Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Law firm leadership

Oct 18, 2011

Law Firm Leadership: How do We Get Started


I am the managing partner of a 24 attorney firm in San Francisco. We are becoming frustrated at our inability to achieve a consensus and make timely decisions on matters of firm policy, strategy, marketing, and management. We are missing out on opportunities. We have no management scheme and no one to lead the charge – no team effort. The attorneys can't decide anything and firm management is a free for all. Things don't get done because no one is responsible. Conflict exists because anyone may be in charge. We are strong on ideas but weak on implementation. We lack leadership and focus. What are your ideas regarding leadership? Where should we start?


This is a common in firms of all sizes. In general, the foundation of leadership is built upon exhibited behaviors illustrating a proven track record of trust, respect, and accountability. These are the building blocks required for the development of leadership practices. Without these building blocks leadership cannot exist or be developed. The law firm culture must be nourished in such a way as to support these behaviors. These behaviors must become a part of everyday practice in dealing with clients as well as partners and others within and outside of the law firm. Law firm leaders must develop and practice the following behaviors:

The organizational structures, practices and procedures that exist in many law firms also discourage the development of leadership behaviors and practices. Many firms have a short-term production orientation focused upon individual lawyer productivity and production based upon billable hours and dollars billed and collected. A "me first" attitude rather than "firm first" "client first" attitude is frequently prevalent. Many lawyers hoard clients and consider them their clients as opposed to firm clients. These lawyers use individualistic approaches to client problems as opposed to team approaches. Compensation and other reward systems are not well suited to fostering leadership and developing teamwork in law firms. Firm governance, practice management, and performance management systems in law firms are also ill-suited to foster a climate encouraging and supporting leadership.

Law firms are finding that developing effective leadership skills can be a very difficult task. Dealing with leadership is a very emotional issue for most law firms due to the independent nature of most lawyers and the general unwillingness of firm lawyers to put aside their personal interests for the good of the firm. In fact, in many cases existing law firm partnership structures reinforce this tendency. What is needed is a balance between partner autonomy and partner accountability. Leaders will either have to be recruited externally (ie lateral partners) or skills will need to be developed internally.

The firm can begin by conducting a self-assessment using the following 10 point checklist:

  1. Only the best should lead and be placed in key leadership positions. Does the firm have its most capable people in leadership positions?
  2. Does the firm have partners or other lawyers with leadership skills or potential leadership skills? How many?
  3. How many lawyer leader positions are there in the firm that require leadership skills? How many lawyers have these skills?
  4. Does the firm's compensation system reward management and leadership activities?
  5. Does the firm's compensation system have a team reward component and are non-billable firm investment activities respected and rewarded?
  6. Does the firm's culture support a team orientated practice or an individual type practice?
  7. Does the firm's governance structure provide for administrative, management, and leadership roles and responsibilities?
  8. Does the firm have an in-house leadership training and development program?
  9. Does the firm invest and budget funds for leadership development?
  10. Is the firm willing to make the commitment?

Click here for our blog on governance and leadership  

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Click here for our law firm management articles

John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC


Sep 14, 2010

Characteristics of Successful Law Firms – Basic Building Blocks – Block 4 – Partner Compensation

For the past three weeks I have been discussing the characteristics of successful law firms and introduced the following basic building blocks that successful firms typically have in place:

Partner relations, leadership building, and management blocks have been discussed. 

The fourth basic building block is partner compensation. Successful firms have a good partner compensation in place. Partners frequently advise us in confidential interviews that they are more dissatisfied with the method used to determine compensation than with the amount of compensation itself.

How much and how partners are paid are probably the two most challenging management issues that law firms face. Many law firms are struggling with compensation systems that no longer meet the needs of the firm and the individual partners. Failure to explore alternatives to failing systems often result in partner dissatisfaction leading to partner defections and disintegration of the firm.

In many law firms compensation systems have been counter-cultural and failed to align compensation systems with business strategies. As more law firms move toward teams many are incorporating new ways to compensate partners in order to develop a more motivated and productive workforce. Team goals are being linked to business plans and compensation is linked to achieving team goals. Such systems reinforce a culture that significantly advances the firm’s strategic goals.

People tend to behave the way they're measured and paid.

What gets measured and rewarded – is what gets done.

However, be advised that compensation does not drive behavior – it maintains status quo. Motivation requires leadership which can have a greater impact upon a firm than anything else.

Compensation systems should do more than simply allocate the pie – they should reinforce the behaviors and efforts that the firm seeks from its attorneys. Many firms are discovering that desired behaviors and results must go beyond short term fee production and must include contributions in areas such as marketing, mentoring, firm management, etc. to ensure the long term viability of the firm.

Click here to read my article on the topic

I will address each of the other building blocks in upcoming postings.

John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC


Sep 08, 2010

Characteristics of Successful Law Firms – Basic Building Blocks – Block 3 – Management

For the past two weeks I have been discussing the characteristics of successful law firms and introduced the following basic building blocks that successful firms typically have in place:

Partner relations and the leadership building blocks have been discussed. 

The third basic building block is management. Successful firms have a good governance and management structure in place and effectively manage the firm. A major problem facing many law firms is the lack of long range focus and the amount of partner time that is being spent on administrivia issues as opposed to higher level management issues. Time spent in firm governance and management, if properly controlled, is as valuable as, if not more valuable, than the same time recorded as a billable hour. (client production time)

There is a difference between management (governance) and administration.

Partners and law firm owners should be focusing their time on the management issues rather than administration.

Management includes:

  – Productive activities, including those of individual lawyers and the firm as a whole.
  – Quantity, quality, and economic soundness of the work.
  – Development of lawyers and future leaders of the firm.
  – Formulation of policies that will determine the firm’s character
  – Financial planning, both short-term and long-range.
  – Marketing and business development.
  – Partner compensation and profit distribution systems

  – Other decisions requiring partner approval

Almost everything else is administration.

Hire an office administrator, manager or assistant for the administrivia matters so the partners can focus on the management concerns of the firm.

I will address each of the other building blocks in upcoming postings.

John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC






Almost everything else is administration.

Hire an office administrator,office manager or assistant for the administrivia matters so the partners can focus on the management concerns of the firm

I will address each of the other building blocks in upcoming postings.

John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC








Aug 31, 2010

Characteristics of Successful Law Firms: Basic Building Blocks – Block Two – Leadership

Last week I discussed the characteristics of successful law firms and introduced the basic building blocks that successful firms typically have in place. These are:

Last week we focused on partner relations as a core foundational building block.

The second basic building block is leadership. Successful firms have good leadership in place. This may be a single individual or a core group of individuals. Leadership does not always come from the formalized management structure of the firm.

Leadership is one of the major problems facing law firms. Leaders are needed for managing partner posts, executive committee chairs, and practice group heads.  

Leadership behaviors include:

Leadership skills will need to be included in compensation systems.

Seven traits of effective leaders include:

  1. Make others feel important
  2. Promote a vision
  3. Follow the golden rule and establish trust
  4. Admit mistakes
  5. Criticize others only in private
  6. Stay close to the action
  7. Walk the talk.

Leadership is what makes things happen and propels the firm forward, facilitates new directions and attainment of strategic goals, and provides the firms the resiliency needed in today's challenging competitive climate.

Law firms without leadership are easy to spot. They are the firms that are "stuck-in-a-rut", unable to reach agreement or concensus on new ideas, stagnating profitability, partner defections.

Firm must pay attention to this key area and develop leaders for all roles mentioned above.

Click here to read my article on leadership

I will address each of the other building blocks in upcoming postings.

John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC




Nov 13, 2001

The Organizational Lifeblood for Law Firm Profitability – Active Coordinated Communication

The Organizational Life Blood for Law Firm Profitability:
Active Coordinated Communication
By Dr. Thomas J. Venardos

A Viable Way to Address Profits in Your Law Firm

A new generation of law firm lawyers need new tools to maximize profitability. These tools combine the marketing of the law firm services, reinventing the law practice, promoting business to business practices, having improved public relations, creating a new law firm structure, and developing goals that can be very powerful and profitable. The tool that can accomplish this is active coordinated communication.

The Problems That Exist for Law Firms What kind of information should be shared with internal and external clients? Who should receive different levels of information? Should you provide both negative and positive information to clients? Should you tell clients what they want to hear, or should you tell them what they need to hear? These are the basic questions facing management leadership in today’s law firms. This is why there is a need for consistent, up and down the chain of command, simple, active coordinated communication that can help improve profitability.
Basically all communication is “human communication.” This means communication speaks not only to the political structure of the law firm but to the personal and professional side as well. Listen to any conversation between two coworkers or two senior partners and you will hear comments that relate to law firm morale problems, fairness issues, exclusion from decision making, loyalty to the company, profit margins, as well as problems in using current technology.
Minimal communication, miscommunication, and no communication are the main factors that can cause law firms to stagnate. When these factors prevail, effective communication loses its influence. Communication is unable to be coordinated across and between practice group lines or to the clients outside the law firm. This essentially means effective communication is muffled and distorted at all levels. The best solution is to make communication a major priority so that it can be managed effectively and coordinated internally and externally. This takes leadership that is objective and not involved with rumors, willing to grow from mistakes made, and uses personal and professional incentives rather than threats or innuendo attempts to obtain desirable workplace results.

Reinventing the Law Firm Culture Positive change occurs when small steps are taken even though the big goal of reinventing the law firm culture is at stake. It begins with small successes that can be observed and measured and proceeds to a larger feeling of oneness, filled with accomplishments. It builds on itself and becomes important to everyone.
Below is the sequence for positive change:

  1. Sharing all information, data, and goals with everyone-both internally and externally.
  2. Being available to answer any questions asked by others.
  3. Informing others, in a totally honest way, that your answers and possible solutions to problems are based on facts and not biases.
  4. Building human trust using your reputation by making ethical decisions.
  5. Using face to face communication as your primary communication method.
  6. Correcting mistaken assumptions quickly.
  7. Overriding mistakes with positive solutions.
  8. Creating a legitimate and visible position for a communicator role at the highest level with total support from senior partners and staff.

The Case for Coordinated Internal/External Communication
In reality, lack of communication or confusing communication is a basic problem faced by most staff and professionals. It is the major issue to overcome. Therefore, it would seem natural to assume that the way to correct this is by having the communication enhanced by a member or team of members of the staff while giving it the highest priority in the firm.
Those responsible for communication would in turn be expected to assume the powerful role of sharing all the important and critical information that flows through and out the law firm. In essence they need to have:

Professional Traits Necessary for Enhancing This Kind of Role
In the eyes of those in the law firm a communication department of this stature must have many of the following professional traits: be credible with the public, be believable, have accurate information to share, be timely, have good professional judgment and wisdom, be sensitive to everyone they come in contact with, be accessible, And promote confidentiality. This is a tall order for any one person or group of people. But the result that it yields is greater than the sum of its parts.
The point is this, whenever you communicate law firm information, it concerns human elements. So it is important to represent the issues fairly with people in mind. There needs to be a separation of issues from personalities. Both positive and negative feelings should be taken into account. Finally there should be the realization that there are supporting and opposing opinions and perceptions that create innate conflict and must be dealt with by overcoming any potential human conflict.
Further, when coordinating sensitive information it becomes necessary to speak with one voice, simplify the message, and use a variety of communication tools. Every aspect of human relations should prevail.

Communication Tools for the Twenty First Century
Like newspaper, radio and television were communication tools for the Twentieth Century, so it is that computer technology is the newest tool for the Twenty First Century. Herein lies the potential success of the communicator.
Computer technology can be used for both internal and external communication. It is an efficient tool that has multiple uses: word processing, verbal, visual and auditory e-mail, information gathering and disseminating capabilities, monetary transaction ability, global influence and positioning, business to business relationships, record keeping materials production, creative materials development, distance education and career enhancement potential.
In turn this technology can be used as a mobile office which works best for those professionals on the go and who need to keep in contact with their office and clients. Therefore, active coordinated communication can be implemented nearly all of the time.

The Powerful Effects of Active Coordinated Communications The list below reflects how active coordinated communications can create more profits for law firms provided it is established in a professionally sound manner. It will take creative risks, planned directives, monetary support, time investments, a high learning curve, and innovative adopted business practices.
Creating a New Law Firm Structure: By creating this new active communications structure that oversees both internal and external activities, your law firm should generate a more consistent, meaningful and effective means of generating greater business. This kind of structure could in turn create the loyalty, security and growth your employees are looking for. Law Firm Objectives: These need to be established by all employees of the law firm, and should attempt to promote personal productivity, monetary aspirations, profit sharing, compensation issues, cost cutting measures, marketing strategies, and business practice skills. These shared objectives can then be communicated by everyone. Marketing Law Firm Services: This is a distinct plan for everyone to be involved in because marketing is such an important priority today. Active coordinated communications can enhance this practice via different activities: speaking engagements, newsletters, advertisements, a web site, television appearances, brochures, newspaper and magazine articles and, Internet business to business practices.
Reinventing the Law Firm and Law Practice: There needs to be a focus actively changing the way the law firm does business by establishing flat fees, using non-billable hours to work productively, offering ways to help clients keep costs down and, expanding practices by having other professionals make referrals.
Business to Business Practices: Begin to use legal resources on the Internet that deal with business to business issues like finding your law firm clients, putting out bids, allowing them to bill and collect for your firm, and marketing your firm on the Internet.
Improved Public Relations: Your active communications can lead to better public relations if you control what is said and how it is delivered to others. Your image can become valuable if you work on making it positive and more acceptable to others in the community.
Document, Document, Document: There is a critical need to measure what you are doing so that you can see any progress. This can be done by counting the number of activities each person performs in the law firm, counting increased client contacts and inquiries, reviewing accounts receivable and collections and, identifying cost cutting measures.
Can You Answer These Eight Questions in the Affirmative?

Unless you can answer at least six of these eight questions in the affirmative, there is room for improvement of law firm operations. Positive change begins with admission of the problems and proceeds with workable solutions that are openly discussed among everyone.

Where to Begin:

  1. Find someone in the firm, or hire someone, who is very comfortable with expressing themselves in written and spoken fashion.
  2. They should demonstrate clear, effective writing skills.
  3. They should be competent on the computer and with the Internet.
  4. Your clients and others in the firm should think highly of them.
  5. Involve a person who is very familiar with new technology and who is good at learning and using it, because they will have a different way of thinking that can benefit your law firm.
  6. They must be assertive and speak up when they are challenged.
  7. They need to be able to measure all the results of active communication in the law firm.

Active Coordinated Communication and Profitability Increase
The relationship between active coordinated communication and increased profits becomes clearer when hard data is gathered and analyzed. Examples where you may want to gather data are listed below:

The lifeblood of a law firm is how it effectively communicates from within. The sooner this is realized and made a reality, the quicker you will start to generate the results you want.

Dr. Thomas J. Venardos is an adjunct management consultant with Olmstead & Associates, Legal Management Consultants, St. Louis, MO, and President of Venardos Management Group, Organizational Performance Consultants, located in Las Vegas, Nevada. Dr. Venardos may be contacted by e-mail at

Jan 27, 2001

Leadership and Accountability in Law FIrms


What do you see as the primary management problems in law firms?


We are frequently asked to assist law firms in areas such as management reviews, marketing, compensation, and strategic planning. However, these are often symptoms of another problem – leadership, trust, and accountability. Frequently we find that unless proper leadership is in place we are all wasting time on attempting to treat the symptoms. Without sound firm leadership at the partner level other initatives are never able to get off the ground. Law firm leadership is the top challenge facing the profession today.

John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

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