I am at the ALM / Incisive Law Firm Leaders Conference. This session is the Passion, People and Principles: Building Success from the Bottom, a presentation by well-known consultant David Maister. Here are real-time notes. 

It’s one thing to set a strategy, it’s another thing to execute. We can know what’s good for us, we can know how to do it, but yet we still don’t do those things. So most law firm strategic planning is a waste of time. Law firms can do the analysis, but will they take the action it implies? If it’s hard for individuals to do hard work today for benefits tomorrow, can institutions do so? The problem is that benefits don’t correlate linearly with the effort expanded. You have to take all the actions to get results but most people become discouraged along the way.

So what distinguishes winning law firms from the others? The competitive drivers are: drive, determination, discipline, energy, excitement, enthusiasm, engagement, passion, and ambition. Can better hiring provide these attributes? Not really, leading people is very hard.

Consistent excellence in serving clients is the key to profitability. The only way to achieve this is to generate enthusiasm, energy, and excitement in the troops. And the only way to do this is to manage the troops so that they are doing excites them.

If you divide partners into dynamos, cruisers, and losers. Dynamos are those who know what they want to next and who work to long-term goals. They actively build their own future. Cruisers are the ones who do the work and do it well, but they don’t have a personal plan for their own career. Losers are doing neither; they are not meeting the basics. Audience agrees that the dynamos are at most 20%. David says strategic plan is meaningless if only 1 in 5 partners know where they want to go. Management’s challenge is to help make more partners cruisers.

How many firms choose practice group leaders (PGL) based on their interest and passion on helping others and leading. He finds that 90% are chosen because they are stars in doing work, not for any people skill. Moreover, most firms don’t evaluate PGL on basis of group performance, so most focus on their individual performance. So firms don’t choose the right PGL and then evaluate them on the wrong basis.

If you want an effective practice group, you have to evaluate the leader based on group performance. It’s easy to do this: evaluate leader based on total hours and profits of the group. If the leader does not like this, he or she should not be the manager or leaders.

An effective leader does not expect perfection. She seeks year over year performance improvement. If the only attribute that a firm cares about in leaders is billing hours, then “I quit” – don’t bother trying to improve the firm. Real management means helping people do their work and fostering collaboration. This helps ensure quality work and service. In turn, that means happy clients and repeat business. And that in turn results in higher profits. But all of this is already in every law firm strategic plan. Law firms, however, don’t have the guts to enforce what they say. Management goes for volume (hours), not standards. Managing people for performance require selecting managers who want that job, who will help everyone perform, and who will encourage others’ performance. If law firms focus on management, standards, and fostering enthusiasm, the profits will follow.