Leadership and Management

One of the explanations often offered by managing partners to explain why lawyers (really, their organizations) are so slow to change is lawyers’ well-establish aversion to risk.  Change involves risk, to be sure, though the assumption implicit in the statement–that the status quo does not involve risk–is demonstrably untrue.  That debate, however, can be had

My friend Ed Reeser has written extensively, in blogs, Legal On Ramp posts and articles, on leadership issues in law school.  If you know Ed, you know that he is the kind of person who leads from the front and he is the kind of leader you love to follow wherever he goes.  So when he writes about leadership, I read very closely.   His latest piece, The Lost Art Of Leadership, published in today’s Los Angeles Daily Journal, is worth a careful read.

Ed begins with one of my favorite Peter Drucker quotes, "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things."  The gist of Ed’s argument is that law firm leaders have failed this essential test of leadership; they have lost touch with the people that make up the firm, and in so doing have brought the firm to its knees.  People are the real key, and they are being sacrificed in the name of expediency.  According to Ed:

Partners in leadership positions are increasingly not leaders, but those with enough power to demand positions and allocate to themselves, and their friends, increasing shares of money and other rewards.  The confusion of the position of leader, with the fulfillment of the role of  a leader, has never been more apparent.  The short-term approach of present day law firm management appears to have more in common with a smash and grab visit to a Tiffany’s counter than exercise of fiduciary concern for one’s partners or a long-term responsibility for colleagues’ careers.

Harsh, to be sure, but true?  This is an area where there is no "right" answer and no data to suggest an answer.  But let me share this anecdote.  I just returned from lunch with two of the leading and most respected law firm consultants in the world.  I assumed their business was booming because certainly in these trying times, leaders would be looking for insights and a sounding board to discuss new ideas and approaches to bring their firms back to economic rightness.  Nope, not happening.  I suppose its possible that firms really are seeking insights and fresh ideas, but have simply gone to other consultants.  Not likely though. Instead of saving careers and being a true leader, isn’t it much easier to eliminate a few jobs and cut back on coffee?

At the end of the day, it is, perhaps, too much to expect that most people running law firms would act as true leaders.  Real leadership, after all, is really one of the rarest traits.  That is why we so marvel at it when we see it.


Continue Reading The Leadership Gap

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.


Continue Reading Urgency Borne of Panic Is Not Healthy

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.


Continue Reading “What happens if ….?”

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.

Continue Reading Work Life Balance and the Kobayashi Maru

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.

Continue Reading BigLaw Partner Compensation Systems Hurt Clients