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Don’t Alienate Your Firm With Your Decisions

I’m not sure if people truly understand the ultimate impact of the Roe vs. Wade reversal by the US Supreme Court – regardless of where you live. Like the potential alienation of 51% of the population who – let’s face it – only became “persons” within the past century and are now already having some of those rights reversed. Or the eventual impact of a sitting US President announcing that the Supreme Court does not speak to the will of the people, and then signing executive orders to allow for work-arounds to new legislation. It questions the very relevance of the USA’s highest court, and it leaves women wondering if we’ll even be treated fairly and equitably in this system.

I raise this because there is a microcosm of these same feelings that can play out within law firms if firm leadership aren’t careful…a situation I see all too frequently and one that can be deadly in a tight job market. There are lessons to be learned here.

Having the power to make major decisions doesn’t mean you’ll make good decisions. It simply means that you need to overcome your ego before you can start to lead well. It helps to have a healthy dose of humility.

That starts by realizing the limitations of your power. A great law firm leader once told me that a Managing Partner is only given the power entrusted to them by their Partners. They can’t demand certain actions: they can only build the logical argument for them and ask their Partners to comply. Partners understand that without this hierarchy, there is the chance that very little will get done. So, they allow themselves to be led, to a point.

This tenuous grip on the power to lead exists at every level of leadership within a firm, which is why successful firm management over time requires an advocacy process of some kind. It might be anywhere from a “just trust me, I’ve never failed you before” stance to a detailed analysis and recommendation for each decision. But we must be convinced to follow, and in law firms we must be convinced regularly.

While law firm administrators don’t hold much power, we do know how to lead from below. We know how to accurately identify an issue, problem solve around it, and build a logical argument for the best solution. We know how to advocate for our solutions, and implement them well. For example, when I was a Marketing Director I might have declared or been given a goal (ex. increase business in a certain area by 15% within a certain time frame). I determined the appropriate mechanisms to use to achieve this outcome, built a plan, got it approved, and implemented on it. Administrators know the processes we need in place to get the permission we need, and to build and maintain the trust we require to ensure we can come back to the well next time.

Partners, on the other hand, don’t always hold themselves to this same standard. The consequences can be a loss of confidence in the firm’s ability to make rational decisions, feelings of disrespect, and ultimately, apathy for the leadership of those charged with the day to day running of the firm.

Here are some Partner and Managing Partner leadership traps to avoid:

  1. Decisions based on emotion. Leadership requires a lot of heart, but at the right time. The wrong time is when a critical decision is required and the leader bases that decision on a reflection of how they feel about the issue. This often occurs when a decision is needed on an issue resulting from a negative event. The leader could feel insulted, disrespected, hurt, humiliated, embarrassed, let down. In such instances, law firm leaders will sometimes suggest the most drastic action possible. They feel this will demonstrate decisiveness, and intolerance for whatever issue caused the decision. In reality, the decision can come across as inappropriately emotional, personalized rather than business-focussed, and overkill. Such decisions don’t garner respect from followers; they actually make the leader look weak. When you need to make a decision around an issue about which you feel emotional, pause. Engage a variety of opinions around you…not just those who agree with you. Be very clear with the analysis of the situation, and the proposed solution. Ensure you are calm and business-like before announcing the decision. It can’t be personal, even if it is.
  2. Decisions base on gut feel rather than research and evidence. Countless times, I’ve conducted a strategic planning exercise or a client feedback process with a firm only to discover that some senior leaders don’t care about the results. Instead, they feel they know how the firm is performing, what the client really needs, and how life should look goring forward without the benefit of anyone else’s analysis or opinions. This becomes more problematic when those lawyers are in positions of authority and can roadblock a more rationally-based decision process. I’ve actually heard such lawyers say “I don’t care what the data tells you. I know this market and I know what’s best for the firm”. Or, “I know the client said that but I know what they really meant, and what they really need”. When you hear those words, you know that it is ego talking. And ego seldom knows what’s best for anyone except the person speaking those words. Such leaders eventually lose the respect of those they are asking to follow them. And firms that allow such leaders to make decisions in this way will suffer the logical consequences…their actions won’t match the actual need.
  3. Decisions without feedback from the appropriate constituencies. Many times, I’ve seen law firm leadership go into a room with no research, analysis or collection of information and opinions from others, and make significant decisions based on their own limited knowledge. Their belief is that through their own years of experience and good judgement, they should know what’s best without the need for any additional data. The problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know. We could be looking at the trunk of an elephant and believe that it’s a snake. Great leaders assume they don’t have all of the information and search for ways to become better informed. But even if we did have all of the data, our chances of selling our decisions to others will be significantly increased if we take the time to engage them in the process. They’ll feel their opinions were taken into consideration and they’ll be more supportive of the outcome, whatever it is.
  4. A change in a decision without an appropriate process. Another scenario I’ve seen often in law firms is that leadership will dramatically shift directions if they feel a decision isn’t producing the results that they wanted. This shift will occur without further consultation with others involved, and usually without appropriate analysis of the data. The result is that the firm sees an unexplained about face. There’s the sense that leadership doesn’t know what they are doing and is floundering, trying different solutions and hoping one works. This issue is part process, party communication. A well thought-through process, given the appropriate amount of time, has a better chance of working than trying a bunch of different remedies with very little time in between. If something isn’t working, then by all means change it. But do so after due consideration and analysis. And ensure you communicate to your followers why you made the change, and what makes you believe this new process will be more successful. Show them the rationale. Show them you are leading, not grasping.
  5. Insufficient communication. In my experience, most law firm leadership under-communicates with their firm. They may feel that others don’t need to know the details of firm management. They might want to shield at least some of the truth from the Partners. They might forget that non-Partners are still important members of the firm. Mostly, they don’t realize how critical good communication is to their credibility and trust as leaders. Leading requires followers. Followers require information – particularly in a law firm. Keep them informed. Communicate twice as much as you deem is necessary and you might be coming close to how frequently you need to do it.

Leadership is about making decisions. It’s also about having willing followers. Leaders who forget that make ego-based decisions that will eventually lose the trust of their followers. They may tell or show you that they lack trust in you, they may sabotage you, they may put you down in front of others, or they may simply become apathetic to your leadership. But there will be consequences.

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