Our firm is a twelve attorney firm – eight partners and four associates in Phoenix, Arizona. The firm was founded by the present partners twenty years ago. We are an eat-what-you- kill firm – partners are allocated their fees, overhead is allocated, and their compensation is their individual profit. While we have a firm administrator that handles the day-to-day management of our operations, we have done a poor job of long-term management and planning. One of our partners has suggested that we develop a strategic plan. However, I believe this would be difficult for us given that we never meet, have different ideas of our future, have never been able to agree on any major decisions, and unwilling to be accountable to each other and have a general attitude of mistrust. I don not believe we even have a firm culture – in essence we are eight separate practices operating under the guise of a partnership. Your comments are most welcomed.
It is very hard for partners in an eat-what-you-kill firm to come together and implement a strategic plan when the partners have no common values, goals, or objectives. Eat-what-you-kill firms more often than not have no culture at all. Three components that are linked, reinforce each other, and must be balanced are strategy, compensation, and culture.
Culture is the outcome of how people are related to each other in a law firm, thrives on cooperation and friendship, and defines the firm’s sense of community. Culture is the glue that holds a firm together and is built on shared interest and mutual obligation. A firm’s culture boosts a firm’s identity as one organization and prevents disintegration and decentralization. Without a common culture a firm lacks values, direction, and purpose.
You firm is a fragmented or confederation culture and as such will find it difficult to even get started on a strategic planning process unless you are willing to change. You might want to spend some time addressing the question of whether you want to continue operating as lone rangers or whether you want to become a firm-first law firm. This will require that the partners give up some independence and be accountable to each other.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
I am the managing partner of a 90 attorney firm in Chicago. We have 45 equity partners, 20 non-equity partners, and 25 associates. We have a three member executive committee as well as other committees in place in addition to the managing partner. Five years ago we formulated a strategic plan and have been attempting to successfully implement it since that time. We have had limited success. We don't seem to be able to get our partners "on board" with the actual implementation. I will tell you – I am truly herding cats here. Any ideas on how to get these guys and gals on board?
Getting your partners on board is always a challenge. The obstacles are almost too numerous to outline. Yet if law firms want to be successful in this turbulent environment they must embrace change and get their partners not only behind new strategies but often they must also be the ones to implement these strategies as well.
Managing lawyers in general is like herding cats. But trying to manage "star partners" is a real challenge. They are the "hitters" upon which a firm's future often depends. True star partners are:
Star and other partners in the firm must continually balance their roles as producer, manager, and owner. Often, these roles may be in conflict. Also there are personal strategies and agendas as well.
Actually, I don't think they can be managed – but they can be led. There is a difference. But in order to accomplish this the following need to be well designed, in alignment and balanced:
The personalities, emotions and needs of your partners constrain a firm's ability to design and implement strategy. Keep in mind that firm leadership cannot order the troops forward; instead the troops (partners) must essentially vote with their feet to pursue a new strategic direction. Absent a crisis, partners tend to stay on track and support only modest adjustments to strategy.
Organizational (Structure, Governance, HR Systems)
When organizational characteristics – structure, governance, and HR systems (recruiting, training and mentoring, performance management, and compensation) are aligned with the needs of the partners and the strategy of the firm, they create the conditions under which strategy can be implemented effectively. Matrix and team structures are the norm. Collegial partnerships, consensus based governance, and leadership at the pleasure of the partners, rules the day. The cats have the power and the leader serves to a large extent at their pleasure.
The firm's culture deals with its underlying core of beliefs and values, which shape the behavior of the firm. Nothing can weave new strategic and organization choices together and hold them in alignment better than culture. A strong culture can also provide enormous help in attracting, retaining and motivating stars. A strong culture is the glue that helps a firm overcome major obstacles, it can help foster major changes in strategy and or organization, and it can be a strong force for unity and coherence.
As the firm's leaders you and the other leaders in the firm are serving at the pleasure of your partners. You are probably elected by them. Your positional power is limited – sort of like the President of the United States and the Congress. As a result exceptional leadership skills are needed and each of you must master the skills of building consensus and facilitating decisions so your partners will agree with and support them.
For a good read on this subject – the book “Aligning the Stars” by Jay W. Lorsch and Thomas Tierney is an excellent resource.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC