Posted by: johnocunningham | December 1, 2013

Law Firm Leaders: Valued Enough?

I have wondered many times if law firms really are capable of understanding and appreciating the value of leadership. After all, they are institutions where every partner thinks of himself or herself as a separate entity operating under one brand, kind of like a group of franchisees that operates under a licensed name. All partners are equals, and all generally believe that they function autonomously, albeit with the support of some kind of shared infrastructure.

Who can lead such a group of equal and independent thinkers, and who can get them to act together in a coordinated way to deliver services and products that the marketplace values? Who can knit them together in pursuit of a common goal or mission that provides a lasting compass for successful institutional decision-making on employee-hiring, training, promotion and performance? Who can get them to develop an operational and marketing strategy fitted to the marketplace of clients, while building out their brand to new and growing markets?

Well, I know of a handful of managing partners who have been pretty successful at these leadership tasks, and based on my interviews with them, I have concluded that law firm leaders must be particularly good at getting people to think for themselves in a way that will lead them to their own reasonable conclusions as to what is in the common interest, what is in the future, and what is needed to adapt for survival. The best law firm leaders have to garner respect, not by setting directions like a CEO, but by getting people individually, one at a time, to see the value of moving forward together in a positive direction that is mutually determined by the autonomous partners.

Such a managing partner was Greg Jordan of Reed Smith, who left the firm in October to take the legal reins at PNC Financial Services Group, a Pittsburgh-based banking and financial service company. Jordan was able to get his partners to see the value of mutually adopting:

  •  Critical core values and behaviors that promote those values (the values include quality, integrity, teamwork and innovation);
  • A strategy for developing leaders internally by educating and training them as executives at the Wharton School of Business;
  • A long-held business belief in surveying and listening to clients about their preferences, needs and values;
  • An internal approach to building trust among partners and employees so they can function more like a team than autonomous entities; and
  • An internal structuring based in part on the industries that Reed Smith serves especially well (they serve many of the world’s top financial service companies and life sciences entities).

The results speak for themselves.

When Jordan took over as Reed Smith’s managing partner in 2000, the firm had only a regional presence through a handful of offices, $165 million per year in revenue, and roughly $325,000 per lawyer.  By the end of 2012, the firm had more than 1,700 lawyers in 25 global locations, and generated more than $1 billion in annual revenue, and more than $690,000 per lawyer. Clearly, under Jordan’s leadership, the firm’s lawyers were able to chart and follow a strategic course that netted plenty of clients in the marketplace.

But I still wonder, how many firms are developing these leaders? And even if they do develop them, can they reward them, value them and keep them? If not, the legal profession will be handicapped in competition against encroaching competitors from other industries during a critical era when lawyers will be competing for their very survival.

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