Sound Advice for New Law Firm Leaders (Part 2)

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What follows are a number of further thoughts (building on my earlier article) to keep in mind should you find yourself in the (enviable?) position of leading an entire law firm.

7. Get comfortable with discomfort.

If you are like most who have traveled this route, I guarantee you that you will go through several distinct stages in the early days of your leadership transition. It starts with anticipation, where you are eager, excited, and thinking to yourself, “I guess my partners really do think that I can lead our firm to greater heights.” Unfortunately, it may not be long before your initial excitement gets bogged down by the reality of daily tasks as the urgent crowds out the important, and you now find yourself thinking, “What the hell did I get myself into?”

Most of us think of anxiety as something to be avoided, but it can actually be fuel for positive change. Anxiety is that natural emotion that lives in the gap between where you are currently and what you want to achieve. Think of anxiety as your productive energy for moving forward.

8. Write your leadership memoir.

Pick a professional publication that would be meaningful to you if someone were to write a cover story about you, your firm, and your accomplishments in three years. Now, write your 1,000-word memoir answering as many of these questions as possible:

  •        What was the firm like when you first became firm leader?
  •        What was your initial role?
  •        What is the specific set of accomplishments you hoped to achieve in your competitive marketplace, inside the firm, with clients, etc.?
  •        How is the firm now positioned to do that it couldn’t when you first became the leader?
  •        What have you changed, and what have you preserved?
  •        What are the consequences for your partners in achieving that new set of capabilities or reputation?

If you do not yet have a good feel for your answers to these questions, then write a first draft and work to improve it over your first year in office.

9. Identify a few signals to project your leadership message.

Translate your priorities into quick, highly visible, very tangible “signals” — some symbolic, some substantive, but which convey to everyone what you believe to be most important priorities. Start by defining what beliefs the people in your firm would need to hold in order to buy into the behaviors and performance that support your agenda; and then design and execute deeds by performing very visible signals that will begin to shape those beliefs.

I remember in one instance where a new firm leader wanted to send a very strong “client service is paramount” message. She identified the firm’s top 50 clients and announced a formal visitation program. Most importantly, she developed a wall chart showing the names of all 50 clients on the vertical axis and the months of the year on the top horizontal axis. She then wrote in, for all to see, the specific date on which she visited the client company’s CEO, followed by a written report to all the partners on what she learned from that visit. She gave life to what might otherwise been seen as hollow rhetoric.

10. Know when to say “No.”

When you feel overwhelmed or sense that you are beginning to accumulate too much on your plate, you need to be able to say “No” without feeling guilty. That’s when good delegation practices can help. Delegate, delegate, delegate.

Being good at leadership always requires relinquishing tasks that others can do so that you can focus on your highest value priorities.

11. When under stress call a time out.

Just like a basketball coach will call a time-out to slow down the pace of the game and regroup when the opposing team is on a tear, you need to disengage in times of high emotion and reflect on your core values before proceeding any further. When you feel a tide of anger or frustration rising, immediately leave the situation and retain or regain your composure.

Disengage — go for a walk, do a deep-breathing exercise, or find some other comfortable way to call your time out.

12. Find a trusted confidant.

Have you ever attempted to bench-press your maximum weight without having a spotter at your side to help out if anything goes wrong? Of course not; so, too with the burden of leadership. Every successful leader has a confidant, at his or her side — someone that they can lean on in times of need. And many firm leaders have even adopted an Advisory Board to help fill this role.

And finally…

Here are some other important bits of advice for new firm leaders:

  •        Attend to the needs of your family and realize that your change in responsibilities will affect them whether you acknowledge it or not.
  •        Be ready to deal with the sudden isolation associated with the leadership role. As they say, it can be lonely at the top.
  •        Set your own path, and avoid undue bias from your predecessor’s priorities, influence, and style.
  •        Carefully manage your daily agenda, including ample “walking around time” to interact regularly with your colleagues.
  •        Pick your battles carefully, as moving too quickly can cause just as many problems as moving too slowly.
  •        Achieve some quick, small, visible successes early on to inspire initial confidence in your leadership skills.

And remember, as one new firm leader once said, the one thing that new law firm leaders will quietly admit to their closest friends is:

When you first get into this role, you mistakenly believe that because you may have served as a practice group leader, office managing partner, or even on your firm’s elected board that you have the necessary knowledge, background, and experience for taking on the role of leading the entire firm… Not even close!