Developing and Choosing Large Law Firm Leaders for the New Generation and Beyond
I am attending the conference 2010 Futures Conference & Symposium Agenda hosted by the College of Law Practice Management and the American University Washington College of law. This is a live blog post of the session Developing and Choosing Leaders for the New Generation and Beyond Panel Discussion. The moderator is Harry Trueheart, Chairman Nixon Peabody LLP. Panelists are Roland Smith, Center for Creative Leadership; Bill Migneron, COO of Lathrop & Gage LLP; Patrick McKenna, Law Firm Strategy and Practice Management Consultant.
Truehart Provides Overview
The days of annual rate increases is over. So profession can no longer “wash over” its mistakes with increasing prices. Firms need to learn to cope with alternative fee arrangements, which likely means being more efficient. The model for how law firm hire and deploy legal talent is changing. Own view: many firms with a solid core of lawyers and ‘cloud of affiliated lawyers.’ Generational changes in large law firms will create need for succession planning.
McKenna on How Law Firms are Developing and Choosing New Leaders
– McKenna wrote “First 100 Days” for new managing partners a few years ago. That led to a program for new MP at Chicago. Reporting on a just-completed survey of 92 firms of over 100 lawyers. Sees a lot of ‘wishful thinking’ and ‘romantic folklore’ when it comes to law firm leadership. There is a myth of law firm leader as symphony conductor. The better analogy is that the leader is the main puppet in a show with 100s of partners tugging at the strings.
– New MP are surprised by the number of interruptions they have to deal with. Working with new MP, McKenna sees the challenges and cycles that MP experience. After 1 year, 40% question whether they want to stick with the role. 72% of MP today operate without a job description.
– Thinks job description is much more than HR issue. Did a description for one MP and came up with 72 bullet points.
– Only 25% of MP receive formal performance review – and that is way up from earlier.
– We imagine MP as a visionary leader (“Moses image”).
– In practice, has never seen a law firm leader who has articulated a vision that the partners adopt and embrace.
– McKenna asks how much time they spend on problem solving versus exploring opportunities. Former is 80%, latter is 20%. Of the 20% on opportunities, the split between immediate opportunities versus long term, 2/3 is on the present. So only 6% of management time is spent on future. But only 9% of MP, even in firms of over 500 lawyers, are full-time managers. Many still bill time.
– We like to think of MP as grooming future leaders. But only 14% have worked on a formal succession plan. Where there is a succession plan, the successor is usually of the same generation as current leader.
– At a recent class of 31 new MP, only 3 have job descriptions, none have clear guidance on whether they should bill time, and does not have a clear sense of who is in core management.
Bill Migneron on changes in large law firm c-suite
– There is more hiring from outside the legal market.
– C-titles have proliferated (chief real estate, chief strategy, chief knowledge officer…. beginning to sound like bank vice presidents)
– The C-title helps attract people from outside the legal market.
– Outsiders believe the c-title will confer automatic authority and acceptance – which is a fallacy. This flows from relationship with lawyer leaders.
– Qualifications he seeks:
. technical competence,
. leadership ability (mold, mentor, lead both direct reports and lawyers),
. team building, agents of change (but you need your own style to do this),
. business savvy with ability to understand client base,
. ability to talk to clients
. trustworthiness (which takes time but ask about this in interview)
– A good match remains a challenge
– Has hired 3 c-level people in 3 years and so far is only 1 for 3 and jury is out on the remaining 1.
Roland Smith on Challenges of Developing Leadership
– Law firms always say they are different. Also hear this from doctors and from other sectors. But we usually don’t change our approach.
– Law firms do, however, have some unique attributes
– Anecdote from one large law firm meeting
. MP said I never heard of your center
. Another partner asked what are your credentials
. If we do what you say, will it increase partner income
– Has interviewed over 1000 managing partners
– Law firms have trouble making choices
– Lawyers provide counsel to clients on dealing with complexity and uncertainty but are bad at applying these skills to law firm management
– Lawyers are trained to be skeptical (not trusting) and look for problems. These are good attributes for law practice but bad ones for management.
– Cultural glue is important. But how viscous is the glue? How actively do leaders transmit the culture / glue to peers and successors? Even global law firms today operate in silos.
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