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When outsiders consider the legal profession, one thing they find consistently puzzling is why lawyers — generally regarded as smart, analytical and driven — have such a hard time learning how to manage their associates, employees and law firms effectively. For the average attorney, it starts early, in law school. But it isn’t just that too few law schools put any emphasis on the teaching of law office management. It runs deeper than that. Legal training and experience, by their very nature, condition lawyers to be reactive rather than proactive. And while this can work quite well on the professional side, a reactive approach to management issues is too often a recipe for disaster. Consider how lawyers are trained. The reigning educational paradigm in most law schools is the Socratic method. Trembling first-years sit quietly in anticipation of being called on by today’s version of Professor Kingsfield. The professor presents a problem or a case, and the student responds. No matter what answer he gives, he may be cross-examined and/or humiliated, depending on the course and his inflictor. Most students quickly learn that it’s best to keep your head down to avoid having it strafed by some overzealous professor. Class participation is unavoidable, of course, and over time, the student develops the ability to think quickly and calmly on his or her feet. By the third year, the student takes pride in his or her ability to parry with the professor, but the professor always instigates the clashes and sets the terms. The soon-to-be lawyer is now an expert at answering the professor, not taking the initiative. This reactive approach to the world continues on into the lawyer’s professional career. Lawyers spend much of their time responding to external stimuli — such as judicially imposed deadlines, client requests and whatever mischief opposing counsel may create. For most lawyers, daily life consists of going to the office, checking the calendar and the to-do list, and reacting to both. The same is true in legal marketing. Lawyers often wait for their business to come to them, usually through references from friends or colleagues. Indeed, lawyers are ethically prohibited from being too proactive in their marketing efforts. Contacting someone who you know needs legal services is solicitation, and, while lawyer advertising is now legal, it is still highly regulated in most places and generally frowned on by all but a few specific practice specialties. As a result of this training and experience, by the time a typical lawyer reaches a leadership position at a firm, he or she may have spent 15 to 20 years waiting for problems and work to come to him or her. That leaves him short-handed in his management role because he will often lack the planning ability and proactive skills necessary to create an effective management structure. Add in the fact that he is trying to manage a large group of individualistic folks, and the firm can often seem far more unwieldy than it has to be. That’s because all businesses — law firms included — run much better with a proactive hand operating according to a well-thought-out master plan. Devising that overall plan is not easy, but it is necessary. That is why every successful corporation devotes significant resources to the strategic-planning process — as much as one-third of a chief executive officer’s time, by some estimates. Lawyers, however, conditioned by the need to bill and to hit legal tennis balls back over the net, tend to run screaming when anyone says “strategic planning.” For the typical lawyer, it conjures up images of long-winded, touchy-feely sessions that can’t be billed to clients — and another day of papers and phone messages piling up on their desk. But any successful managing partner will admit that a planning and “big picture” perspective is critical to a firm’s optimal performance. They know that because most of them started out treating each management decision as a distinct element, unrelated to the others, much as a litigator regards each of his cases as a separate file. With experience, the good ones eventually realize that decisions are best made from the top down, with the overall vision of the firm forming the umbrella that informs each decision, large or small, that they make. For example, most lawyers eventually have to deal with hiring issues. The most common approach is to evaluate the candidates’ experience, interview them and hire those whom the lawyer “likes.” If it doesn’t work out, as it often doesn’t, they hire more people the same way. Some will work, many will not. The problem with that approach is that it is totally hit or miss, sort of like asserting a client’s affirmative defenses before having even glanced at the facts. Employee turnover is expensive, particularly in small- and medium-sized firms. The costs are often hidden on the basic income statements, but there is no question that low morale, transition costs, training costs and diminished firm reputation all cost money. Smart lawyers eventually learn, however, that the way to avoid turnover is to devote time and energy to putting the right people in the right positions. That means knowing precisely what those positions are and creating written job descriptions; knowing what the firm’s mission and culture is, which takes a dedicated strategic-planning process; and knowing what equipment the firm is supposed to have, which takes a thoughtful technology assessment. It also means designing the firm from the top down, with the answers to the big questions informing the decisions to everything else. This is precisely what major corporations try to do. They devote substantial resources to quantify the cost of turnover and implement steps to correct it. They do it because they know that the money is well spent — an investment that will pay dividends over the long run. Firms of all sizes would do well to emulate them. TAKING THE INITIATIVE But that would take a proactive approach to problems, rather than a reactive one. Given their training and experience, is it possible for lawyers to develop one? Of course. No matter what their training, most lawyers are quick studies and hard workers. Once aware of a problem, most possess the intellect and fortitude to solve it. They just need guidance. Here are some basic considerations: Seek out the answers. Most lawyers are not even aware of the depth of knowledge out there to assist in the creation and implementation of effective management systems. There are many approaches, and not every one is right for every personality or firm culture. Effective leadership and management takes a sustained, conscious attempt to tinker with the management machinery. Choose leader(s) carefully. Many managing partners are major rainmakers, even though bringing in business is not necessarily related to management skill. The innovative firm should consider a selection process based primarily upon leadership ability. Rainmakers are important, but in a sense, they are the firm’s sales force. While sales is crucial in any organization, most corporations reward their salespeople financially rather than move them from a familiar role to an unfamiliar one. They find a leader who can motivate and manage the sales force instead. Compensate firm leader(s) appropriately. Leading a law firm is not an easy task, but some managing partners feel hampered because they necessarily have fewer billable hours than the other partners. The managing partner’s management expertise and talent should be compensated separately from any client development or legal work. With the help of the firm’s financial professionals, the partners should decide what that role is worth and put it into the budget. Corporations pay good money for management talent — law firms should, too. Create an innovative management structure. Law firms often suffer from a flat hierarchy problem; that is, they have a nominal leader who presides over a group of relatively individualistic, unruly peers. Firms should consider giving managing partners more power to run the firm while simultaneously holding the firm leader more accountable for the success or failure of the entire organization. With diffuse power, as in many firms, no one is truly held accountable. Seek out those who can help the firm. There are two advantages in getting advice from outsiders. One is that tapping their expertise leaves the lawyers more free to concentrate on their core function — taking care of the clients and bringing in revenue. Second, experienced outsiders can often see and say things that partners won’t say to each other. But law firm management shouldn’t feel as if they have to rely on out-side consultants only; they can identify those who have experienced success in either the legal or corporate worlds and start a dialogue. Many successful leaders love to talk about it. Tame the mavericks. For a variety of reasons, law firm partnerships have to deal with more than their share of cowboy partners. The only way to address that problem is to actively foster a culture of teamwork, where one lawyer’s need to have two secretaries and write his time down on scraps of paper is subsumed by the firm’s need to maintain economic efficiency and to have him enter his work directly into the computer, just as everyone else does. Impose a strategic focus. This is hard, given the lawyer’s penchant for reacting to events, but it should start with the firm planning session or retreat. Every retreat should be carefully planned and meticulously implemented to get the firm and everyone in it moving in the same direction with the same purpose. The momentum from that retreat should carry forward throughout the year to create the big picture necessary to make and implement good decisions. Basically, if there is one piece of advice that every new managing partner should get, it’s this: Don’t wait for the problems to come to you. By that time, the new leader is already behind the curve. Effective management means taking the time to build a positive vision, to anticipate problems and to create the necessary structures and discipline to foster that vision. By definition, that reduces the need to continually react to negative events. In other words, run the firm. Don’t let it run you.

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