Most law firms have great difficulty implementing change or enforcing any form of rules or discipline among their partners.  Even trying to get lawyers to get their time in and their bills out is a battle that management frequently loses.  In fact, the problem is often as much with a firm’s leadership as it is with its partners.  Many managing partners feel they do not have the authority to exercise control over their lawyers, and those that are empowered are often too timid to exercise their authority.  The result is that, in firms where leaders can’t or won’t manage, it seems silly to talk about complex strategies, active practice group management or any other sophisticated management issue.

In reality, comparing law firm managing partners with corporate management models may not be reasonable.  The better analogy might be with head coaches of professional sports teams.  Picture the Miami Heat’s Pat Riley attempting to manage a team with LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade and nine other insanely high paid, immature egotists whose entire motivational construct is based on their personal performance and endorsement brand.  Riley has no effective control over his players’ compensation, can’t fire them and really has no way to enforce discipline (try benching a big name player when fans are paying north of $200 a seat per game to see him play).  Yet, he is somehow able to get his players to function as a team, share the ball, go in and out of the game when he tells them to and even run the plays he wants.  I know law firm managing partners who can’t get their lawyers to do stuff like that without using a whip and a chair.

I have no idea of what the secret sauce is that allows professional sports team to be managed but I think there are some lessons to be learned:

  • A no-cut contract.  Coaches can be fired but it takes a chunk of money to do it.  Perhaps giving managing partners ever-green contracts so they always have a couple of years pay coming would provide the job security that would combat the timidity that is rampant among law firm leaders.
  • Authority.  Coaches’ authority — what they can and can’t do — is spelled out precisely by their contract and the league rules.  Coaches work to gain the confidence of the players and understand the risk tolerance of the owners.  But during a game, coaches don’t go around trying to build consensus on who should take the last shot when there are two seconds left on the clock.  They make the decision and live with the consequences.
  • Take money out of the equation.  Law firms equate compensation with management as if every partner had the mindset of an aluminum siding salesman.  Law firm partners are sufficiently highly paid that management can’t come up with enough cash to make an impact on partners’ lives (“Oh, goody, and with my bonus I can finally upgrade from an E class to an S class Mercedes.”).
  • Understand motivation.   Partners in large law firms, like top pro athletes, are sufficiently high on Maslow’s hierarchy that their only unfulfilled needs involve self-actualization.  As Steelers Coach Chuck Noll said, “You motivate players with the idea of getting a Super Bowl ring until they win one.  Then you motivate with getting into the Hall of Fame.”
  • Exhibit passion.  Coaches yell and punch lockers when they need to fire up a team.  They get an inch away from a player’s face and speak very quietly when they need an individual to do something important.  The approach is measured to the person and the situation.  Management is all about getting people to do what they don’t want to do on their own.  If they did it on their own, you wouldn’t need managers or coaches.

The only problem with all of this is that, if managing partners act like pro coaches, when they do a good job, their partners may dump a bucket of Gatorade on them.