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Law is a people business. While reputation, geography, areas of practice and competition can influence outcome, the most important factors in the success of a midsize law firm are directly related to the abilities of the leaders in the firm. Like attorneys in their first years of practice who face a high learning curve, new leaders need to realize that being good attorneys does not necessarily make them great law firm leaders. They need to acquire new skills, and to leave behind old habits � even ones that were critical to their climb up through the practice of law. While many law firms are centralizing planning and decision-making, most continue to operate as partnerships of some sort, with the leadership team being merely first among equals. In addition to the business leadership skills of understanding financial issues, leading and communicating strategic planning initiatives, determining new markets and creating a variety of functional teams, law firm leaders know they lack the authority that chief executive officers enjoy. Instead, they must continually develop and maintain influence with their partner group. The people who work for them, especially powerful partners, cannot be treated like employees. The leadership skills of wielding influence and building culture become even more essential when it comes to attracting and retaining bright attorneys. According to Shelly Freeman, president of the human resources consultancy HROI LLC, employees want “to be informed by their leaders (and not the media or the grapevine) about the company’s ‘big picture’ visions, strategies and developments. The employees want to know that their individual activities and talents make a difference to the company’s business, and they expect their leaders to be able to articulate how their daily activities fit into the company’s big picture. Employees want accessible leaders who not only talk, but listen too . . . .Open communications must start with senior management and cascade throughout the entire organization.” (Freeman, Shelly, Employee Satisfaction: The Key to a Successful Company, Mondaq Bus. Briefing, September 2003) This is a tall order even for a good lawyer. Realizing that the business of running a law firm is much more complicated than it has been in the past, new leaders are realizing that the sink-or-swim method of leadership development might not be the most constructive approach. While many continue to rely on informal mentoring from other senior leaders in their own firms, some are formalizing their approach and taking on a new perspective through a variety of options. Positions of leadership require new strengths. Very often, the same qualities that helped the attorney rise to a leadership position � such as loyal client relationships, attention to detail, perfectionism and a high degree of knowledge in a specialized area � are the qualities that inhibit leadership. Time management, relationship management and delegation are key leadership attributes. Edward Poll, a management consultant who coaches lawyers, has noted that Lee Iacocca stopped designing cars when he moved into management of Ford Motor Co. and then Chrysler Corp. The coach of a football team does not play on the field. (Edward Poll, “ Making Law Firm Leadership More Effective,” Law Practice Today, April 2007.) A few firms are looking at adopting more of a corporate structure, wherein a leader’s job is not to practice law but to create a firm for great lawyers. It is a huge shift in thinking � and not one being considered at most firms. Altman Weil has reported that 93% of manager-lawyers (including managing partners, chairs and presidents) maintain client contact in addition to their leadership roles. The study, New Survey Examines Law Firm Leadership Roles, Priorities, Compensation, found that the lack of cooperation from their partners and time constraints imposed by the job were their chief complaints. Developing new leaders to take over client relationships and various aspects of running the firm must be a key skill for leaders. John Maxwell, a leadership theorist and coach, often invokes the “law of the lid.” This law assumes that everyone has some ability to lead. Maxwell assigns that ability a value of between one and 10 � one being extremely ineffective and 10 representing the best leaders. He argues that a company or group can at best match, and never surpass, what he calls its leader’s lid number; if the law firm leader’s overall leadership score is a six, people who have more leadership potential than that will leave. Everyone left will be forced to operate at level six or below. In short, the leader’s lid number determines who will stay in the organization. See John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws Of Leadership, Workbook (2002). It is a simple formula. Very busy days filled with firm and client matters allow little time to pay attention to critical leadership matters such as culture and retention. While having no client responsibilities may isolate a leader from the actual work of the firm, having too many will impair his or her effectiveness as a leader. Leaders must choose what they spend their time on in order to create the space in their days to accomplish bigger picture objectives. Benefits of networking Another issue for law firm leaders is isolation of ideas. Many leaders in midsize firms started their careers in the firm they lead. With rapid change in so many areas in the practice of law, leaders need to be exposed to a wider variety of ideas, cultures and innovations to help their firms keep pace. Many law firm leaders are choosing to join networks of other firms across the country or around the world. The obvious benefit of joining such a network is that the firm will gain excellent connections in many other geographic areas. But there are additional benefits. Consultant and author Margaret Wheatley, borrowing Albert Einstein’s expression, argues that “no problem can be solved by the consciousness that created it.” Often, a firm will struggle with a surface issue � say, retention � not realizing that underlying problems � a lack of mentoring or cooperation, for example � are the product of an entrenched culture. Having grown up and thrived in the prevailing culture, they may not be able to see how those cultural practices no longer work to the benefit of the firm. Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World 7 (3d ed. 2006). Joining a network allows leaders in that situation to hear about or ask questions about innovations that worked well elsewhere. They can build personal relationships with other, noncompeting firms and see that their own cultures may need to shift. They can develop peer mentoring relationships with leaders of other firms. MSI Legal & Accounting Network Worldwide (MSI-Network.com), for example, comprises more than 250 law and chartered public accounting member firms in 100 countries. Members generally attend a local or regional meeting once per year, and many choose to attend the annual meeting, which this year is scheduled to take place in Greece. During the network’s Americas meeting in June in Chicago, members talked informally about their firms and heard about the most recent thinking about best practices. For example, the Dallas accounting firm Middleton, Burns & Davis reported that its hours utilization has become 20% more efficient in the year since it created a nontraditional office plan � one that eliminated the traditional corner offices and let teams work together in close proximity. Meetings of most such networks focus on the big picture. Given the busy, day-to-day fire extinguishing that consumes the attention and time of most law firm leaders, the simple opportunity to sit back at one of these gatherings and consider new ideas often brings up space for them to lead when they return. Many law firm leaders are developing a relationship with leadership coaches. Publisher and former lawyer John Cunningham cites leadership coach David Freeman as saying, “People join a firm but they leave a boss.” John Cunningham, “100 Days to Revenue-Focused Leadership,” Prof. Marketing Mag., October 2005, at 25-26. Coaches help leaders focus on the most important priorities facing their firms, rather than the continual distractions of each day. Most often meeting every other week or monthly, they function as the accountability factor for leaders with too much to do. Coaches often help law firm leaders develop a personal vision for themselves and a vision statement to guide the overall firm. Good leadership coaches can diagnose law firm managers’ leadership traits and suggest ways they can play to their strengths; suggest alternative approaches to conflicts that emerge in the law firm; urge a strategic approach to long-term issues; and listen in a nonjudgmental way. In effect, they act as a mirror for leaders to look into and gain understanding of the effect their leadership styles have on their firms. They focus on helping the leader and his or her firm succeed. It is not an opportunity that many working attorneys can take advantage of on the way up. Leadership styles Some coaches use a leadership model to explain concepts. One such model describes six styles of leadership, each of which has different effects and uses. Most effective leaders use a mix of styles and adjust to circumstances. See Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis & Annie McKee, Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence (2004). The visionary leader focuses on getting members of the firm to work together toward a shared vision. He or she shares information and cedes knowledge and power to others. The style works best when a strategic change is being planned or is taking place. This style of leadership usually has a positive impact on law firm culture. The coaching leader works with individuals and teams, to help them see how they connect to the larger vision. He or she tends to be a great delegator and develops a high level of loyalty. This style also tends to build an effective culture. The affiliative leader focuses on harmony and connection in the team. These managers are effective at healing rifts or tensions. The style contributes to a positive work climate. The democratic leader values input and listening. This first-among-equals style works well in law firms but often takes a lot of time. It contributes to a healthy working climate. The pace-setting leader sets exciting goals for people. He or she encourages excellence. Poor performers can rarely keep pace with this style. These leaders are rarely good mentors, but rather expect subordinates to know what to do. This is a style that lawyers often use to move up the ranks, yet it can lead to burnout among the people being led, and may not be the best style for overall firm leadership. The commanding leader clearly directs what is needed. These leaders demand compliance and control. In times of crisis, this style generates fast action and soothes fear. By understanding these different styles, and the situations in which each is most effective, leaders can develop better tools to react to situations in workable ways. Leadership coaches can help law firm managers find a style that works because they have no agenda other than the success of the leaders they are coaching. When rising to a complex new area of law, professionals ought not be left to sink or swim on their own. They deserve access to the resources and expertise that will help them master the subject. When faced with an entirely new challenge of leadership, leaders should realize that they need new skills, knowledge and tools. The future of the firm depends on it. Wendy Nemitz is a principal at Ingenuity Marketing Group in St. Paul, Minn. In addition to practice development, her firm offers leadership development and coaching services. She attended the MSI Legal & Accounting Network Americas meeting that is discussed in the article, but she is not affiliated with the organization. She may be reached at [email protected].

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