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Ten years ago, Frank Burch was running Piper Marbury, a 250-attorney firm with most of its lawyers in Baltimore. Today, he’s running all right, but from coast to coast and country to country as the co-chief executive officer of DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary. The 2,900-attorney firm, like many that have rapidly grown far beyond their original size in recent years, is looking to cultivate leaders among its ranks to help share management duties and to take the helm for the next generation of law firm workers. “We’ve got 6,500 people who depend on us to pay the mortgage, feed the kids and educate the children,” Burch said. “The approaches we used 10 years ago just aren’t going to work.” One way DLA Piper and other firms are meeting those needs is by partnering with top universities to implement management training for their current leaders and younger attorneys who show management promise. Some programs last a day, others longer, but whatever the structure, there is little doubt that most attorneys need the kind of business training that a legal education generally does not provide. “There isn’t a book that anybody has written that’s going to tell us how to do this,” Burch said. But whether a crash course in Management 101 can help turn a lawyer into a leader remains uncertain. Opinionated equity holders, competition within law firms and the personality profile of the typical attorney all work against management efforts, experts say, creating a unique set of challenges in leading today’s law firms. TEAMING UP WITH HARVARD In DLA Piper’s case, it plans to launch a program in October with Harvard Business School, which will take 50 partners from the firm for a five-day management tour. “No cell phones, no BlackBerries,” Burch said. “We’ve told them ‘we own you for 24 hours a day.’” The program, with a curriculum developed by the firm and two Harvard professors, will focus on integrating attorneys into the firm. It also is designed to train the partners to spot leadership potential in younger attorneys, who will participate in the training program the following year, Burch said. Some of the impetus at DLA Piper in starting the program is the vast change the firm has undergone through mergers. Shortly after Piper Rudnick’s merger with 380-attorney Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich last year, the firm announced that it was merging with 1,350-attorney DLA in London. Its transformation is part of a larger trend in the law firm market, which has experienced 170 mergers since 2002, according to Altman Weil, a law firm consultancy. Those mergers, in some cases, have created huge firms that now need bigger and different management structures to support them. Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr plans to start its own management training program this fall, which also pairs the firm with the Harvard Business School. The firm and the school will tailor a curriculum specifically designed to address Wilmer Cutler’s 18 practice areas. Delegation of leadership tasks and strategic planning are two of the areas training will focus on, said William Perlstein, co-chairman of the firm. Also part of the trend is Reed Smith University, which Reed Smith debuted last year. The training pairs the firm with the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. The program comprises five schools, including leadership and business development. In addition, Chicago’s Seyfarth Shaw two years ago began a five-day management program for its partners with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Besides the per-partner cost of these programs, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, the firms also lose the hours their attorneys would otherwise bill. But Michael Pollack, a partner and director of strategic planning at Reed Smith, says that the training is critical to the firm’s future. “It’s not cheap, but we’re growing a lot, and as we grow we need more help,” he said. In 2003, Reed Smith merged with 215-attorney Crosby, Heafey, Roach & May, and this year it opened its first continental European office in Munich, Germany. The advent of these new leadership training programs apparently comes from a void in the education market. Law firms decry a lack of training in law schools as a big reason for starting their own leadership training programs. Most schools do not have law firm management courses, and those that do so usually offer them as electives. Moreover, the courses generally are geared toward solo or small-firm management and focus on setting up practices. Typical corporate management training does not fit the bill for law firms, either, said Perlstein. Business management courses generally focus on employer-employee relations, and leading equity-owning partners, especially those who have come aboard through a merger, takes a finely tuned talent that balances diplomacy and decisiveness. “It is clearly a different set of skills,” Perlstein said. “You need the time and willingness to hear people out but not fall victim to trying to please everyone all the time.” Training lawyers to lead is also complicated by the nature of the profession, which often rewards those who distinguish themselves from the pack and function autonomously rather than work as team players. With lateral moves more common, it may be increasingly difficult to find lawyers who are committed to a firm and can cultivate that commitment with its other lawyers. Burch, with DLA Piper, notes a powerful “centrifugal force” that constantly threatens to pull successful attorneys away from their firms to what they perceive as more fertile ground. With today’s instant access to information about what lawyers earn and who has what business, lawyers can quickly determine their worth at a firm, he said. The challenge, then, is to identify those attorneys loyal to the firm who have leadership potential and to train them to instill that loyalty in younger attorneys. The key, said Burch, is to have a believable, valuable and articulated strategy that both leaders and followers can support. In his firm’s case, the strategy is methodical expansion that mirrors its clients. “We’ve made it clear that we have to be prepared to take risks, not to just accept change, but to make it our friend. We try to make everyone understand that,” he said. A KEY FACET: PERSONALITY But the greatest impediment to developing law firm leaders may be the personality types of lawyers themselves. Hildebrandt International Director Larry Richard, a psychologist with a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, studies the psychology of the attorney and how it affects law firm management. Many of the qualities that make good lawyers are not the same as those that make good leaders, said Richard, whose work identifies six common traits of lawyers. They include: skepticism; high cognitive thinking; urgency or impatience; autonomy; sensitivity or defensiveness; and a lack of sociability. Although his work does not pinpoint which personality traits make for successful leaders, Richard said common characteristics do exist among strong law firm leaders. They tend to be more sociable than the average lawyer, he said, and they usually are less skeptical or distrustful of others. In addition, they have high urgency in their eagerness to reach closure on issues. In other words, they are effective decision-makers. That high skepticism among typical lawyers can make it difficult for law firms and the school they partner with to develop worthwhile training programs, Richard acknowledged. Hildebrandt itself recently began offering a graduate certificate in law firm management. The five-month program, operated through George Washington University, includes on-site and online instruction and counts as credit toward a master’s degree. Any program, he said, should avoid a “talking head” approach and instead include instruction that is interactive, stimulating and relevant to the attorneys’ experiences. “What works for GE won’t work for a law firm,” he said. With any program, Richard said, lawyers can learn and exercise the skills necessary to become good leaders, such as promoting collaborative efforts and recognizing and rewarding achievement. The difference, however, depends upon how comfortable an attorney is with carrying out those skills, he said. Leigh Jones is a reporter with The National Law Journal, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City.

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