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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.

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About this Author

Eilene Spear legal news editor and writer at the National Law Review
Operations Project Manager & Lead Writer

Eilene Spear is the Operations and Projects Manager for the National Law Review.  She heads the NLR remote publication team as the Lead Writer and assists in a variety of capacities in the management of the National Law Review.

As Lead Writer, Eilene writes extensively on a variety of legal topics; including legal marketing topics, interviews with top legal marketing professionals and the newest trends in legal marketing.  Additionally, Eilene writes on issues affecting the legal industry, such as women attorneys and the challenges they face,...

jennifer schaller National Law Review  attorney legal publisher and speaker on Law Firm SEO and Legal Thought Leadership
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 as an insurance coverage attorney with Smith Amundsen, LLC in Chicago, IL and in risk management at various insurance organizations.

In 2019 Jennifer was the Chair for the Chicago City group of the Legal  Marketing...