It doesn't take a lawyer to lead a law firm.
Earlier this year, a friend and law school classmate of mine was elected managing member of one of the world’s largest law firms. My wife and I drove to Chicago and met him for dinner to congratulate him, and somehow we found ourselves deep in a conversation about law firm leadership. He talked about the sacrifices he makes being away from home while traveling to his firm’s numerous international offices. He discussed the endless evenings he spends on mundane tasks like arbitrating staff assignments and reviewing budget proposals. He takes great pride in the complex array of skills he must utilize to juggle competing corporate interests while formulating and implementing the mission, vision and business models for his firm.
Midway through our conversation, I interrupted my friend and reminded him that I also manage a law firm, and have held the job for 14 years. He chuckled. “You must admit,” he responded, “that there is a huge difference between us. I am responsible for thousands of employees dispersed across the globe, while you have only a handful of people located in a single office.”
Yes, I agreed, there are differences. For one, the economic scale of his megafirm provides the luxury of anonymity and a much larger margin for error than I have ever been afforded in my decision making. In addition, his management decisions are often made with the convenience of having no intimate knowledge of the personal impact upon his employees, whereas I interact closely with each of my employees every day. Indeed, my friend is not nearly as accessible since becoming his firm’s commander-in-chief. His phone messages and emails are screened by at least two staff members before he ever sees them, if in fact he sees them at all. Forget a personal appointment with him—his schedule is now booked months in advance without exception. My schedule, on the other hand, requires that I remain openly available at all times.
Despite the obvious differences, some similarities do exist between our roles as leaders. We are both responsible for formulating and implementing our firms’ business plans and ensuring that we remain competitive in our ever-changing industry. By the end of our conversation, my friend graciously conceded that we do have some things in common, and that we do perform some similar tasks in leading our firms. Nevertheless, we also agreed that the vast differences in the size, structure and culture of our firms require very different types of leadership. This started me thinking about the type of leader I should be.
It is not easy to identify the leadership qualities I want to personify. We have leaders in every aspect of our lives—in church, school, government, military, community and business. We have local and national leaders, elected and appointed leaders, those who willingly seek leadership roles, and those who are reluctantly thrust upon it by circumstance. There are actual leaders and potential leaders, visionaries and traditionalists. Some are growth-based, and others are result-oriented. Some want the job permanently, while others prefer a short-term tenure. There are democratic leaders and dictators; some are conservative and others are more liberal. Finally, there are parents, who, in my opinion, are the most important leaders of all.
To determine the most effective type of leadership, we must first attempt to define the term. This is no easy task, as there appears to be as many definitions for leadership as there are organizations to lead. Wikipedia defines leadership as “the process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.” One of my coworkers defines the term as “motivating and directing us to successfully service our clients.” A president of a local charity describes leadership as “the ability to promote a vision and direction while empowering the people around you to become successful in their pursuit.” My minister describes leadership as “living one’s life as prescribed in the Holy Scripture and revealed to us through Jesus Christ.” My nine-year-old son offers an interesting perspective, which is “showing and teaching kids the best way to do stuff so we can get better and smarter.” Last, but certainly not least, I recall my father’s definition of leadership, which he expressed to me long ago, as simply “doing the right thing.” All of these definitions seem to have merit. So which is most appropriate for a small business law firm?
Let’s start with the underlying premise that business law has evolved more in the past 36 months than it has in the past 36 years, and the Peoria market is no exception. Foreclosures and bankruptcies have increased exponentially. Corporations and financial institutions are rewriting their core approaches to retaining private counsel and budgeting for their services. Some believe these developments will continue, and this industry may change even more dramatically in the next 36 months. The economy and the regulatory environment are certainly dominant factors, as corporate clients everywhere feel compelled to demand wholesale renovations in quality, efficiency and pricing. Nevertheless, other significant factors exist, including the expansion of our virtual global environment and the emergence of the critical-thinking philosophy of tomorrow’s Generation Y. Combine these factors with the everyday microeconomic dilemmas involving growth, revenue, overhead and cash flow, and we quickly realize that defining a law firm’s mission—and finding the right leadership to implement it—are equally important principles.
In 1998, our law firm opened with two employees and a mission and vision statement that together totaled 17 words. We had no formal business plan whatsoever. Today, we have short-term and long-term plans, models, statements, strategies, policies and goals for just about any scenario you can hypothesize. Clearly, our firm has a different type of leadership today than it did 14 years ago. It is hard to believe that it still has the same leader. It follows that either our definition of leadership has changed, or it has been broad enough to encompass this evolution.
A Winning Definition
Open-minded resilience has been a key component. My father, the one who leads by “doing the right thing,” once told me that he never met a successful person who had not first failed at something else. This lesson teaches us that the ability to adapt and react to surrounding circumstances, and to correct our failures and move on, should be important components of leadership. It seems the deeper we analyze the concept of leadership, the more convoluted it gets, and the more difficult it becomes to define. Maybe my father’s approach wasn’t so wrong after all. Maybe simply “doing the right thing” is all we need.
When I asked my father to elaborate, he explained that “doing the right thing” means using your experience and intellect and following your heart, mind and soul when making your decisions. If all leaders did this, we would co-exist more efficiently, and many of our man-made problems and disasters could be avoided. This was a profound and complex assessment for such a simple definition; and metaphorically, it unfolds much like my father himself.
I will continue to educate myself on the trends in our industry and read what the experts predict about the future of business law firms. As long as I am its leader, I will ensure that my firm has a clear mission and vision, with the appropriate business model in place to support them. Nevertheless, the winning definition comes from my dad. From now on, when I am asked to define the type of leader I want to be, my thoughts will come full circle to the simple, poignant concept of “doing the right thing.” iBi