Mistakes to Avoid as a New Firm Leader

Topics: Client Relations, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Leadership


New firm leaders tell me that they are operating in a bewildering and different environment in which little is certain, the tempo is quicker and the dynamics are more complex. They worry that it is nearly impossible to stay on top of all the things they need to know to do an effective job. Some even quietly admit they feel overwhelmed.

I’ve learned that new leaders need to navigate their way through not making a number of mistakes that some fall victim to in their very earliest days. Here are five mistakes that seem to be among most common:

  1. Thinking this appointment is about you, when it’s all about them

As you begin your new role, it is quite seductive to take to heart all of the wonderful best wishes, congratulations and accolades. You will only succeed when you recognize the truth—you may be the firm’s leader, but your partners don’t work for you. You now work for them and they have just become your most important clients.

  1. Hitting the ground running, before hitting the ground listening

You come to this position with lots of ideas about what you want to accomplish and the temptation will be to hit the gas-peddle right out of the gate. But slow down to go fast. Take time to get to know what your partners are thinking about the important issues of the day. Remember always, that you can only move your firm to the outer limits of your partners’ appetites for change!

  1. Forgetting to inform people about how best to work with you

As you take charge you will be working with an established team with established work patterns and habits. Important to them is to learn how you like to operate:

  • How do you prefer to receive information—in person, by phone, in writing?
  • Is your door open or do you prefer that people arrange appointments?
  • Do you have any pet peeves that people should know about?
  • How do you feel about being called at home?

Help those who report to you, learn how to work with you.

  1. Confusing change with transition

Change is external, it happens to you; while transitions are internal, they happen inside of you. Change starts at a beginning and will be remembered by the date you assumed office. Transitions start with an ending—a process of letting go of the way things were. Pay conscious attention to how you manage this transition: From finding ways to honor the past with a symbolic ritual or ceremony and thinking of ways to bring the best of the past into the future to communicating frequently about what is changing and what is not.

  1. Overlooking the power of small wins

One firm leader began her term with an initiative wherein numerous of the professionals and staff throughout the firm collaborated together in small task forces to identify the firm’s “sacred cows”—those things that were being done internally that made no sense, frustrated clients and impaired the delivery of good service. She then set about having these same task forces kill the sacred cows by either proposing ways to effectively eliminate the past procedures, change behaviors and/or adopt new approaches. Don’t ignore the power of accomplishing a small win. Listen, look around and find some small win that you can quickly bring about.

Contrary to what some recent business literature suggests, real leaders do not worry about legacies. They care instead about the long-term competitive vitality of their firms. If you are focused on fashioning a legacy, you will be remembered as … the man/woman who was focused on fashioning a legacy!