A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Posts Tagged ‘Legal Leadership’

Law firms have a big problem, and the answer is inside their offices

In Articles, Commentary on 15 March 2022 at 12:14 pm

The full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 10 March 2022. The article was the #1 most viewed piece in the Companies Section of afr.com on the day of publication.

Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, famously stated that “an organisation is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value”.

“Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game,” he said. “It is the game.”

So, it is with law firms.

Despite many thriving during the pandemic, there is a deep concern that connections people have with the firm and with each other are getting weaker, not stronger.

As one managing partner put it to me recently, “I worry that the logo on our lawyers’ screens becomes the only real difference between working for us and for another firm.”

There are three main reasons underpinning these perceived threats to firm culture:

  • Remote working: The move to a hybrid operating model may result in people experiencing a working life that has fewer meaningful interactions with fewer people. With weaker emotional bonds, the ties that bind loosen. Most lovers know that long-distance relationships seldom work out.
  • Fatigue: Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor data suggests the past 18 months have been particularly busy. Many senior practitioners are exhausted from heavy workloads as well the stress of living through a major public health crisis. The energy required to rebuild culture and restore relationships is simply not there. Most people at the brink of burnout will seek to lean out rather than lean in.
  • New faces: The war for top legal talent in Australia is hot and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Some firms are now experiencing staff turnover rates of more than 25 per cent. With every departure there is a loss of institutional memory as well as personal loss and disconnection. With every replacement, there is a new set of standards and expectations to shape and fresh relationships to form. The cumulative impact of one in four new faces each year is potentially massive

No quick fix

Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy fix. 

Most firms are looking to enhance the work experience of each employee, with the strategies that include:

  • Ensuring every associate has at least one strong mentoring relationships with a senior practitioner;
  • Enhancing partners’ and supervising associates’ skills in giving and receiving feedback;
  • Having an effective workload monitoring system to ensure sustainable work patterns across the team; and
  • Organising one-on-one “stay interviews” that focus on career opportunities and reasons to stay.

All these efforts are commendable, but they can inadvertently exacerbate the cultural atrophy problem.

Sub-cultures

In building stronger vertical relationships within practice teams, there is an increased risk of distance and disconnection with other teams. This could lead to less of a one-firm mindset and the emergence of stronger sub-cultures.

Firms need to work both vertically and horizontally to preserve their culture. The latter means amplifying the role, status and skills of “lateral leaders” who work across the firm connecting people from different practices to address a specific opportunity.

These roles typically include client relationship partners, sector leaders, major matter leads, business service heads and strategic pursuit leads.

Lateral leaders

Effective lateral leadership is largely about facilitating deep cross-practice collaboration. From a culture perspective it enhances understanding, widens networks and creates a stronger identity with the firm and its strategy.

If firms are serious about reducing attrition and preserving culture, they need to create the capacity for partners to be more effective in their leadership roles. It takes time to be a mentor, to supervise and to influence without authority.

Otherwise, the only option is to increase the logo size on the screen and hope for the best.

Law firm leaders fail on fun, fame and fortune

In Articles, Commentary on 17 May 2021 at 2:54 pm

Full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 14 May 2021.

There is a significant leadership deficit in most Australian legal organisations – and your firm is unlikely to be an exception.

The evidence for this claim is strong – mental health problems at three times the levels of the general population; 20 per cent-plus turnover among junior lawyers; slow progress on diversity and inclusion at partner level; and a general predilection to resist, rather than embrace, change.

Less measurable, but probably even more important, is the opportunity cost. Legal firms and teams with effective leaders tend to outperform their peers on the indicators that keep people happy – that is, fun, fame and fortune.

What’s more, they seem to be able to sustain their success regardless of bumps in the road such as a global pandemic, major advances in technology and intense challenges from competitors.

One of the key reasons for the leadership deficit is the emphasis on creating outstanding technical legal advisers, but not great legal leaders.

There is no leadership component in the undergraduate law or juris doctor (JD) curriculum and many continuing legal education (CLE) programs for the first 10 years post-qualification focus on improving legal know-how and functional tasks such as delegation, presentation skills, networking and using social media.

Decisions on who gets promoted and who doesn’t are heavily weighted towards legal competency. Leadership potential may enter the frame, but it’s usually third or fourth on the list of criteria.

Hurry to Harvard

For the past three decades, many law firms sent their senior partners in management roles to the United States to attend Harvard Business School’s Leading Professional Services Firm program.

More recently, some firms have engaged leading business schools and other providers to develop tailored in-house executive educations programs for their partners and business service leaders.

Many firms now offer the assistance of executive coaches to help their senior practitioners in running and building their practice.

While many of these programs and initiatives are worthwhile, it appears the focus is on lawyers on the cusp of partnership, or older. In contrast, leading corporation and government agencies start to identify and develop their future leadership talent among those in the mid-20s – often a full decade earlier.

Brighter futures

Ironically, many of the high-potential or “rising star” programs in corporates are heavily populated with super-smart graduate lawyers who have switched to careers in commerce or policy.

Perhaps this is one reason ambitious young lawyers see brighter futures elsewhere?

In response to the leadership deficit and the other issues noted above, many of the state-based law societies have recently revamped their legal practice management courses (PMCs) to include contemporary leadership topics.

Completion of a PMC program is often a prerequisite for any solicitor seeking to practice as a “principal” or “partner” of a private law practice.

The College of Law launched its Master of Legal Business program in 2018, aimed at enhancing the skills of those in, or aspiring to, leadership and management roles within legal organisations. The course is delivered 100 per cent online with virtual workshops and self-paced course work.

New program

The University of Melbourne Law School (MLS) is about to enter this growing category and will be launching a new Specialist Certificate in Legal Leadership program in mid-May. The subjects will be taught by Anthony Kearns, practice leader consulting at Lander & Rogers, and myself.

The MLS program is aimed at practising mid-career lawyers in law firms, in-house and government, rather than those in current management or leadership roles.

The course will be delivered with a hybrid approach with local students in the classroom (COVID-19 permitting) and those from abroad joining them virtually.

The legal world is crying out for real innovation in the learning and development arena.

We need the right balance between technical legal, leadership and digital skill development. We need concurrent, not consecutive, learning of requisite skills. We need new learning methods that don’t just rely on chalk and talk. We need programs with a manageable cost, both direct and opportunity cost.

It’s time to disrupt the current model. If we don’t, we will be here in 20 years’ time stressing over high turnover, mental health, diversity and productivity issues.

%d bloggers like this: