It comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever worked for or with a law firm that taking action to implement any form of decision or plan can be a major problem.  Whether it involves a sophisticated strategy or enforcing the most routine practice requirements, some law firms seem to have a tough time actually getting things done.  There are all sorts of culprits to be blamed: failure to achieve partner buy-in, cultural constraints, or a partner compensation system that works in cross-purposes with the objectives of the firm.  But when we look at law firms that are successful in pulling the pin on actions necessary to move forward, there is one consistent element – leadership.  It is not that the successful firms necessarily have better leaders; rather, they have leaders who are willing to take action.  Indeed, for many firms the real implementation problem is not what leaders do, it is what they fail to do.  Simply stated, many leaders at all levels of law firms are too timid to take action and, while the meek may inherit the earth, they aren’t much good for running law firms.

This problem recently dawned on me while working with a firm that had a new management committee elected specifically to solve some partner performance problems.  These weren’t major issues.  They were the basic “blocking and tackling” of the business of practicing law: standards for the acceptance of clients and engagements, getting time reported promptly and sending bills out on schedule – stuff like that.  But rather than use their mandate to drive through changes, the committee timidly set up study committees and partner focus groups to “raise awareness of the problems.”  How much more awareness is needed?  The partners had thrown out the old set of rascals and elected a new committee – they are plenty aware of the problems.

At issue is, for many law firm leaders, a lack of confidence that borders on timidity — lawyers who are aggressive in representing their clients but become unnerved when dealing with firm matters.

Why won’t leaders lead?
I think there are a wide variety of individual and institutional reasons why law firm leaders are so passive in managing their firms’ affairs.  But it usually boils down to one simple notion:  everyone in the firm views a law firm leader in the same manner as they view the president of a country club or a religious congregation.  Leaders are considered to be volunteers who have no special attributes except a willingness to accept the job.  Indeed, even the leaders themselves view their position as being voluntary and often feel it would be somehow presumptuous to exercise any real authority or independent action.

Traditional wisdom tells us that firms need a better process for selecting and grooming partners who display leadership potential.  But, in most firms, large pools of partners are not vying for management positions and it is rare that firms have a real competition for management service.  Even at the most basic leadership positions, the title of practice group leader may be bestowed on the partner with the largest portfolio of business or given to the partner with the lowest billable hours on the theory that if the lawyer can’t find anything more worthwhile to do, he or she may as well manage.  Most often, though, law firm management positions at all levels go to the partner who is willing to step forward and take the job: the person who volunteers.
There are two strikes against the leader who is viewed as just a volunteer.  The first is a lack of accountability.  If a partner performs management functions poorly or, more likely, fails to perform those functions in more than a cursory manner, little can be done because in the view of the partnership the person is just a volunteer.  And, more likely than not, there is no one waiting in the wings to take the ineffective manager’s place.
Second, there must be an assumption of authority.  That is, the partners and the leaders themselves must assume that a level of authority comes with and is expected of a leadership position.  Some leaders (either through charisma or chutzpah) plot direction, make decisions and incite action.  But, unfortunately, most law firm leaders presume that some form of Dillon’s Rule is in place which prohibits them from taking any action except by the ongoing consensus of the partnership.

If a leader lacks the confidence to take action, the result is that there is no one else to do the job (short of a revolution).  And the same lack of confidence that affects elected leaders is present in those who are not elected and the revolution rarely gets past covert conversations in the halls.

Creating Leadership
Getting leaders to overcome a lack of confidence in their own authority is harder to accomplish than it is to get partners to accept the actions of leadership.  But by experience we have observed that there are three rules that, if followed, go a long way toward making leaders successful.

1.  Create ground rules.  This requires that the leader have a general vision of what he or she is attempting to accomplish, and the actions which must occur in pursuit of the vision.  Most importantly, the leader must announce what actions he or she intends to take to accomplish the vision.  For law firms with a history of false starts and lavish program roll-outs, this may be viewed by the partners as something along the lines of a “flavor of the month,” but it is a necessary shot across the bow that provides the credibility to take action.

For example, we recently worked with a firm that was attempting to develop strong service teams around their key clients.  It was felt that this required a level of mutual dependence among partners working with the client and, in order to build that dependence, everyone had to sign on for a minimum standard of performance (sort of the Jim Collins Good to Great philosophy).  At a partnership meeting, the managing partner announced that in order for this to occur, the firm would have to create a culture of accountability.  The first step would be to enforce the most basic rules that were already in place, including items that had long been ignored, like the daily submission of time, prompt generation of bills and a standard of cordiality and respect for associates and staff.   The managing partner announced several expectations that were the basic minimum requirements of being a partner and said that he would take whatever action was necessary for their enforcement on a zero tolerance basis.

2.  Take transparent actions.  Here’s the hard part.  It is, of course, necessary to actually take the actions that have been announced.  Even more important than the actions themselves is making sure that the partners are aware that the actions have actually been taken.  This is not a time to be humble.  Demonstrating to the cynics that stuff is really happening is a powerful tool in building a law firm capable of implementation.  On an ongoing basis, leaders should contemporaneously announce (probably by email) actions taken.  The concept is to attempt to assure that the partners hear of the action from the leaders before the offenders start voicing their complaints.

In the example above, the managing partner personally visited each partner who violated firm standards and liberally took disciplinary action including the firing of several associates and, eventually, the departure of a partner.  On that same day, he sent an email out to all lawyers announcing the actions he had taken and would continue to take.  He continued the reports weekly.

3.  Celebrate successes.  Perhaps the most important aspect of implementation is publicly announcing accomplishments.  This has a number of effects including validating the leader’s authority in the eyes of the partnership, providing the leader with positive feedback justifying the risk of having taken action and demonstrating for the entire partnership that the firm can effectively implement and follow through on action plans.  In our example, the managing partner held a champagne lunch when the firm went a week with perfect daily time submission (it took almost 7 months to occur).

The point is that a successful law firm (by whatever definition one applies to success) is a function of action as opposed to inaction.  The worst consequence for a leader or leadership group that is viewed as having overstepped its bounds is that they might get fired.  And that would mean they can return to their practice, will probably have more fun and time with their family and might make more money as a fully practicing lawyer.  The best case scenarios are leaders basking in peer admiration and the pride they can take in their contribution to the success of the firm.