Professional services guru, David Maister, once wrote an article: Are Law Firms Manageable? He began:

After spending 25 years saying that all professions are similar and can learn from each other, I’m now ready to make a concession: Law firms are different.

He then identified why law firms are different:

Among the ways that legal training and practice keep lawyers from effectively functioning in groups are

  • problems with trust;
  • difficulties with ideology, values, and principles;
  • professional detachment;
  • and unusual approaches to decision making.

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I thought he was describing my old law firm. David Maister also wrote: The Problems with the Traditional Law firm Management Model. Sadly, I recently read a 2010 article about my old firm:  Taxes and Death: The Rise and Demise of an American Law Firm. Leave aside the tax issue that brought the firm down, the writer’s thoughts on law firms more broadly is helpful:

We should be especially wary of assuming that law firm managers wield power in a relatively direct system of command and control. Lawyers, for instance, typically have a strong desire for independence. Coordinating their activity thus can be extraordinarily difficult. Unlike in the typical business organization, law firm leaders derive little authority from their positions alone. They usually are unable to influence behavior by issuing edicts from on high. In addition, the relative ease of moving from one firm to another can give profitable lawyers an effective veto over managerial initiatives. Law firm managers therefore must rely mainly on negotiation and persuasion to gain the cooperation of others.

I did some research on how lawyers might address these issues. I found an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review October, 2006 issue: “The Tools of Cooperation and Change” by Clayton M. Christensen (Author of a great book: How Will You Measure Your Life, Matt Marx and Howard H. Stevenson.

The focus  of the article was on leaders using the right tools to encourage people to work together to get results based on the circumstances they face. I thought of law firm leaders as I was reading and decided I would share the authors’ points as if it was written for a law firm rather than a company.

The authors suggest that leaders who want to move their organizations in a new direction must first understand the degree to which law firm partners and associates agree in two dimensions:

  1. What they want out of being a member or associate of the firm and
  2. How to achieve what they want.

My friend and law firm consultant, Roger Hayse, made the same point to me.

He showed me a chart he had done with a list of statements on the left and 1-5 on the right with 1 being strongly disagree and 5 being strongly agree. His list included things like profits per partner, collegiality, holding firm members accountable, teamwork, client service, work-life balance and a variety of other topics.

Roger told me that if the super majority of lawyers in a firm either strongly agreed with an item or strongly disagreed, that would be ok. But, if a good number strongly agreed and a like number strongly disagreed, that would make it very difficult to lead the firm.

The authors of the Harvard Business Review article would agree. They state that when people in an organization disagree on what they want and how to achieve it, the only tools that induce cooperation are “power tools, which are essentially coercion and fiat” Since lawyers are so autonomous, there is no way that tool would ever work for any extended period of time.

The authors believe that if people want the same thing but disagree on how to achieve it, “leadership” tools will be effective. What does that mean for law firms? I say:

If a firm’s lawyers agree on what they want, a charismatic law firm leader with a powerful vision of what the firm can accomplish that is clearly articulated, can move the firm’s lawyers to achieve it. Those leaders will motivate and energize the members of their firm.

Are there a super majority of lawyers in your firm who agree on what they want? If not, leading them will be extremely challenging.