We don’t often write purposefully on the topic of leadership, if for no other reason than it’s hard for most people to get past, “I know it when I see it,” but more substantively because we think it perfuses so much of our writing and thinking. But we have not taken a vow of remorseless editorial consistency, and over the past few weeks we’ve had some conversations adding up to a critical mass of what’s wrong with leadership in Law Land:
- Lawyers are notoriously autonomy-seeking missiles, and if it’s autonomy you seek it’s often autonomy you shall get. We thought we were joking a few years ago when we coined the phrase “hotels for lawyers” (referring to firms that are the antithesis of the “one-firm firm” so many claim to be), but we’re afraid it’s not so funny any more. I suggest a very quick thought experiment: What notable, recent law firm failures come to mind? At the time of their demise, were they “hotels” or unitary enterprises?
- This is not to let the leaders off the hook in the least: They enable this behavior. Shall we count the ways?
- Many leaders proudly declare that they still actively practice: They bill X,000 hours/year, impressive totals by anyone’s measure, but when do they actually manage? In a recent widely publicized vignette, one mercifully unidentified managing partner actually said “At 1:00 am.” Another–shortly before one of most spectacular meltdowns of the 21st Century–bragged to The Wall Street Journal that “I’m not really into management;” recasting a declaration of massive and supercilious ignorance into a boast.
The jobs are inherently demanding, as evidenced by the recent reports of Baker McKenzie’s chief Paul Rawlinson taking a leave because of “exhaustion.” (There is a tiny handful of, we can only assume, genetically gifted individuals who are physically capable of running a large law firm for years and practicing actively. But it’s like the 3-hours of sleep crowd; many may claim it’s within their capability, almost no one can deliver on it for even a few weeks, much less years or a decade.)
At a far less global but high-profile firm (we learned this week), the newish managing partner is stepping down after one and only one four-year term “to spend more time with my family”–and it’s actually true. He likes practicing law, but it also sends a very conspicuous message to the entire firm that management takes a back seat to practicing.
What if this single example–and there are, shockingly, countless others–explains almost all of this? What if the root cause of this widespread behavior and attitude is simply that lawyers do not respect any calling other than the practice of law? In “normal” for-profit enterprises, the prevailing attitude is 180° the opposite. All of the high-level corporate functions fundamentally respect the others and what each contributes to the entire enterprise. Finance respects marketing, sales, IT, design, engineering, research, manufacturing, operations, HR-talent management-and-professional development, and vice versa and so forth all the way back around the table. People who don’t feel this way self-select themselves out of Corporate Land usually at a young age, typically into the academic, governmental, nonprofit, or small business sectors.
Time out for a quick thought experiment because this conceit–that nothing merits respect above the practice of law–is so universal in our precincts as to be almost invisible (the pervasive often is). So here’s the experiment: What would be the reaction if the CEO of any, say, $50-million+ company announced they didn’t really value or take much interest in management, didn’t want to learn and weren’t curious about it, and planned to actively stay in a front-line client-facing role as a Type A service provider? (You can adapt the question to the largeish corporate you might have in mind: A Ph.D. researcher in a pharma company staying at the lab bench, an engineer in a manufacturing company prototyping designs, a consumer marketing guru in a B2C company analyzing market research, etc.)
The answer is blindingly obvious: The Board of Directors, the rest of the C-suite, large shareholders and stock analysts would all denounce this irresponsible and obtuse behavior, and the CEO would be virtually frog-marched out of their office. Now ask why–really, probingly, why–Law Land should be the one and only outlier in this? Are we really right while the other 98.5% of the economy is wrong?
The best answer to the question, “why should managing partners practice?” is “to keep their finger on the pulse of things and to maintain their partners’ respect.” I hasten to confess I have no snappy comeback to the “maintaining respect” perspective. Lawyers’ universal solvent for any situation, as we’ve observed, is “get out of my way and let me lawyer this.” So merely “managing”–strategy, financial analysis, goal-setting, designing and implementing governance structures and prioritizing tactics and objectives–is for less capable people, including the steerage class referred to as “non-lawyers.”
All I can say is that if the march of NewLaw and the CLOC/ACC kind of initiatives taking hold among our in-house brethren are here to stay, we may have to revise our stance on that sooner rather than later.
“Keeping your finger on the pulse of things” is, by contrast, indispensable to leadership. But how about walking (and flying) around, talking to people at all levels inside the firm, and being the Ambassador of the firm to its critical outside constituencies: Starting with clients, perhaps?
This brings me to our final observation: The essential constituency and role of the person at the top of an organization is, on purpose and by design, unlike that of anyone else, We’ve talked with many people who have become President or the equivalent of their corporations, including professional service firms outside the legal sector, and to a person they report they realized their top-leader position required them to be an advocate not for themselves, their department, or their service line, but for: The Firm Itself.
This is distinct from and perhaps a step beyond our recent column calling for “Client first, firm second, self third.” That was addressed to everyone except the senior leaders or managing partner. (We told you we don’t write explicitly about leadership very often.)
But if you find yourself in, under consideration for, or considering, a role in senior leadership, know that your role must change. It cannot be that of advocating for any client, any office, any practice group, or any partner. You must wear, as Jamie Dimon has said, the team’s uniform to work every day, and advocate first, second, and third, for The Firm.
Which poses this question: Is management belittled in law firms because we cannot bring ourselves to recognize that being part of the firm itself imposes duties and responsibilities on us? We are, after all, those autonomy-seeking missiles.
And so that anyone who presumes to put The Firm first is unworthy?
Leaders, you know what to do about colleagues who propagate that attitude. Or, you can just slide into leading from the rear, in which case: No problem. At least not right away.