A potentially important new book has been published—don’t worry, I’ve already asked the author for a review copy—but it’s just now been featured on Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge.

Titled When Professionals Have to Lead: A New Model for High Performance (Harvard Business School Press: 2007), the authors are:

Thomas J. DeLong is the Philip J. Stomberg Professor of Management Practice in the Organizational Behavior area at the Harvard Business School. John J. Gabarro is Baker Foundation Professor at the Harvard Business School. Robert J. Lees is former director of professional development at Morgan Stanley and former director of human resources for Ernst & Young International.

The book addresses the particular challenges of managing professional service firms—law firms, investment banks, management consulting firms, ad agencies, engineering and architectural firms. Based on close day-to-day observation of how leaders of these firms actually manage (or don’t), this is what the book attempts to address:

"The dilemma, says HBS professor Thomas J. DeLong, is that the entire PSF landscape is in upheaval. Associates are harder to recruit and keep; competition for clients is increasing from boutiques below and global firms above; the clients themselves are more demanding; and management time is focused on short-term issues rather than long-term strategy.

"As DeLong puts it, ‘In the past, the work of PSFs was a gentleman’s game—and now it’s blood sport.’"

Now, we may forgive dust-jacket hype, but at least these issues ring true for me:

  • Associate retention is an unprecedented challenge;
  • The AmLaw 50/100/200 is increasingly segmented, with, as the good professor notes, the bifurcation into globe-spanning firms and targeted-expertise boutiques with, frankly, not much room inbetween; and
  • Lastly, the pressure to focus on your firm’s long-term vision and strategy has never been greater–while shorter-term issues have never seemed more pressing.

Much of what they say comes as no news hereabouts, but it may be useful to recap as a sort of Cliff’s Notes to why the study of law firm management is ceaselessly enthralling:

  • Law firms are flat organizations;
  • Which attract extraordinarily smart and talented professionals with an extreme need for achievement;
  • Who want to practice their craft without distractions of management or, often, dealing with human beings;
  • And who may not have any particular loyalty to the firm they’re at just now.

The authors develop a four-pronged approach to summarizing, and attacking the challenges of, law firm management. Graphically, it’s this:

Four Quadrants

The theory is that setting direction, building commitment, and execution are the three legs of the stool on which you as leader sit: And from where you need to set a personal example. They’re each worth dimensionalizing for a moment:

  • Setting direction matters because of the short shelf-life of many people in today’s firms. They may well not have "grown up" in the firm, so they need a clear sense of its direction. Plus, they’re likely to be obsessed with their day to day client and billing demands (sound familiar?).
  • Gaining commitment is the second stage, if you will, of setting direction. "Capture IP patent litigation market share" is one thing, but getting people to believe that’s a worthy goal is another. (More seriously, "penetrate the Pacific Northwest" might be a worthy goal.)
  • Execution is, after all, what it all comes down to, as I’ve often written. There’s a reason that losing weight, stopping smoking, and getting up earlier are perennial New Year’s resolutions. It’s all about the execution.
  • Finally, I’m delighted to see the authors count setting a personal example as on all fours with the more management consultancy (or HBS professor-y) speak of strategy, commitment, and execution. Your own personal example is, one would hope, integral to how you achieved the exalted post you hold, and its continued, unblemished, reinforcement is how you gain the currency to make everything you say and do matter.

As mentioned, I’ve asked for a reviewer’s copy. Stay tuned.

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