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Innovation, Change and Accountability: A Way Forward for Law Firm Leadership

Law firms across the country are facing a crisis in leadership, but many of them don’t know it yet.  Despite all the challenges discussed in Part 1 of this series, many law firms, especially small and mid-sized firms,  are not changing their strategies, in fact, they keep on doing the same old things. leadership governance for law firms

Many law firms are structured where decisions are made based on consensus, and the Managing Partner is tasked with conducting the orchestra--managing the processes, focusing on firm administration and the tasks the firm is working on.  Even though this decision and execution process is clunky, no one seems to be leaving it behind.  According to Re-Envisioning, “Most MPs enjoy the positive aspects of the MP role, but Law firm Managers most important contribution many don’t seem to want accountability or to be responsible for holding others accountable for getting results.”  Tough conversations are not had, problems are not addressed, and necessary changes are not being made because Managing Partners are not empowered to focus on the right things.  David Maister, author of True Professionalism, says, “What worries me most is not that today’s law firm leaders are often imperfect in fulfilling the role, but rather than many of them aren’t even aiming at it.” 

How can law firms change their leadership structure to be more like a business?

As we discussed in Part 1, one of the major recommendations of Re-Envisioning is changing the Managing Partner to a CEO, in name and in function.  This requires the MP to act more as a CEO--focusing on having tough conversations to ensure client service is provided at the highest level, and that results and profits are being made.  One suggestion is that the MP/CEO have a formal job description.  Of the MPs surveyed for Re-Envisioning, 53% indicated that they did not have a formal job description, and an additional 20% indicated that one existed, but that it was not closely followed.  In fact, only 19% of respondents indicated that they had a written job description and that it was followed, and of those 19%, 93% said that they liked having a job description--that it gave them something to “focus on.”  Armed with a title change and a job description, CEO’s are better equipped to move the firm forward in the direction it needs to go.

Other changes that can help re-shape the firm’s culture can be achieved through the Executive Committee.  Hiring a Chief Operating Officer and giving him or her a strong voice on the leadership team can help the firm keep eyes on the prize.  Additionally, Re-Envisioning suggests morphing the Executive committee so “it functions like a CEO’s senior leadership team.” 

To function like a leadership team the executive committee needs to do the following:

  1. Oversee firm-wide strategic priorities
  2. Members would be elected for terms by owners on a staggered basis
  3. But with no term limits for committee members.  If someone is doing a good job in a position, you want them to keep doing a good job in that position.

What kind of firm culture should the executive committee strive for?

Innovation, Change and Accountability are things the Executive Committee should promote in the firm.  The new culture of legal services demands creative thinking, an ability to adapt to shifting circumstances, and a willingness to hold everyone accountable for achieving results.  But what does that mean in practice? Innovationlaw firms culture innovation change as a value will reward creativity and taking risks to find better ways to accomplish things--and looks at everything, all processes and asks “why do we do it this way?” and most importantly, makes changes as needed.  With Change, the firm and its leaders are open to new ideas, conflicting opinions and constructive feedback, always looking for better solutions and embracing changes that improve results and profitability. 

Finally, accountability means the CEO:

  1. Holds himself or herself to high standards and achieving results
  2. Communicates expectations of executive committee members, stakeholders/owners and members of the firm
  3. Identifies the need for change and makes adjustments when necessary
  4. Quickly and firmly addresses problematic partners and underperformers
  5. Build trust in order to enact changes
  6. Emphasize clients first, firm second, individuals third as a guiding principle
  7. Expect others to follow his or her lead and hold others accountable for achieving results and performing at a high level

It’s clear that there is plenty of work to do in law firm leadership.  To achieve the objectives of re-orienting law firm leadership to a CEO structure, and to encourage the adoption of innovation, change and accountability as firm-wide principles, law firm leadership needs to set priorities. The survey results that Re-Envisioning was based on indicate that the top 3 contributions that leaders should focus on were Strategic objectives, being a Change agent, and making the tough decisions and holding people accountable.  These objectives can help law firm leaders make the changes in their firms that need to be made.

These recommendations may seem daunting, or a huge disruption of firm life, however, they are the changes the new industry demands.  Terry Isner, President of Marketing and Business Development at Jaffe says, “Law firm leadership isn’t about boots on the ground anymore--it’s a 10,000 foot perspective with 360-degree views of the firm, its clients and the industry as a whole at all times.  It’s being able to adapt to change quickly and making hard choices that will inspire and empower greatness.”

 top 3 contribution as law firm leaders

This is NLR’s second article on the report  Re-Envisioning the Law FIrm: How to Lead Change and Thrive in the Future  developed by the Managing Partner Forum, Jaffe, and The Remsen Group and released on December 8th.  You can read the first article here.

Copyright ©2017 National Law Forum, LLC

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About this Author

Eilene Spear, Publication Specialist, National Law Review, legal editor
Publication Specialist

Eilene Spear edits and formats author profiles, legal news content and legal event listings for the National Law Review website. She also writes original thought leadership for the National Law Review.

Eilene Spear Publication Specialist Hootsuite Professional Certified

Additionally, she assists in various ...

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Managing Director

Jennifer Schaller, Esq. is the Managing Director and co-founder of the National Law Review on-line edition.  Prior to the National Law Review, Jennifer most recently served as in-house counsel / director at CNA Surety. She also served in various marketing and business development roles as a vice president of Aon Services Group.  Jennifer started her legal career in as an insurance coverage attorney with Smith Amundsen, LLC in Chicago, IL.

In 2016-17, Jennifer is serving as the Vice Chairman for the Chicago steering committee for the Legal Marketing Association and on the Women Rainmakers Committee of the Law Practice Division of the American Bar Association. 

Jennifer is admitted to practice law in the State of Illinois and earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Marketing from Illinois State University, a Master’s Degree in Education from DePaul University and a Juris Doctorate from Chicago Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Media Mentions:

Low-Energy Losers and Tremendous Successes - Law Practice Today American Bar Assoc. February 14, 2017

Legal Media Limelight: Jennifer Schaller of the National Law Review - Law Dragon December 16, 2016 

Insurance To Publishing, Chicago Lawyer Takes The Leap Of Faith - CBS Chicago March 8, 2015 

Law School Cuts First Year Class Size - Commentary Tallahassee Democrat November 28, 2014

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