A lawyer called me this week asking about Practice Group Planning.

I told him I was a practice group leader who found it difficult to get our lawyers on the same page. Since then, I have wondered why it is so difficult to lead a practice group or law firm.

Is it difficult because we leaders do not have the right stuff? Other than a thick skin, what is the right stuff to be a law firm or practice group leader?

Based on my reading I believe a leader must have a clear vision of where he or she wants to take the group and a plan to get there. To that end, when I was a practice group leader my vision was to develop the preeminent construction law practice group in the United States.

With the help of members of my practice group, we developed a Construction Law PG Strategic Plan which included targeted differentiators. We decided our differentiators would be:

  • First to Market
  • Investing in our Client Relationships
  • Effective Use of Technology
  • Strategically Located
  • Full-Service
  • Quality Service Driven

We developed a plan to implement each of these differentiators.

I would not be writing this if we achieved the vision of becoming the preeminent construction law practice in the United States. What challenges kept us from achieving that goal?

Several years ago I read a piece titled Personality: Why 25% of Lawyers Can’t Sell. It included a discussion on lawyer traits by Dr. Larry Richard.

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Most, if not all, the traits discussed not only identify why some lawyers can’t sell, but more importantly why it is difficult to lead a practice group or a firm.

Here are the six traits that distinguish lawyers:

  • Skepticism: Lawyers have a 90% score, while the general public scores on only 50%. It is very difficult to lead people who are searching for the problem with the vision or plan rather than saying: “How can I help us achieve it?”
  • Autonomy: Lawyers have an 89% score, while the general public scores only 50%. It is very difficult to lead people who do not want to be led and most certainly do not want to be told what to do or how to do it or even why to do it. Even though the lawyers in my practice group helped develop the vision and the strategic plan, I think many viewed it as mine and not theirs. I thought it was important for each partner in my group to prepare an annual business plan and each associate to prepare an annual development plan. I had to coax some partners to prepare a business plan and some never prepared one.
  • Sociability: Incredibly lawyers score only 7% on this trait, compared to another 50% score by the public. According to Richard this means lawyers struggle to make emotional connections and do not delve into their inner life. It is a challenge to lead a group unwilling to look inward and decide what they each want.
  • Abstract Reasoning: Lawyers score 82% for this trait compared to another 50% score by the general public. According to Richard, the downside of this is “paralysis by analysis.” Lawyers are great with the planning and not so good with the execution. I have experienced this repeatedly. I have been to many a law firm retreats where great ideas were developed, but were then never executed.
  • Urgency: Lawyers have a 71% urgency score while the public again has a 50% score. That means lawyers want to get things done and we are impatient. It is difficult to lead such an impatient group that expects the results to occur right away. In my experience, when results do not occur right away, instead of being persistent, lawyers abandon the vision.
  • Resilience: Lawyers score at a low 30%, while the general public is scores at 50% once again. Low resilience means lawyers have difficulty dealing with criticism. I see this manifesting itself in many ways. Feedback is not given at all in some cases. In other instances, there is no accountability or consequences for not performing to expectations.

What does this information tell us about leading law firms and practice groups?

I can tell you from experience that it is really important for the firm members to share aspirations and values. Famed business writer and consultant, Jim Collins, calls this getting the right people on the bus.

If lawyers in the firm do not share aspirations and values, then the skeptics will find problems with the leader’s vision and the lawyers who do not want to be led will simply refuse to do what the needs to be done to accomplish the vision.

Do you have the right people on your bus?