The Unique Challenges of Leading a National Firm While Maintaining an Individual Practice

Topics: Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Law Firms, Leadership, Thomson Reuters

practice

Newspapers have been trumpeting the coming dawn of the cloning age for a couple of decades now. It’s beginning to feel like an empty promise. As the chair of Quarles & Brady, a national AmLaw 200 firm that touts more than 500 attorneys across offices that span from the nation’s capital, to the heart of the Midwest, to the deserts of Arizona—as well as a large estate, trust, and wealth planning practice in my home office of Naples, Florida—I could use another me to help out.

Science has not yet caught up to my professional needs, however, so I am forced to employ more practical time management considerations. Juggling such disparate, and sometimes even competing, interests—the national versus the local, the macro versus the micro, the adminstrative versus the legal—can be challenging, without doubt, but also presents unique opportunities for growth and perspective beyond “that which does not kill you . . . .”

The difficulty rests in the fact that issues rarely crop up at their appointed time, and neither firm business nor my individual practice work stops for one another. In a perfect world, I could strategically divide my time—set aside mornings for initiatives pertaining to my role as chair, for instance, and afternoons for estate and wealth planning counsel—but as crises develop across three different time zones, that proves to be an impossible dream.


Juggling such disparate, and sometimes even competing, interests—the national versus the local, the macro versus the micro, the adminstrative versus the legal—can be challenging, without doubt…


Fortunately, Quarles & Brady provides an excellent support system on both the legal and administrative ends to help me not only be in two places at one time, but be effective in both. In terms of my Naples practice, I’ve always worked in a team environment, so my clients are comfortable working with different attorneys, with the clear understanding that I am ultimately responsible for the work. As chair, I lead with the assistance of a professional staff that serves on the front lines of issues and initiatives. Quarles & Brady—for as long as I’ve been here, and far before that—has fostered a culture of collaboration and empowerment that allows us to provide the kind of service we promise to clients when they hire us.

Over the years, I’ve been able to hone the skills that I imagine all successful managers with broad responsibilities and only so many hours in a day need to excel. A leader needs to manage expectations, and be able to deliver on reasonable promises. A leader needs to learn to delegate—admittedly, this becomes easier when you surround yourself with a stable of the best and brightess, but it is still not always painless to hand over the reigns; most leaders in my position feel a great responsibility to be the steward of their firm or business, and though honorable, this urge, when unmitigated, can quickly lead to burnout. It’s also important for a chair or managing partner to maintain perspective, to be able to know the difference between a crisis (exclamation point) and a “crisis” (eye-roll). Understanding that difference, and being able to prioritize accordingly, is key to managing one’s sanity.


The ability to see challenges and opportunities from multiple positions—from above, looking down at the big picture as firm chair, as well as from my active practice on the ground—has informed and enriched the work I do in both roles…


Perspective, in fact, is the premier benefit of such a dual role as mine. The ability to see challenges and opportunities from multiple positions—from above, looking down at the big picture as firm chair, as well as from my active practice on the ground—has informed and enriched the work I do in both roles, giving me almost a cubist, Picasso-like sensibility of the modern practice of law. I can appreciate all the viewpoints, all the angles. As a working attorney, my experience managing the firm has helped me find efficiencies and best practices that ultimately pay forward to the client, providing real value for them as we partner to achieve their business goals. Conversely, the listening skills that I’ve developed over the years as a practicing attorney—the ability to hear what clients really want, not what I think they should want—has proven invaluable as a firm leader, both in my interactions with the partnership and through my efforts to guide the firm toward continued client service excellence in a modern, competitive context. Finding—and being open to—creative solutions to complex challenges facing my individual clients has similarly helped me better navigate the “big picture” challenges a law firm of our size and breadth often has to confront.

Some of our peers are moving to a non-lawyer management system, and I can certainly appreciate that mindset, and the reasons for it. However, I think our model works well for us: firm leaders who also serve as active practitioners have a unique understanding of the pressures their partners face every day with time considerations, billing concerns, and the ever-changing legal market. There are distinct and tangible advantages to overseeing the theatre of battle, while also fighting in the trenches of it, every day serving as a new lesson in the macro and micro.

I still skim the headlines each morning for new developments in cloning, though, just in case.

(Originally appeared on Thomson Reuters’ Legal SolutionsReprinted with author’s permission.)