Leadership and Management

John Kotter, author of A Sense Of Urgency and a professor at Harvard Business School. He is considered by many to be an authority on leadership and change.  Those words are not spoken often in the context of the business of law, so it is not surprising that Kotter’s recent interview on the topic of leadership and change is in Inc. rather than a legal publication. But as a believer that what is good for business is good for legal business too, I wanted to draw attention to Kotter’s discussion of urgency.

From the introduction to the interview:

Kotter believes there are two kinds of urgency — and, like cholesterol, one is good and one is bad. The good kind is characterized by constant scrutiny of external promise and peril. It involves relentless focus on doing only those things that move the business forward in the marketplace and on doing them right now, if not sooner. The bad kind — to which many companies have recently succumbed — is panic driven and characterized by breathless activity that winds up producing nothing demonstrably new.

Kotter advises leaders to stamp out the bad urgency, which demoralizes and drains people, and use the — dare we say it? — opportunity of the economic crisis to remake their organizations with a lean and hungry look. And he encourages them to sustain that newfound urgency even when flush times return.

Kotter does not believe that actions of most business since the recession hit are positive:

Many companies probably think they’re responding with urgency, and there are certainly a lot of people running around trying to come up with solutions. But most of that activity is going to be ineffectual, because it is driven by a fear of losing. It’s not that gut-level determination to win and to make absolutely sure that they do something every single day to keep pushing that goal forward. That’s true urgency.

The "frenetic activity" that seems to abound in large law firms these days (at the management level alas) is a sign of "false urgency."  With "true urgency," one expects to see change.

It is a most interesting interview, including Kotter’s explanation for why, if the Klingons were attacking, he’d want Kirk in command, not Spock.  My take from it is that Kotter would not applaud the "leadership" coming from most law firms these days.


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I met Gini Dietrich on Twitter.  Gini is the CEO of Arment Dietrich, a public relations firm in Chicago.  Gini also is the primary author of the blog The Fight Against Destructive Spin.  In a recent post, Gini, an avid cyclist, recounted how she had been riding along with fellow cyclists talking about the Bears.  In the blink of an eye, she wiped out and was sliding along the bike path at 22 mph.  Thankfully, Gini is doing okay, but her experience led her to write a captivating post, Business Succession Plan: What Happens In An Emergency?  It is must reading for anyone running a business.

Succession planning is not the point I want to make here.  "What happens if …?" planning is my point.  I think it is fair to say that no (does anyone know an exception?) BigLaw leader ever did any planning for a major recession.  They have been reacting to events in many cases.  Others have simply mimicked those who took action first.  But how many have learned a lesson and done planning for, say, a major further downturn, or a permanent change in how most clients expect a fee arrangement to be structured. 

There are hundreds of "what ifs" that could be considered.  With many, the conclusion will be that if "it" happens, the effect on your business will be negligible or that some modest change will take care of the issue.  But certain "ifs" will reveal themselves to be challenges to the core of your business, threatening the survival of the business or institution.  Aren’t these things worth some thought?  Since we now know that the most unlikely events are possible and that change is certain, I think the amount of thought that should be devoted to these possibilities is more than some. 

I hope people learn from their mistakes.  I would be interested if anyone knows someone who can be help up as an example of this.


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I think the world of Dan Hull.  Smart, opinionated, tough-as-nails, erudite.  Great writer. Funny as hell. Plus we share an unwavering commitment to providing unsurpassed client service.  We don’t see eye to eye on everything, though.  Dan still believes in the billable hour.  I have devoted my life to proving it the bane of the legal universe.

Another issue on which we disagree is work life balance.  I read Dan’s two recent posts, Work Life Balance Is Still A Dumb-ass Issue and Breaking news: I will name my next three children after Jack Welch and three thoughts immediately came to mind.  Dan believes there is an inherent conflict between being in a service profession and having a life outside that profession.

Let me start with a point of agreement.  Ours is a service profession.  To excel and succeed, we must be devoted to our clients and their needs.  The relevant numbers for measuring devotion are 24/7/365, not 9 to 5. I am sure there is no light between my position on this and Dan’s.

But Dan’s writings on this suggest that work-life balance cannot be reconciled with 24/7/365.  Here are the thoughts that come to my mind: Hobson’s choice v. Kobayashi Maru.  A Hobson’s choice “is a free choice in which only one option is offered, and one may refuse to take that option. The choice is therefore between taking the option or not; take it or leave it.”  I do not see the choice as a take it or leave it, one or the other.

I have been at a ballgame with my kids and had to respond to urgent emails from clients or step to a quiet area for a phone call.  I happily do so and my kids seem not to notice my momentary disengagement.  On occasion, I have had to work late to get something done to meet client’s deadline.  I do so and neither my family nor I resent the need to do so.  But when client needs do not require my immediate attention, I have left work early to watch kid activities or see a school concert.  I am leaving on vacation shortly and while I will be reachable for important calls, the substantial bulk of my time will be spent with my family.  If those “balances” are good enough for me, they are good enough for all of my colleagues.  One can have both work life balance and be a true professional fully devoted to one’s clients.

The Kobayashi Maru reference?  The Kobayashi Maru is a vessel at the heart of a simulation in the Star Trek series.  It presents the young officer with a no-win scenario.

James T. Kirk takes the test three times while at Starfleet Academy. Prior to his third attempt, Kirk surreptitiously reprograms the simulator so that it is possible to rescue the freighter. This fact finally comes out, later in the movie, as Kirk, Saavik and others appear marooned, near death. Saavik’s response is, “Then you never faced that situation. Faced death.” Kirk replies, “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.” Despite having cheated, Kirk was awarded a commendation for “original thinking.”

I may not ever receive a commendation for original thinking, and I most certainly am no James T. Kirk, but I’m not too keen on no-win scenarios either.  The client commitment v. work life balance conflict can most certainly be a win-win for all.

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A July 14 post on Chicago Law announced that Joe Collins had resigned from Mayer Brown following his recent conviction in the Refco fraud debacle.  That was hardly newsworthy: Collins had been on leave since 2007.
Here’s the quote that caught my attention: "The story also says few other lawyers at Mayer Brown knew much about Collins’ practice because of the firm’s eat-what-you-kill compensation system."
Think about that.  A client hires a giant international law firm, and it gets the brainpower of one guy.  But the real secret is how common that outcome is when the firms employ an "eat-what-you-kill compensation system."  After all, why should any of Collins’ fellow senior partners spent their time on his matters when doing so benefited him at their own expense.  While there are exceptions to every rule, the inescapable fact is that money creates incentives for certain behaviors, and in an eat-what-you-kill system, collaboration is not a behavior that encouraged.  So it doesn’t happen.
If you’re a client, think about whether you are better off if the senior, experienced people in a firm work collaboratively for your benefit.  To me, it’s a no-brainer.
It’s enough of a no-brainer, that when we created Valorem, the partners agreed that we would be compensated equally.  We rise and we fall together.  We did that because we have our skin in the game with our clients.  This system creates financial benefits from collaboration–for each of us.  And we never have to wonder whether a partner is doing something for his or her own benefit.

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Altman Weil has released the results of its 2009 Chief Legal Officer Survey.  To my mind, the most telling result is this:

The survey asked Chief Legal Officers (CLOs) to rate how much pressure corporations are putting on law firms to change the value proposition in legal service delivery, as opposed to simply cutting costs. CLOs responded across the board, with 25% rating the pressure as high – or between 8 and 10 on a zero to 10 scale; 37% rating the pressure in the mid-range at 5, 6 or 7; and 38% rating it low, between zero and 4.

However, when asked how serious law firms are about changing their delivery model, the answers were in sharp contrast. Only 5% of CLOs assessed law firms as highly serious, scoring them between 8 and 10. Twenty percent gave firms credit for some level of effort, rating them 5, 6 or 7. A full 75% rated law firms between zero and 4 on the scale, indicating little or no interest in change.

Wait, did I read that right?  "A full 75% of the CLOs rated law firms between zero and 4 on the scale, indicating little or no interest in change."  How is that possible?  CLO’s put maximum pressure on their law firms and law firms don’t respond.  NEWS FLASH to law firms not responding: IT’S TIME TO WAKE UP!


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"Designing a nuclear powered aircraft carrier is a mindbendingly complex process."  I love that sentence–if only because of its understatement (and the use of "mindbendingly").  It is from a fascinating article at FastCompany.com, How Does The Navy Design The Nuclear Supercarrier Of The Future?  The answer, of course, is that one designs nuclear supercarriers with the help of virtual reality simulations.  It is crystal clear how this relates to the practice of law, right?

Not so clear?  Let me explain.

With every technological advancement, opportunities arise.  The article on supercarrier design discusses the change from the use of full-scale wooden models when the ships were last designed (a generation ago).  Wood models vs. virtual reality.  Change happens.  Sometimes its really big change.

When change happens in the real world, the legal world eventually catches up.  Can you imagine filing a brief that allows a judge to see in virtual reality what happened in the event at issue?  Can you imagine the ability to bring the parties together on the facts when you can see what transpired?  Maybe less lawsuits or quicker resolution.  Articles like the FastCompany supercarrier article have to be viewed as keys to unlock our imagination. 

Close your eyes.  Imagine.


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