is essential to a cohesive firm.  Partners, associates and staff members should feel involved, and their opinion heard and considered.  Accordingly, some form of astute managerial editing or information filtering “skill” is necessary.  Distilling useful and important information is a skill.  Useful information should be communicated.  Useless, cumulative, divisive or information without purpose, should not be communicated.  Lastly, skill is necessary to assure creation of firm objectives and the channeling of lawyers’ attention towards the implementation of goals.

Traditional Management

Traditional management approaches have emphasized this year’s productivity and this year’s profitability.  Traditional approaches and skills, accordingly, focus management’s efforts on this year’s bottom line.  Traditional management skills focus on concrete, and sometimes creative ways to:  (1) create leverage, (2) raise billing rate, (3) create more billable hours, (4) reduce expenses, and (5) make operations more efficient and therefore more economical.

Nevertheless, next year inevitably arrives.  Most firms aspire to, or hold themselves out to be a professional organization and not mere mechanics, efficient at producing hours times rate.  Management should foster and create an environment in which lawyers understand that times change.  Challenges must be met today, but also tomorrow.

Lawyer management should instill or help create a collective feeling and reality that, what is good for the firm, is good for each individual lawyer, today, and more importantly, tomorrow.  While compatibility and profitability is important this year, and every year, tomorrow comes.  Planning and thought must be given to mid- and long-term objectives.  Identifying directions in which the firm should grow, and channeling, directing and focusing the firm in such direction is a critical management skill.

Develop a Proper Culture

In addition to traditional approaches to management, in order to create and maintain a durable firm, management must skillfully create and maintain a firm culture and atmosphere which includes: (1) shared goals, (2) common values, (3) client service, (4) service to the community, (5) service to the bar, (6) loyalty, (7) tolerance of diversity, (8) decision-making in which input is received and welcomed, but decisions are made in a prompt and expeditious manner without undue time, deliberation or frustration.

No skills or exact set of rules, no certain set of tools, no blueprint, no matter how often revised, can be followed which will result in the attainment of the foregoing objectives.  A cohesive, long-lasting firm which focuses not only on today’s profitability, but on tomorrow’s prosperity requires more than the skill of management.  The creation of a desirable atmosphere in which to practice and capacity to provide client service in all areas in which a firm practices involves setting of objectives, common effort, different talents in different areas of expertise, and indeed, luck.  Nevertheless, an outline or framework of systems and tools which assist in the evolution of such a firm can be identified.  Some are mechanical, concrete and simple to implement. Others are ephemeral, subjective and more creative to achieve.  The exact means, methods and techniques of inducing or creating an environment cannot be stated with particularity.

Areas of management responsibility, to some degree, define skills necessary to manage them.  Each area of management involves delegation and communication.  It is essential to identify that which needs management with particularity, and then develop a system to manage each area.  If the system does not satisfactorily address a problem, management must.

The essential skill involved is defining minimum effective management in each area that needs to be managed, creating and implementing it, and not doing more.  Management should cause the partners to periodically examine and agree on the mid- to long-range goals for the firm, and affirm goals in a participatory way.

There are, however, several additional skills that should be developed to the fullest extent possible, such as effective delegation/retention of decision-making and consensus building/ dispute avoidance.

Another skill that must be honed is the ability to know when problems should be dealt with.

Anticipation is obvious.  Postpone that which is not critical, but might become so due to an unnecessary and premature decision.

Some questions need time to digest or indigestion occurs.  Other “problems” resolve themselves given a little time, such as issues about which there has been too much or too little discussion and annual events in need of decisions.

Questions of who needs to be involved in a decision and why, for example, also come up frequently.  The solution is simply to involve the people in question and make the decision.  Many problems can also be avoided by dealing with them early.

Managing partners should avoid make-work, taking sides and “take it or leave it” decisions.  They should instead channel discussions and deliberations in a productive way, taking cues from how comparable firms deal with the same subject.

Do not avoid the negative and fail to account for its seriousness.  Nevertheless, develop a positive, optimistic outlook and diagnose trouble before it occurs, so you can attempt to head it off.

As for budgetary issues, most budget items cannot be solved by cutting expenses.  People constitute the greatest expense in a law firm; they also represent the greatest opportunity to increase income.  Focus on ways of increasing revenue if your expenses are in line.  Management must also maintain perspective and assure that others do the same, determining priorities and channeling thoughts and efforts in that direction.

Meetings and retreats should be used on focus and channel attention on issues all lawyers need to buy into or adopt and management partners should know when to call on both inside and outside resources and how to use them effectively.

©1999-2015 Joel A. Rose & Associates