Leadership: the ability to set strategy and use influence to motivate a team of people to accomplish goals. When I look around Biglaw, lawyers get an F in leadership. Let me explain.
Back in the day, you know before the “new normal,” it was said that a law firm consists of finders, minders and grinders. A finder was the person that brought in new business, a minder was the person that interacted with the client by setting expectations, preparing budgets and organizing and supervising the team (partners, associates and paralegals) tasked to that matter, and the grinders did the work.
Today, wisely so, we are told we need to be “finders.” If you can’t develop a book of business, come the next recession, the odds of you keeping your job are not in your favor.
Programs on business development are the rage. People are looking at creative ways to interact with potential clients. Personally, since I have a niche practice, social media, blogging and speaking work for me.
But what happens after you bring in the client? Who is going to do the work? If you can’t do it alone, how will you get others to help you?
It saddens me to say that lawyers, generally, are terrible leaders. And, like doctors, it is not entirely their fault. Where are leadership skills taught and/or developed? Law school teaches you to think. A law firm teaches you how to achieve the tasks a lawyer must do in the daily practice of law. Look around and you’ll see training on how to take a deposition, negotiate an agreement, or even develop business, but not much else.
These are all skills that are accomplishable in a silo. You sit in your office, alone, and draft your motion, prepare comments or deal points or write a great blawg. In the old days, associates allegedly started to learn to lead by managing their assistants, but today, with ratios of 3:1, 5:1 etc., odds are your assistant is managing you.
Associates are told, “Go join a board to become a leader.” But having led boards, I fail to see how that teaches you to lead a team, especially if you are again just fulfilling the job assigned to you by the chairperson.
In today’s market, partners are expected to work, and cases are not staffed the way they used to be. Usually there is one partner and one or two associates on a matter. As OCI just wrapped up, this direct interaction is touted as giving young associates real responsibility early on. All true, but where do they learn to lead? And a good associate, one that does what the partner says, develops a few clients, and eventually makes partner, how do we expect them to learn management skills (a topic for a different post) let alone leadership skill? You have worked 10 years in a silo – now go lead. We are setting up the new generation to fail.
Some rainmakers are great leaders, but in my experience, this is an exception and not the rule. You all know that one partner that has been through 10 people junior to him in the past two years, but it’s okay, because he has a three million dollar book of business.
But here’s the rub. And you out there in corporate America, or MBA-types know what I am about to say:
- The cost of employee turnover severely impacts the profitability of a firm.
- It is easier to get new work from an existing client than to get a new client; and
- Productivity increases when associates feel respected and are given meaningful assignments.
So why do we work so hard to bring in business and turn it over to someone who can’t handle it? That results in write offs (or low realization rates), dissatisfied clients that leave, or worst case, a malpractice claim.
If you want your firm, department or practice group to be around in 10 years, it is time to reinvigorate leadership (and management) training. Law firms are businesses and should be run like one. I challenge you to look at successful programs like the ones run by GE or Starbucks. Sorry to burst your bubble, but business development alone will not save your law practice.
I am forever grateful that I learned to be a leader and a manager in my years as a business executive, prior to law school. I mentor and teach as many as I can – be it through my firm’s program, through Loyola’s Fashion Law program, or just people I connect with (talking about you, Emily!) But, as Hillary Clinton said, it is going to take a village to fix this problem.
Now, why are you reading this on the Fashion Law Blog?
Because your fashion clients are business people. Even if you are working with in-house counsel and not a fashion executive, most will tell you they are business people first, and then they are lawyers.
If you don’t understand how your client’s business works, how can you be its advocate? If you can’t run your own business, why would a client trust you to advise them on theirs?