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Followers As Leaders: The Juxtaposition of Swarm Theory, US-Style Corporate Management and Cutting-Edge Law Firm Practice

Executive Summary:

There is a tremendous new opportunity for law firms, if they can get their collective brains around it. After reading MacEwens’ review of Wharton’s new “serial-monogamy” CEO model, and Bilinsky’s re-dux ("Bees Rule") of cutting edge “swarm” management theory, I’ve come up with a nascent idea for a new law firm management model that could very well ring in a new golden age in the field, to wit:

A co-leadership model that incorporates the best elements of 1) hard-charging corporate-America-style CEO mentality, with (2) the cool, consensus-building model of (the again) American-styled corporate board of directors, but yet strengthened by (3) the traditional law firm model where senior “sales” managers (practicing partners) decide the direction of the firm.

Let’s review the facts . . .

The pressure on Managing Partners (MPs) to demonstrate the management savvy of corporate America is growing. MPs now know that they basically do not have the skills to run huge multi-national law firms by virtue of great law school grades and an IV league school. They need real, high-quality training (Wharton or Harvard MBA, anyone?). Suffice it to say that there is a skills gap in upper law firm management. I note legion sites, ads, non-profits, etc.: all of these want to help educate MPs in the doing of their work in light of this new expectation. Firms themselves are starting to put their money where their mouth is. Believe me, it is slow going.

The legal industry in the US is going through tectonic shifts: it is adjusting to the conflation of US markets—to the realities of pressures put upon them by their corporate clients to serve all of their needs everywhere, and thereby increase footprints not only across regions but across continents and the globe.

As the legal industry wakes up from its (frankly) embryonic sleep-before-a first-awakening, firms are all over the place. Not only are firms in various states of development by virtue of their start-dates, but they are also in different states of being vis-à-vis their ability and desire to acclimate to global corporate needs. Further, there is a huge variation in the way in which firms differentiate themselves by virtue of the fact that this industry does not yet follow a single path—the world is too new to law firms (frankly) and there is no path to tread. Firms are basically making virgin tracks in uncut prairies of opportunity.

Therefore, firms are going through numerous transitions simultaneously and also in very quick succession. The upshot is that firm’s strategic needs/foci change quickly, and more importantly, change radically (and for good reasons).

 Thus, the pressure on firm leadership, MPs, to pull rabbits out of hats a la bigwig corporate CEOs is breaking upon the scene and growing. The role of the MP and of law firm leadership generally is far more important that it ever has been before.

 Compounding this pressure is that partners have traditionally not been trained in management, have not truly managed large enterprises, and do not necessarily have the temperaments and skills to do this work. They are shooting in the dark with unknown, sometimes still half-formed weapons, made by hand, with no guidelines, with no clear targets, and often with their partners using their own weapons all pointed at or near each other.

 Moreover, it is a sociological “fact” (to the extent they exist) that individual managers can only bend so far. It is the rare bird that can operate under two totally different sets of expectations, and pull off successes. This is because most people are not sufficiently developed to contain more than one framework of attitudes toward their work. Moreover, few can act outside their natural tendency. To quote "father" (Abraham) Maslow “to him who has only a hammer in the tool kit, every problem looks like a nail." Thus, there is a need for highly-productive and effective working groups to adopt more "hive-minded", decentralized approaches to problems that don't mindlessly trust a monolithic leader to get them out of trouble (click here for more on that one).

 This is the rub: we need strong managers, but we need precisely the right one—and who that person is may be different 18 months from now, and 2 years or even 12 months after that.

The Solution—Followers As Leaders: Co-Leadership and a Friendly Revolving Door at the Top

Thus, here are the rough components of what I propose:

 In agreement with David Nadler (CEO and consultant extraordinaire) (and in disagreement with MacEwen) we need to accept and embrace the idea that law firm Managing Partners need to be called upon to perform specific “tasks” or help firms through specific transitions, and no more. There should be no expectation that a particular MP is or ought to be fit for all phases in a law-firm’s growth. Two- to three-year stints should be plenty long in this model. For this reason, we should redisgnate MPs as CEO’s—this might help undo the traditional prestige end “terminus-point” mentality that the term MP implies. The point: a firm CEO is a co-leader, called upon for a particular task, and expecting to turn the reins over to another partner (or outsider as necessary) based on the needs of the firm.

 Institute a corporate culture of strong consensus-style law firm governance. Basically, firms need strong “boards of directors” whose job it is to identify issues, strategies, challenges, etc., and determine which particular opportunity needs most to be addressed. This, combined with the selection of a law firm MP (CEO), should be their only function. The other duties currently carried out by such boards should remain in the hands of “managing committees”, etc., that can deal with particular issues that arise along the way. The point is that a sub-set of strong leaders (or just really great thinkers) should be tasked with the job of looking out at the markets they serve at the 30,000 foot level.

 Further, firms need to instill a corporate culture of accountability. This, I think, it is a better way of instilling institutional pride and loyalty than simply a “teamwork” or “networking” model. We need to recognize that partners (well, rainmakers) only remain in firms to the extent they perceive strategic advantage from remaining there (that, an entropy or nostalgia—two notoriously weak motivators). Thus, to truly bind a firm together—while simultaneously recognizing that firms are, remain, and will continue to be, institutions in constant flux (in other words, constantly gaining and shedding weight)—firms need to instill a new mantra: accountability and ownership. To the extent that we can get every partner in a law firm realizing that the entire firm is, in a real way, up to their individual creativity and input, we will see a releasing, I believe, of the floodgates of creativity that are often bottled up by inertia and lack of a perceived outlet for the same.

Not So Hard

The great thing about this model is that it is a perfect unity between what firms are used to (consensus-style leadership involving work-a-day partners) and the more-effective business-style model of professional managers, clear lines of authority and specific tasking. This is a cinch, because firms historically were accustomed to co-leadership. Their dismay in the face of the need to incorporate more professionalism and savvy in marketing, strategic planning and implementation, can be met through the selective addition of non-law CFO’s, COO’s, perhaps one-day even CEOs.

We are on the brink of a true awakening of the potential of law firms as vibrant world-players, world corporate entities. All that remains, frankly, is a work around the anachronistic taboo of public offerings for law firms in this country. When that happens, the sky will indeed by the limit.

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